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Digital console gaming is not as big as you think. So how do we fix that?

A bizarre and slightly disheartening bit of news, this one. According to a new report by industry analysts Kantar WorldPanel, 72% of UK console gamers still exclusively buy boxed games. Just shiny discs. No digital downloads. At all. And thus, the great digital gaming revolution did appear to take a blow-dart to its bulbous balloon of supposed domination, and began to look about as revolutionary as punk ultimately was. (Let it go, people, it lasted three years. And no, Green Day do not count)

So, is the grand future of gaming now entirely buggered? It would be a damn shame if it was, because digital was set to improve everything. Democratic console publishing for all. Cheaper games. More accessible games. Multi-platform, play-anywhere magic. A gross reduction in the number of plastic boxes cluttering up your house and tripping over the cat. The only people it wasn’t set to benefit were IKEA’s shelf department, but those guys will be fine. Because you know, books and stuff. Nick-nacks and the like. But no, I don’t think this news is entirely disastrous, however surprising it may be. I do, however, think that it points towards some very important ways in which the current form of digital retail is failing, and of course toward the related improvements that need to be made in order to fix it.

It’s very easy to gnash and wail, and decry 72% of the UK gaming public as backward luddites, techno-fearing Morlocks who probably still shave with a sharpened rock. But we shouldn’t. Because while new things always take a while to stick for the less engaged members of any audience, if digital is still only grabbing 28% of the potential gaming market after a whole console generation of availability, then it’s obviously not appealing to everyone as well as it could.

So how does it improve? It seems to me that there are a few key areas that need fixing. First and foremost, pricing and visibility really need to be better. Once they’ve decided to buy something--anything--nothing speaks louder to a purchaser than cost. And that’s an area where, despite the vastly reduced overheads involved, digital console games have been inexplicably failing for years. If someone sees a new AAA game on the PS Store for £10-15 more than they were expecting, and can then find the disc version on Amazon or a specialist retailer’s site for the RRP or less, suddenly the convenience of not having to wait a couple of days or go to the shops disappears like so much mist in a gale.

Secondly, awareness of digital games still is not what it should be. Sony made great gains in that area on the PS3, regularly giving smaller, digital-only releases equal billing on the console’s dashboard. But Microsoft’s notoriously ‘selective’ promotion of XBLA and indie games put a choke-hold its downloadable market, letting down potential buyers and developers in equal measure. Simply, MS needs to fix that ASAP with the Xbox One, and Sony really needs to consistently deliver on its promise of equal billing for all games throughout the PS4’s life.

Outside of the obvious stuff, platform holders really need to push the message of ‘Everything digital, all the time’. That way, even the most staunchly mainstream, AAA gamer might eventually segue into the more leftfield offerings of indie downloads. If Billy-Bob Gunshooter can find Far Cry 4 on his console’s download store at a competitive price, he’ll get tempted. And if he buys it and has a good experience, he’s likely to become more culturally naturalised to the whole process. And if browsing that store for future man-shooting purchases becomes a standard part of his console use, and if he finds some promising, unexplored smaller games at an appealing enough price to inspire an impulse purchase, then we really start the ball rolling.

That notion of the impulse purchase is key. Consoles are starting to make the process of buying games as quick and convenient as it can be, but they haven’t yet brought down the various psychological barriers that stop some customers from changing their retail habits. That stuff is harder to break than you might think, and we need a concerted effort to chisel away at it over the next few years.

Because what’s good for digital is good for all of us. It’s a goddamn tragedy that 72% of UK gamers probably still haven’t played Braid, or Limbo, or Thomas Was Alone, or Geometry Wars 2, or Resogun or Outlast. And it’s a goddamn tragedy that the creative, talented, industrious folk who made them aren’t reaping the full potential rewards of their great work. Of course, there’s an ambient, tertiary issue at play here that the industry can’t control, in the form of inconsistent broadband services throttling the physical process of buying digital. That will improve gradually, but while we wait, we really need to be doing everything we can to improve the areas that we can tackle. Because now that consoles have proven that a digital sales market can be done, they absolutely must turn their attention to how it is done. 

33 comments

  • Child Of Death - May 26, 2014 2:03 p.m.

    The answer is simple. Digital retail games must be cheaper. That will be the only thing that can help digital out at this point.
  • Shnubby - May 26, 2014 2:01 p.m.

    You can't sell digital downloads when you're done with them. You can buy most games pre-owned from a store for cheaper than getting them on an online store. It's nice to have physical copies of things, I like cases, discs, manuals etc. I never buy digital besides occasional Steam deals and I likely never will! Digital gaming isn't really a good thing.
  • lordshinjuku - May 26, 2014 11:06 a.m.

