Friday, March 27, 2009

The Digital Download Divide

I have been a big proponent of digital downloads from the very beginning. Back in the early Newton PDA days it was a novelty to download a trial of a game like Deja Vu's 'Right of Way' (basically Milles Borne) and then purchase a registration code to enter. By the time I bought Call of Duty 2 for the Pocket PC ... it was standard practice.

But things started to change in 2004 with the release of Valve's Steam service along with the game 'Half-Life 2'. You could now download a digital version of a game that would install on your PC so you wouldn't have to run a separate installer or ever use a DVD to play. Get a new PC? No problem, just log in and reinstall!

However, like everything else, there is a dark side ... once you buy a game on Steam register a game with the service, you tie it inexorably to your account - unlike other retail games you cannot sell your used copy of Half-Life 2 on eBay. Or, more recently, trade it on Goozex.

This is a major issue for those who see the second-hand market as a big part of the value-proposition of gaming. For example, if I buy a Nintendo DS game for $30 that I know I'll play but not necessarily keep, I am pretty sure I can trade it on Goozex for enough points to buy another fairly new game. Heck, I just traded away a ten-year old GameBoy Advance game for enough points to pick up a copy of a PC strategy game I missed when it was first released.

All of that breaks down when you buy a game in a store, install it and find out that it *demands* that you also have Steam installed ... even if you just want to play the single player campaign! That happened to me very recently with Empire: Total War, which requires accounts on both Games for Windows Live and Steam to play.

All of this got me thinking ... I cannot remember where I got half the PDA games and apps from a decade ago, so I wonder in five more years how I'll do remembering where I got all the digital games I own now. Here is a estimate of how many games I have from various services.

DRM-limited 'Full-Sized' Games
Steam ~50 games
GamersGate ~8
GameAgent ~6
EA Store ~6
Direct2Drive ~3
Impulse ~4
StarDock ~3
GameTreeOnline ~2
GameStop ~2

DRM-limited 'Add-ons' to Games
Games for Windows Live ~2
Bioware Store ~6

DRM-limited 'Casual' Games
Amazon ~10
Apple ~50
PopCap ~3
PDA games (AtraWare, HandMark, etc) ~100?

Non-DRM 'Full-Sized' Games
Good Old Games ~15

Of these, only Good Old Games doesn't make me nervous - I have backed up the install filed in two places, and since they are DRM-free I don't have to worry about remembering my account details or hoping that the servers are still operating, or that I failed to pay 'download insurance' and therefore can't download the game again.

How about you? How invested are you in digital downloads? How do you feel about the trade-off between convenience and lack of full-ownership? What other thoughts?

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Keep all your info in your e-mail account. Gmail is a wonderful thing. At the moment, my Gmail capacity is 7309 MB and growing, which means I never really need to worry about deleting anything for space. Sure I have multiple e-mail addresses over a variety of services, but they all get forwarded to my Gmail account. So if I ever need a product registration key or to remember where I got a game, I can just search my e-mail account, which has a pretty good search function (it is Google, afterall).