Physical media isn't dead yet -- something which collectors are quite happy about -- but digital distribution has grown considerably as access to high-speed reliable Internet has improved. And it's only going to continue growing as we enter the next generation of video game consoles.
There's an interesting contrast in how platform holders such as Sony and Microsoft look at digital distribution when compared to the attitudes of publishers such as Ubisoft, however. While Sony and Microsoft seem keen to make use of digital distribution to make their platforms more attractive via programs like PlayStation Plus and Games with Gold, over the last few years we've seen several of the big publishers experimenting with how Internet-connected computers and consoles can be used to restrict consumers' rights over the software they've handed money over for.
PlayStation Plus and Games with Gold initially sound like two very similar programs, but there are a few distinct differences between them.
This month's PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection offerings, recently announced by Sony, include PlayStation 4 downloadable games Resogun and Contrast; PlayStation 3 games Ibb and Obb, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (an expanded, enhanced version of the original) and Sega's Binary Domain; and Vita titles Soul Sacrifice and Oddworld: Strangers Wrath HD. On top of that, there's the usual discounted prices on various titles around the PlayStation Store.
Games with Gold, meanwhile, recently announced its rather slimmer lineup for November: A World of Keflings from November 1-15, and Iron Brigade (formerly Trenched) from November 16 until the end of the month.
Sony's offering is clearly superior in terms of the number of titles on offer and their value -- the two Games with Gold titles are normally $9.99 each, while PlayStation Plus covers seven games across three platforms ranging from full-price retail titles to smaller-scale downloadable offerings -- but it is worth noting (and frequently forgotten) that you get to keep any Games with Gold titles you download even if your Xbox Live Gold subscription lapses, while in the case of PlayStation Plus you're effectively renting the Instant Game Collection titles each month; as soon as you cancel your subscription, they're gone until you resubscribe.
There's another difference, though, again in Sony's favor; while Sony's Instant Game Collection offerings tend to be more recent titles, Microsoft's Games with Gold offerings have, to date, been a little older. Gamasutra's Kris Graft discovered a while back that contracts for Instant Game Collection titles were negotiated on a case-by-case bases, ranging from a cut of PlayStation Plus profits to increased visibility; Games with Gold titles, meanwhile, largely consist of games that are several years old and which have probably seen a significant drop-off in sales since their original release, even in the case of the few high-profile releases the program has seen such as Halo 3, Fable III and Assassin's Creed II. This helps give them a new lease on life long after they have ceased to be "relevant" -- perhaps attracting newcomers to popular series or developers in the process.
While Sony's PlayStation Plus offerings have consistently been significantly better than Microsoft's with regard to free content, in both cases you're getting value that's worth more than the price of your subscription each month. These additional incentives to sign up for one, the other or both of the "big two's" premium services are going to be of increasing importance as we move into the next, more digital-centric generation of games consoles; Sony's already fired the first shots with its November PlayStation Plus titles, but it remains to be seen what Microsoft has planned as additional benefits for Xbox Live Gold subscribers -- if anything.
While Sony and Microsoft compete for the affections of prospective purchasers using their respective premium online services, several of the bigger publishers over the last few years have attempted to take advantage of the growth in digital distribution in order to have greater control over their games and how they are sold. Systems that have been explored range from online passes to pre-order DLC via season passes, and in most cases they've been designed to do three things: encourage sales of new rather than used copies of games; discourage piracy; and continue to make money from players, even after they've purchased the games.
The online pass trend was one of the more objectionable aspects of this period of experimentation for the big publishers, with many games from EA in particular locking off significant chunks of game unless you either entered the code from a new copy of the game, or paid up $10 for the privilege of playing online. In the case of single player-only games such as Dragon Age and Batman: Arkham City, online passes were used to gate off game content that, in many cases, wasn't "essential" to the game experience as a whole, but which were often missed if they weren't present. Imagine playing Dragon Age: Origins without Shale, for example; unthinkable.
It looked like online passes were dead and buried a while back, as EA made a big deal of announcing the fact that it was abandoning the plan, and other companies (including Sony) who had quietly started implementing similar programs also decided to stop engaging in this rather consumer-unfriendly practice.
However, Ubisoft apparently wanted one last try at this, and slipped an online pass system known as "Uplay Passport" into Assassin's Creed IV, locking access to both the multiplayer modes and the Edward's Fleet resource management minigame from the single player mode -- the latter of which had both been a traditional part of the series' single-player experience since Brotherhood, and which also provided a significant source of income for purchasing upgrades and equipment.
Unsurprisingly, fans were rather displeased at this turn of events, and made their dissatisfaction known. To Ubisoft's credit, it has quickly responded to the concerns by not only removing the Uplay Passport requirement from Assassin's Creed IV, but abandoning the program altogether for all future games. In order to access the locked content, you can now download the Uplay Passport for free from Xbox Live or PSN -- if you already paid for one (from a used copy, for example), Ubi says you should contact your local Ubisoft support line, presumably for a refund.
"The Uplay Passport program was initiated as a means of giving customers full access and support for online multiplayer and features, along with exclusive content, bonuses and rewards," said Ubi communications manager Gary Steinman. "Games today are blurring the line between offline and online, between what is single-player and what is multiplayer. Based on that and the feedback we received from you, we recognized that Passport is no longer the best approach for ensuring that all our customers have the best possible experience with all facets of our games."
While it would have been nice if this "feature" wasn't in the game in the first place -- and it's a great game -- it is at least encouraging to see Ubisoft both listening to and responding quickly and decisively to player feedback.
We're in a period of great transition for the games industry, and it's likely that both platform holders and publishers are going to continue experimenting with various business models, technologies and services over the course of the next few years. Some of these experiments will undoubtedly be to the benefit of consumers; others will be less so. Both the Assassin's Creed incident and the growth in popularity of PlayStation Plus make one thing clear, though; as much as it might not seem like it sometimes, companies are listening and are paying attention to how the public is behaving, so make sure you send a clear message as often as possible: support the things you would like to see more of, and don't be afraid to complain about the things you don't think are good for you as a consumer.