Downloadable Game Libraries: A Steam-Powered Future?
By: Ben Serviss

It’s happened to everyone. You reach for a familiar PC title that hasn’t seen the insides of your hard disc for a good while, pop the disc in, and nothing happens. Sadly, my CD-ROM had recently shuffled off to hardware heaven, leaving me in the lurch (and half of a copy of Hitman: Codename 47 sitting on my hard drive). This kind of problem wouldn’t happen, I thought, if we had downloadable game libraries. Then came a revelation: we do.

Well, we will. While programs like Valve’s pioneering Steam have led the pack in online-based content distribution, a whole new generation of downloadable delivery options is poised to seriously mess with the industry as we know it. Nintendo’s Revolution will stream software from the gaming giant’s backlog directly into living rooms, while Infusion Labs’ infamous Phantom system will put hundreds of PC titles at the fingertips of living room denizens everywhere. Yet it’s the relatively unknown Gametap service, put together by supra-conglomerate Turner Broadcasting, that has the widest reach. When Gametap launches this fall, it will allow subscribers’ PCs to play games ranging from ports of 8-bit classics of yester-decade all the way up to Xbox-generation contemporary fare such as Splinter Cell. These high-concept solutions are in addition to the inevitable Steam clones that studios will surely establish to afford a firmer handle on distribution and marketing issues.

But outside of legal and business realms, what does it matter to the gamer? Well, strap on your Power Gloves and clench those trigger buttons ladies and gentlemen, because the world of gaming you knew is going bye-bye. With all three next-generation console makers’ emphasis on online-based interaction, community and gaming, it’s easy to trace the arc of our favorite pastime through the years to come. What Microsoft is shooting for with the ‘360 degrees of user freedom’ mentality is a giant clue to what the Big N was holding out for during the GameCube generation, and a belated answer to why the Dreamcast bit the big one despite its ballsy online presence: the world wasn’t ready yet.

It was a tough lesson to learn, but such is the power of ideas not fermented to perfection. Sure, progress has occurred in somewhat limited capacities; simply glance at any persistent-world MMO. Once the game is bought and installed, the disc becomes a vestigial organ as new content is rushed directly to the gamer’s PC either for free or on a paid basis, bypassing the usual retail channels. Valve’s Steam service lets players get at the developer’s entire backlog instantly after hitting the ‘Pay’ button, allowing unprecedented speed in delivery while opening up a whole new market of impulse buys. Of course, gamers can still pick up a copy of Half-Life 2 at their local Wal-Mart or Circuit City, but with downloadable options on the rise, who’s to say that brick and mortar stores will even carry games in the future?
Even in the present day, developments suggest a move away from traditional outlets towards digital ones. Look at the San Andreas debacle. While Wal-Mart and Best Buy quickly ban the game from their shelves and lose out on millions, the few gaming specialty stores and scads of online retailers stand to profit from the retail chains’ costly decision. If San Andreas was exclusively available as a download from the get-go, it would take significantly less effort to completely repair each digital copy than to physically re-brand every DVD case with an AO sticker.

Which brings up another reason for an online-centric gaming industry—its cost effectiveness. For the businessmen, cutting out the middleman reduces overhead for developers, loosens the death-grip of publishers desperate to make that Christmas deadline, and evaporates disc-pressing costs. For the game designers, mainstream downloadable pipelines could give a bigger voice to fledgling indie studios trying to get their innovative projects into the public’s view (cough Natural Selection cough), which could put a hurt on the dreaded Sequelitis that’s been going around lately. Modding communities could sprout from their nascent forms into even bigger entities, infusing the market with a steady stream of feedback from an informed, involved audience. Lastly, online-only game spaces could do away with regional separation, allowing gamers of all territories a peek at each other’s forbidden gaming treats without involving McGuyver-style after-market mod devices and secret hardware tricks.

There’s no easy road to this future. There are plenty of basic issues to deal with in making the leap to an online game market, the biggest one being the simplest: people like to own stuff. Taking away (or at least hindering) their ability to own physical materials like manuals, game discs and even collector’s edition-type keepsakes and trinkets could aggravate hardcore audiences. Monetarily speaking, with all the problems the retail channels have they’d be hard pressed to give up the lucrative video game aisle. Access wouldn’t be universal; the remaining rural folks without high-speed internet capabilities would be shut out of the industry with no other way to play games. And creatively, an over-reliance on backlogs could stunt developers’ further offerings (*ahem*Nintendo*ahem*).
But even with all these conditions, obstacles and limitations, the industry is plowing forward towards an online-based experience. So years down the line, will we still be able to unwrap the latest hit for PS12, freshly sealed from the factory? Or will it be a solemn exchange of credit card information before Final Fantaxy MCVI streams
onto our hard discs, accompanied by an Adobe Acrobat manual? As for an educated guess, I’d say we have two more generations (or up to the launch of Xbox 4) until the majority of game software is delivered online, and not over the shelf. By then, computers will be capable of obscene power, hard drives will be measured in terabytes, and brand new games—not just old favorites or last-gen leftovers—could theoretically be downloaded on their release dates. So hang onto those game discs once the likes of GameTap rolls around—they could be worth their weight in gigs.