Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Digital Distribution: Come on, Man

Last week I was looking to buy a new game ("less than a year old") to play on my new PC. While price shopping, I came to a surprising realization: the retail, physical copy for every game I was interested in was cheaper than a digital download version. Does this make any sense?

I thought digital distribution was supposed to be cheaper than retail, because they don't have to manufacture cases or print box art or manuals. I'm sure it costs money to host things on a server and pay for bandwidth and everything, but they don't have to pay shipping and stocking fees, either. It's like we're being charged for the convenience of a quick and easy download, or something.

So there I was, staring at prices and wondering what was going on. Cheaper prices are always going to sway the direction my wallet goes, but there are other more tangible reasons (literally) that make a physical copy more appealing, especially when the price difference is negligible, and reasons why I would never pay more for a digital version. More on digital distribution (and why it should always be cheaper), including price comparisons of the games I was looking at, after the jump.

Just for the fun of things, let's look at the price comparisons for the games I was looking to buy: Deus Ex Human Revolution, The Witcher 2, LA Noire, and Skyrim. Vendor acronyms are from left to right: GamersGate, Direct2Drive (now GameFly), Impulse (now GameStop), Good Old Games, and you should know the others. 

So in these cases, the physical copy is more appealing just because of the price alone (I should also mention that the Amazon copies are all eligible for free shipping). This may just go to show that Amazon is the leading edge in retail these days, but if that's the case then you'd think smaller services would undercut their prices to give them a competitive edge in the market. At least Steam's prices are relatively close to Amazon's. It's also worth mentioning that Amazon's prices fluctuate; a few days ago I remember seeing the Witcher 2 for about $23.

Regardless of who's selling it, with a physical copy you also get a nice box and manual to put on your shelf. I'm a bit of a collector and like to have these things if the price is right, just because I like to see my books and video games displayed on a shelf for others to see. If the price is the same, you literally get more for your dollar: you not only get to play the game, but you get the collector's item too. But it's also a physical copy of the game that you personally own. That's your disc, you do with it as you please, whether that be to use it as a drink coaster, or to resell later.

The thing with digital distribution is that you're often not paying to own the game, you're paying for a license to play the game. If Steam were to take an arrow to the knee at any unexpected moment, you'd lose access to all of your games, because you can't back them up or play them without it. Even with services like GOG that have a strict "no DRM" policy, if you don't download and back-up your entire library of game purchases, then you could possibly lose access to all of your games if they were to shut down. (Which almost happened and sent their customers into a panic.)

So with that in mind (not having a physical copy to do with as you please, and sometimes not even owning the games you're paying for), I find it harder to justify spending money on a digital version. But it's a different story when Steam puts games on sale for $5, because I can put aside my digital distribution problems for such a meager fee. I mean, they put Portal 2 on sale for 50% off less than three months after its launch, and I've bought games like Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect for $5.

Must.... resist.... impulse.... to buy.... entire Steam sale

In the long run, it may actually be cheaper to buy games on Steam, as long as you wait for the right sales, but when I wanted to make an impulse purchase, the physical copy was the cheapest in every case. I had $70 worth of Best Buy gift cards that I was looking to spend, and their prices were even worse. Best Buy wanted $50 for TW2 and DXHR. Their cost for Skyrim was the only one that matched competitors, so that's the one I bought with my gift cards. I'll probably be ordering the others on Amazon before too long.

It just makes me think that if you're a buying a digital copy of a game, you're missing out on some good aspects from having a physical copy, and so you'd think that digital distributors would lower their prices to compensate. You might be paying for a convenience when you buy it, but that could easily turn into an inconvenience down the road if the service goes out of business. Steam makes itself consistently more appealing because of their ridiculous sales, and because the service you get with the platform (forums, community groups, steam chat, cloud saves, screenshots, etc) is rather nice, but I don't understand how other sites like GamersGate can justify their higher default prices, even if they do put on regular sales.


  1. The sales are really the key. You can get any game over a year old over 75% off if you wait half a month at most.
    Skyrim has been in the low $40 range a few times already, go to an actual store and from what I have seen it is high $60s-$70s.
    Buy in huge packs and you can easily get like 95% off on even new games.

  2. We've all been through them in one way or another Betamax versus VHS cassettes to CD versus Blu-ray against HD DVD. The large current conflict is one of the traditional physical media versus digital content delivery, and is likely to be much more important in its ramifications than any previous format war.

    Robert Brandon Distributors

  3. As an example there is a Get Games Go sale about to go live soon for 70% off of Deus Ex for Steam. While the game is hideously overpriced normally it will soon be under $18 for a limited time (not amazing but not bad either).

    Also in general you are discounting the added benefit for instant purchases. You don't have to spend $10 on gas and 30 minutes of your life, you can get any game instantly (and you pay a premium for this).

    And retailers are giving you less and less incentive. More often then not you are only getting a simple cheap DVD case, a DVD you could make yourself for like 4 cents, and a 2 page manual with a bunch of ads. When stores stopped giving you boxes they lost a lot of appeal in my opinion.

  4. "And retailers are giving you less and less incentive."
    - This is true. In the last few years I've been annoyed with the decreasing quality of the packaging; no more box sleeves, no more jewel cases, thinner plastic cases with holes cut out of them, and more companies have started making useless manuals.

    And like I said, those Steam sales are a phenomenal incentive to go digital, hence why I've got 91 titles in my Steam library (and I've only played/tried 39 of those). Saved a lot of money by waiting for games to show up in a sale, and bought several games that I was only mildly interested in because they were $2-5 and so quick and easy to get.

    But with Deus Ex (and Skyrim, and other Steamworks games) I think you really do get more for your money by going retail, because you get a physical copy AND it activates on Steam. You can't resell that copy and you need Steam to run it anyway, but at least you get a nice box to put on display, and you can install from the disc, which is a lot faster than downloading 10GB, and can be clutch if you're paying for a budget internet service that caps your bandwidth.

    And if you don't need to play the game right this second, you can buy it on Amazon and get free shipping (free two-day if you've got a Prime account). That takes as much time as making a purchase on Steam (30 seconds to put it your cart and go through checkout) and saves gas in the process. You still have to wait a few days for it to arrive, but you get the nice added benefits of having a physical copy in addition to an activated copy that you can download through Steam, later on if you lose or break the disc.