    The pricing is a major issue might as well get physical copy if only a few bucks more. The other issue that needs to be solved is when a system loses support I souldnt lose the game I paid for even if I dont plan on playing it ever again its mine to do what I want with it. Hard Drives are also way to small on the consoles so juggling content has been a turn off. Maxed out and upgraded ps3 harddrive twice so doubt the 500gb in new ones will last long at all
  • FoxdenRacing - May 26, 2014 9:53 a.m.

    I disagree entirely with the 'How to fix it', Dave; 'You'll do it this way whether you like it or not, and we're going to be obnoxious about reminding you it exists' is going to make the problem worse, not better. See: the backlash over XBO announcing it'd be DD only. The biggest issue is that all the best things of digital...cheaper to produce, easier to distribute, availability not limited by the size of a print run, easier to replace...while Steam has fought a long time to earn its legitimacy by acting trustworthy and sharing the gains with the customers, gamers on consoles aren't seeing any of the benefits. I can't emphasize this strongly enough: The 'What's in it for me?' factor is holding DD back on consoles. When the value isn't there for the customer...the customer isn't going to spend money, no matter how badly the company wants them to. Customers don't buy games based on what's best for the company, they buy games based on whether it's interesting, whether it's any good, and whether they consider it a fair price for what they're getting. In short: When DD on consoles becomes 'Customer Service', not 'Customer, Serve Us', then it'll take off...and not until. Case in point: I can pay $40 for the 'privilege' of waiting 3 hours to download a 2-year-old game, get bitten by DRM at the times when gaming would be convenient [Internet knocked out by a storm? Sorry, we couldn't reach the DRM servers, no game for you!], for those that are into that sort of thing carry no resale value, and provide long-term security purely at the whims of the entity that already has your money and ergo no reason to care [Sorry, this is no longer available for download. And no, we're not giving even part of your money back...it's not our fault you're a sucker!]... Or, I can take half an hour to go to my local game store, spend $20 for it (off the price-cut rack if I can find it, used if not), and be guaranteed it'll work until either A) the disc is destroyed and I can't find a replacement or B) the system kicks the bucket and I can't find a replacement. When faced with those choices, it's a no-brainer. The inconveniences of physical are less inconvenient than the inconveniences of digital. Until that changes, digital on consoles is dead in the water.
  • LovingLife139 - May 27, 2014 12:14 p.m.

    There is so much right in your post that I couldn't agree more. I buy *some* digital games, but ONLY for a price that is cheap enough to combat the risk of me losing access to my digital copy of the game. I never pay over $5.00 for a digital game, not only because I make my purchases according to the old "one hour of gameplay for $1.00 minimum" rule, but also because I could lose access to something I purchased, all because a business goes defunct. There are many gamers out there who aren't gravitating toward digital not because they are "less engaged," but because they see little value in making the purchase. In particular, gamers who tend to value their purchases and who are more likely to go BACK to older games to replay them are generally less likely to purchase digital, because there is always a larger risk of losing that investment in comparison to owning a physical copy. Lastly, I think much of it mirrors the problems with online only games. Many consumers are reluctant to hand a chunk of hard earned money to a company that calls all the shots on how long they can enjoy what they own and HOW they can enjoy what they own. Much like Titanfall will eventually be a worthless disc full of nothing but memories for its players, there is a large (and arguably inevitable) risk of the consumer losing access to their digital only game for any number of reasons. That is a risk that many of us are simply unwilling to take.
  • Dvtch - May 26, 2014 8:41 a.m.

    We were told that digitally distributed titles would be cheaper. My wallet will be the first one to tell you that this still is not true...
  • OnikKro - May 26, 2014 9:01 a.m.

    Indeed with the price to make the game available to you via download being cheaper than producing the disc they should make the game cheaper as a digital download then I know I for one would buy digitally more as of now I only buy games on sale digitally as the price is cheaper than the disc version.
  • Shigeruken - May 26, 2014 8:12 a.m.

    I prefer to buy digital, but in cases of extreme regional price gouging I refuse to.
  • GrandHarrier - May 26, 2014 8:05 a.m.

    How about the fact that you don't actually own digital content and thus can't resell it? Digital rights are still in the stone age.
  • KishouTenpi - May 26, 2014 7:29 a.m.

    Internet is my biggest thing, a full AAA title can take up to 3 days for me to download, and that is with a blanket ban on internet for the entire family, so I'm never popular if I start downloading. That and pricing are my two biggest issues here. Although GAME.co.uk do sell download codes fairly cheaply, so that is always a boon. It's also the fact that if I don't like the game then I can't trade it in or give it to a friend who does.
  • trenen - May 25, 2014 8:06 p.m.

    It already is digital. The physical discs this generation are an illusion. You have to install the game in order to play it, so it's digital.
  • Spetnazadventurer - May 25, 2014 4:57 p.m.

