Saturday, May 19, 2007

Digital Distribution strikes again...

If you're a PC gamer your purchasing options for the upcoming bundled release of Half Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress 2, and Portal just got smaller.

Publisher/Developer Valve recently announced that the $39.99 "Black Box" version of the game, which would've contained only the three aforementioned titles and was geared towards those who already own Half Life 2 and Episode I -arguably the majority of those who would be interested in Episode Two- has been canceled. That leaves only the $49.99 Orange Box package which also throws in the original Half Life 2 and Episode One. This release was obviously geared towards that handful of people who don't already own Half Life 2 and Episode I but at this juncture have suddenly become interested.

What that means for Half Life 2 fans is that they are now going to be forced to purchase 2 titles they already own in order to get Episode II. As it was, many Half Life fans might not have any interest in Team Fortress II or Portal but would have to shell out $40 for the Black Box just to get Episode Two. What started out as a simple $20 expansion to Half Life 2 has somehow transformed into a $50 bundle full of stuff you may or may not want, or even worse, already own.

Don't get me wrong, the Orange Box is a tremendous value, for an extra $10 you're getting Half Life 2 and Episode I. But that's only a value if you hadn't already shelled out $60 and $20 for them previously.

So where does digital distribution fit into this scheme, you ask? Valve of course, with their Steam service, is one of the biggest proponents of the digital distribution of video games. For them, this is a way to squeeze more money out of their customers no matter how they purchase the game. If you want to buy it in the store and get a box, manual, disc etc. you're going to pay the extra $10 for the stuff you already own. If you want to save yourself the $10 you'll still be able to get just the Black Box titles, but only as a download through Steam, which Valve sees more profit from since there are significantly fewer costs associated with downloads than there are with physical packages. Either way, Valve wins and customers lose.

As I've previously written, my biggest beef with digital distribution is when customers are charged the same price for a download (or more!) as they would be for a physical package. It's fine to offer a download as an alternative but why should you pay more as a customer when you are getting less? If the Black Box was to be sold for $40 in stores why not offer it as a download for $30 or even $35? Valve is also aware of this problem and it is exactly why the Black Box was eliminated as a retail SKU. Who would pay $40 for a download when they can get a tangible product in the store for the same price? With no retail alternative they are free to charge $40 for it online.

Look at HL2: Episode One. It was released as a $20 download on Steam back in 2006, at the same time, it was also released in stores with a $20 MSRP but, as is often the case with PC games it was discounted widely, with some stores selling it for as little as $10 and most no more than $17-$18. Now picture if it had only been released online. Everyone would pay $20, no exceptions, and that $20 is going directly into Valve's pockets. There's every benefit for them and absolutely none for the consumer who, now, doesn't even actually "own" the game.

Publishers desperately want digital distribution to become the norm because it means more money for them and tight control over their customers. Now, I have no problem with Valve increasing their profits, I'd much rather see all the money go to the creators of the game as opposed to Gamestop or Best Buy. But charging people a premium for downloads or forcing them to buy stuff they don't need is not the way to endear yourself to your customers. The whole point of digital distribution from a customer standpoint is that it's supposed to be cheaper and more convenient. The way Valve is pushing things, it is neither, and is only going to encourage people to stay away from digitally distributed games.

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