Why consoles need better digital download services

The XBOX 360 is turning seven years old this year. With the PS3 and Wii only a year behind the 360, the current console generation is getting old. The old generation will only get older, and it's hard to not contemplate what the next set of consoles will look like. Will the graphics continue to blur the line between games and reality? Will artificial intelligence advance to a shocking level of autonomy? Will frame rates improve? Only time will tell, but I will suggest that there is one thing all future consoles will need. They will need more robust services for downloading games.

Steam has changed the way a lot of gamers think about purchasing video games, and this trend will only continue. Their price-slashing sales, quick and simple interface, and automatic patching help form a service that is unmatched by any retailer, digital or physical. A friend of mine recently suggested I give The Witcher 2 a shot, so I turned to Steam. Within minutes I owned a digital copy of the game and within hours I had it installed. Steam is, undoubtedly, the easiest way to purchase games currently. With a retail experience this painless, the differences between it and other services are only going to become more apparent with time. PSN, Wiiware, and XBOX Live Marketplace have tested the waters of downloadable games, but if they don’t make efforts to catch up to Steam they will continue to look behind the curve in the digital market.

This isn’t to say that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo haven’t put any effort into downloadable games, quite the opposite. Many of my favorite games of this generation are available only through digital means. Games like Bastion, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, and Braid are all close to my heart and, arguably, could not have happened without digital distribution. All services have done a fine job acquiring games for sale in the $10 to $20 range, but few steps have been taken beyond that. Retail games can find similar success on digital shelves without marginalizing the smaller games that already inhabit that space. Microsoft has a Games on Demand brand dedicated to digital copies of retail games, but most of these titles arrive months after they hit physical shelves. Additionally, most titles are priced much higher than their real-world counterparts. With the release of the Playstation Vita, Sony has shown initiative in attacking the digital market. All Vita games will be put up on PSN as they release to stores, allowing the tech savvy consumer to purchase their games at their leisure. Sony shows more interest in digital distribution than Microsoft and Nintendo, but all have a long road ahead of them.

Speaking of retail releases, a shift from store shelves to digital warehouses may mean a shift in the perceived threat of used game sales. If a publisher can convince a gamer that a digital copy of a game is worth a certain price, they guarantee that the game will not be sold back to stores. Of course, this scenario cannot come about if the price and perceived value of a title are not aligned. No logical consumer will pay for a digital copy of a title they can get cheaper at retail — unless they really don’t want to deal with store clerks. If current console manufacturers want to stem the tide of used sales, the best way is to offer a superior price and service digitally.

It’s hard to say what the future should hold for these online marketplaces. There’s obviously no current indication that any of the console manufacturers have an interest in pushing digital content more heavily. Despite this, I can’t help but think about the success Steam has had over recent years and how much I enjoy that service.  Steam is loved by many, both from a financial and public opinion standpoint. Few people would argue that the digital marketplace is in gaming’s future, though there’s disagreement about how far away that future is. Stronger digital marketplaces on consoles are coming, and I believe it should be sooner rather than later.