I have been thinking a great deal lately about what the rise of digital distribution means for the videogame industry. I have also been thinking about what it means, culturally, for videogamers. It is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, because I’ve heard many game developers talk about how much videogame rentals and videogame resale hurts developers by depriving them of much more frequently needed funds.
I have also been thinking about my childhood, growing up as a moderate gamer who went on to be both part of the videogame industry, but also that academic industry that now generates people capable of thinking critically about and creating videogames. Seems like those aspects of the industry that encouraged me to pursue work in the videogame industry might have influenced others to do so as well.
One of those experiences was riding my bike to the video rental store where if I rented a game on Friday afternoon, I could keep it until Sunday morning. For a working class family without a lot of money, $4.00 for a weekend of fun was much more manageable than $40-50 for a game that I may or may not play for more than a weekend. My friends and I also took games over to one another’s houses. It was a chance to see different games and play them for a short while. It was also an opportunity to perhaps demonstrate how far you had progressed in a game.
Now, here I am in 2009, thinking about all of those Wii-ware games and Xbox Live Arcade games that I have downloaded to my consoles. None of these games are sharable. I couldn’t take an SD card over to a friends house and show them how great Lost Winds is. I could take my Wii over, which doesn’t seem so daunting, but dragging a bulky Xbox 360 or PS3 seems another story. Not to mention that it just doesn’t make that much sense. Of course I understand that with digital distribution comes the possibility of piracy, but what I’m talking about isn’t that. It is a shared gaming experience of gaming with others.
Rentals become even more problematic. Presumably digital distribution means reduced costs and an opportunity for developers to sell games for less and sell more. I understand that many developers see videogame rentals as lost revenue, but that really isn’t true. As a kid, I COULDN’T have bought any of those games. Perhaps instead my parents would have given me $4.00 per week to save for a new game. This would have meant that I could play 5-6 games per year instead of many. Playing all of those games gave me the background and vocabulary to be a game developer. Not having it would have meant my trajectory would have been very different.
So while I read articles saying that, “Digital content is the fastest-growing portion of the videogame industry,” I have to wonder what the consequences of that will be ultimately.