    The reality is, I will never go digital over physical, even being here in the US with hi-speed internet! I hate the idea of digital and the so many negatives that come along with it which so many here have already pointed out. Even at a higher price I will always buy physical over digital and always have. I see people bitching when PSN goes down and they can't access any of their digital games and can't help but feel sorry for their poor decision to go digital. I'm not into any Indie games and only a few Arcade/family games that come digital only but that's it. Give me my physical disc's all day long please!
  • mafyooz - May 25, 2014 12:14 a.m.

    While Sony and Microsoft have a stranglehold over PlayStation and XBox digital marketplaces it's highly unlikely the prices will drop significantly, as without competition there's no real incentive for them to do so. This, and HDD space issues, is why our bookcase is groaning under the weight of physical copies and will continue to do so :)
  • brickman409 - May 24, 2014 3:48 p.m.

    I don't get why anybody would buy digital on consoles anyway. The prices tend to be more than retail. You can't re sell your digital copy. Consoles have tiny HDDs so if you buy a lot of games, you're going to have to delete a game or two every time you buy a new one. if you have a PS4 you can upgrade the HDD, but if you have an Xbone, you're screwed. Also, if you have your console far away from your router and connected though Wi-Fi, it's going to take forever to download a 10GB+ game. I usually download games on my PC because it doesn't have most of the problems that consoles do, and there isn't that many retail stores that still sell physical copies of PC games, but if I find a physical copy of a game cheaper than what it would be on Steam or Origin, then I'll just buy the boxed copy.
  • SpyKiFTW - May 24, 2014 12:31 p.m.

    Physical > Digital always for me. I wish I could have bought Limbo/Braid in a physical copy because they're some of my favourite games and I don't feel like I own digital games.
  • nick-stancato - May 24, 2014 7:41 a.m.

    Digital games MUST be cheaper than retail. Period. If I'm to lose the ability to trade/sell, then the value to me must be better digitally. Which means a significant discount a'la Steam. PSN and Live havent gotten that obvious memo yet
  • Ellesar925 - May 24, 2014 4:53 a.m.

    I'm going to talk from the POV of a third/second world gamer, internet prices are a bitch, I'd end up paying triple the amount of the retail price, that's if the power doesn't go offf and I have to start again. So from the bottom of my heart I thank the 72% keep digital gaming from going mainstream.
  • Lyokomzm - May 24, 2014 3:39 a.m.

    I download smaller games that are only available on PSN, but larger games i find are better on disc for a few reasons. 1. Download speeds. Unless you have google fiber, the overall infrastructure from me to the server i am downloading the game from is not up to par for downloading entire games on console. 2. Hard Drive space. Full games take up a lot of space, on average more than 5GB, then pile on updates and dlc and it all adds up fairly quickly. 3. Performance issues. When you have a game on disc, with updates or dlc on the hdd, the system is reading information from both at once, both at tops speeds. If everything is on the hdd, it will only read from the hdd at its top speed. When GTA5 came out, it was actually suggested that you not buy the digital version because of this exact problem. (Now ssd's would be a different story) this is also why dlc maps have been reported to run smoother than ondisc maps, because the games engine will in part run from the disc and the actual textures and map will be loaded on hdd. (Of course not every gamer takes this into consideration. Well actually several do, a lot of people i have talked to have similar thoughts)
  • Eightboll812 - May 24, 2014 1:04 a.m.

    I think people have beat the pricing topic to death here, so I'll only touch on some side topics around price that haven't been mentioned. What a lot of people do when retiring the last gen is sell it on Ebay with the entire library. Those when sold at the right time, can net a big chunk of money. With a digital library, it's just the console you can sell. No library, nothing. I only point this out because there are people like me who never sell old games. And the argument for digital is that I don't resell so why not get digital? But in a way, I do resell, eventually... Some have pointed out the lack of price adjustments, and that's all true. One thing that happens in brick and mortar is that as games age, fewer sell, and stores phase them out with decreases in pricing. This never, NEVER happens with digital, and that's part of the problem. A really old game might have a few dollars knocked off it, but never the deep discounts of a retail. This is a big deal to me, because I rarely rush out and pay $60 for a brand new game. I usually wait until the price is cut, because I'm patient. And I do try to buy new. That price cut doesn't happen with digital, so that right there pisses me off. Steam prices erode just like regular retail. Everyone knows this, and I think it annoys many who might consider digital because they know they are getting ripped off. I also look at the long term... I know that if digital undercuts disk to the point that disk disappears, that in the long term digital will become overpriced and all competition will be gone and discounts will all but be eliminated.
  • nomnomdinosaur - May 23, 2014 6:59 p.m.

    It's all about the price here in Australia; physical next gen games can be pre-ordered from retail for around $90, or slightly less if your lucky, while on the PSN Store it'd stay at $100 for a good couple of months. Even if the digital copy was $10 - $15 cheaper, the novelty and satisfaction of owning the physical copy would outweigh it anyway in my opinion

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