Today, we’re going to talk about a little thing called “DD”.
“Digital Distribution”, “Direct Download”, “Digital Download”…whatever you think the letters stand for, the concept as a whole stands for a massive, market-altering change, the kind of thing the more pretentious would label a “paradigm shift”.
For the unenlightened, DD refers to the growing trend towards distributing software (primarily games in this context) in downloadable format instead of (or in addition to) physical media. In practical terms, this means you can buy the latest game titles without going to the store, or play classic games without paying obscene prices on eBay. The same revolution that gave us iTunes and the RIAA headaches is now changing the face of mainstream gaming: Nintendo’s Wii and DSi, Microsoft’s XBox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3 and PSP all have download services carrying new, classic and exclusive titles, and PC gamers have a variety of download services to choose from as well, including Steam, Direct2Drive and, for retrogaming goodness on the cheap, GOG.com.
However, there are those who view this digital gaming revolution as some kind of encroaching alien menace. To them, the switch from physical media to digital format is apparently some kind of harbinger of the gaming apocalypse. “These greedy corporate suits are trying to steal our money,” they say, “making us pay for something we don’t really own! If it doesn’t come on a disc, then I don’t want it!”
Unfortunately for them, there’s three things wrong with this argument.
First off: digital distribution is as old as the Internet itself. This information might freeze the brains of those who regard DD as nothing short of the electronic incarnation of Cthulhu. The Dan Brown-esque irony in the Luddite’s argument is that DD has from the beginning been the province of independent developers, those who didn’t have hundreds of thousands to spend on publishing and advertising their software.
Freeware and shareware may have existed before DD, but it was certainly a shot in the arm for them. And they certainly didn’t die out when the big companies got interested in selling their own titles over the Internet. Both indie developers and the major ones have slowly evolved to mirror one another: back in the day, you’d never find NetHack in a game store, but nowadays you can find the likes of Darwinia and World of Goo being sold online right next to big-name titles like Half-Life 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. (In fact, you might even find them next to each other on the shelf.) DD is not some devious scheme cooked up by greedy executives to fleece the public: it’s a decades-old evolutionary trend, and only recently has broadband penetration reached the point where the big-name companies can jump on the bandwagon.
Second thing: you’re already paying for software you don’t own. Sorry.
What you buy in a store is physical media and a license to use the software stored on it. You don’t own the data that’s on the disc; it’s still the developer’s IP, even while it’s on your hard drive.
Imagine this scenario. You walk into a store and pick up a book you want. Unfortunately, you have the mentality of your average breakfast cereal mascot, i.e. you have the means to concoct and execute any scheme imaginable but are incapable of actually going to the checkout and buying the book. So you grab your cell phone, dial up an accomplice, and over the course of several hours, you dictate the contents of the book to him. (Yes, this scheme assumes that no one figures out what you’re doing and throws you out of the store. It’s a hard life, being the Trix Rabbit or Barney Rubble.) Now I ask the question: have you stolen the book?
As far as the physical media is concerned, no. But you’ve stolen the contents of the book. I mean, really: do you think that nice little ream of paper, bound and printed, is in and of itself worth $14.99? Your accomplice can buy some printer paper and run out the entire book for much less than that. The thing is, information can have a price tag attached to it. The publisher doesn’t care that you didn’t pay for the book; they care that you didn’t pay for what the book said. When you buy a book, you are buying the physical media and the right to use the information contained on that media, but not the information itself. You can’t turn around, photocopy the book and pass out copies to a couple dozen friends (or worse, sell the copies you make); read the copyright page of any given book and you’ll find a sentence to this effect buried in there somewhere. This is also what the FBI Warning you’ll see on DVDs is all about. The same thing applies to software: it’s in that EULA you either scroll quickly through or ignore entirely when it comes up in the installer.
The only thing DD does is cut out the middleman of physical media. You’ve never owned a piece of software in your life, except maybe if you wrote one yourself. The only thing you’re not getting now that you were getting before is an actual disc. And as I’m about to go into, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Third: what’s wrong with not having physical media?
As I’ve said before, I’ve gotten used to not having to swap discs. A disc is like a book: the media itself isn’t as important as what’s on the media, and while I don’t see myself switching my Terry Pratchett and John Grisham collections over to digital format any time in the future, I enjoy having my entire gaming library accessible with the click of a mouse or the push of a button, without having to hunt for discs.
On a more practical note, piracy has been around as long as the notion of intellectual property, and where computers are concerned, the battle between pirates and publishers has been an escalating arms race, with publishers using a variety of increasingly elaborate (and frequently draconian) methods over the years to render their software impossible to make illegal copies of. The copy protection methods of yore, with their quaint little code wheels and assorted feelies, have been replaced with the institution of Digital Rights Management, or DRM. In the case of disc-based games, DRM typically takes the form of vicious little programs, such as SafeDisc, SecuROM and StarForce, that install themselves invisibly alongside certain titles. In theory, they’re supposed to keep people from pirating software. In practice, they punish the user for being a pirate in potentia (that’s right; all users are guilty until proven innocent!) by opening security vulnerabilities and wrecking CD drives. The fun part is, uninstalling the game they came with doesn’t get rid of them. Not even the heinous Lenslok system did that. (In a bit of irony that’s less Dan Brown and more Douglas Adams, the consumer response to these anti-piracy systems has been…pirating the games.)
Small wonder that Direct2Drive and GOG.com frequently tout “DRM-Free” as a selling point.
And ignoring flubs like the Steam version of BioShock installing SecuROM on the victim’s computer (2K Games’ fault, not Valve’s), what DRM measures are employed by DD services tend to be far less draconian. Independent vendors usually provide an activation code, a kind of password that confirms your purchase. Services like Steam, Direct2Drive, GOG, XBLA and PSN tie your purchases to your account; Nintendo’s Virtual Console, WiiWare and DSiWare are tied to your hardware. There are no demonic digital watchdogs waiting for an excuse to rip your computer’s throat out: as long as the software can access the Internet long enough to confirm your purchase, you’re good to go.
Which brings me to one more welcome feature of digital distribution. Discs are like books in one other important respect: the physical media is your contract with the publisher, the key that allows you access to the IP stored on it. If that media is lost or destroyed, the same goes for your contract: in the case of a modern PC game, you could be out $50 with nothing to show for it. Not the case with digital distribution. While independent vendors may only allow you to download your software for a limited time, the major services for PC and consoles allow you to download your software in perpetuity, as long as you still have your email address and password. In some cases, you can even download your software to multiple machines, allowing you to keep your library in more than one place.
So what have we learned today, class?
1. Digital distribution is good for independent developers.
2. The only thing you don’t get with digital distribution is a disc.
3. Digital distribution is more consumer-friendly than physical media.
This said, I don’t see digital distribution completely replacing physical media; not in the near future, at least. Public awareness and consumer backlash have all but killed SecuROM and its kind. Physical copies can also include bonuses that are typically missing from digital releases, such as soundtrack CDs (as noted in my previous articles concerning the PSP Go and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona). And despite all my rhetoric about how irrational it is to cling to physical media, the fact remains that it’s hard to justify spending $40-50 on something insubstantial – the right to download and play a video game – regardless of whatever benefits download-only might have. (But $20 and under is apparently another story, as my growing PSN Store collection can attest…)