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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Adventures With Digital Distribution

As of right now, there are only two digital distributors worth dealing with: Good Old Games and Steam. The interesting thing is that both of these distributors are based on one guiding principle: Trust.
For example, Good Old Games lets you download the full files of whatever game you've purchased. There's nothing stopping you from putting that file on your torrent site of choice and letting others enjoy the sweet nectar of your purchase, and yet, you rarely see GOG files ending up on torrent sites.

Why is this? First, the games are so darn cheap that they're almost impulse buys. Second, they make the games easy to buy. Third, and most importantly, they don't treat the customer like a criminal. There's no limit on how many times you can download the game, no crazy online activation schemes to go through. That takes away the moral justification that people (myself included) have for pirating.

It's one thing to steal from the rich and give to the poor, but if the person you're stealing from is the nicest guy in town, it just makes you look like a jerk.

While Steam has to bow to the whims of the game industry's heavy hitters, it's also surprisingly flexible in the way it allows you to install the Steam client on different computers, and it also doesn't place any restrictions on how many times you can download the game. As we've discussed before, Steam succeeds for very good reasons.

Why do I bring this up? I'll tell you: Two bad experiences, one right after the other, with digital distribution. One demonstrates a misunderstanding of what digital distribution is supposed to accomplish, and one demonstrates the problem with the smaller providers as the industry grows and changes.

My first experience came from Batman: Arkham City. I first began playing the game via a pirated copy, since, while I had heard good things, I wasn't sure if it was a game I wanted to plunk down cold, hard cash for. I played it and enjoyed it immensely. When it came on sale at Impulse for $25, I immediately jumped at it to support the developer.

Impulse was previously owned by Stardock, who used the service to send out their own games. They couldn't make a go of the platform, and ended up selling it to Gamestop. Compared to Steam, it's lacking in features. There are no achievements, no community features, nothing. It's a pure delivery platform, nothing more and nothing less.

When I start the pirated copy, it waits on an initial loading screen for about fifteen seconds and then moves on to the actual game. When I start the legit copy that I paid for with cash money, it doesn't start for two minutes. This is because they're using DRM in the background to verify that I really paid for the copy that I paid for.

Bear in mind that this process is completely useless, since it's been bypassed handily in the pirated copy, and you can see where the issue lies. The whole point of digital distribution is to minimize piracy and used game sales, but when you layer DRM on top of the downloaded copy, it's completely destroying the point.

Not only that, but a ridiculous install limit was placed on the downloaded copy of Arkham City. I can only install the game five times before it runs out. If I decide to wipe my computer? That's an install. If I have to uninstall/reinstall the game? That's an install. I'm being penalized for purchasing the game instead of pirating it. The pirates have provided a better customer experience than the companies that are supposed to provide it. That's sick.

My second experience came from Civilization 4. I purchased the game via Direct2Drive a while back, and their system was pretty simple: Download the game, enter the product key and it'll go through a brief online activation. That's all. Since they gave me the capability of storing the files on my computer, it's only fair that I be forced to use a one-time online activation.

I've saved those files on my computer for a few years now, on the off chance that I'll want to reinstall the game. A week ago, I caught the bug again, so I started those setup files. The install went swimmingly, and I opened up Civ 4. It started to run the activation and then stopped with an error saying it couldn't connect to the server.

So why wouldn't it work? I went to Direct2Drive's site and found that it had been purchased by GameFly. I couldn't find any help forthcoming on GameFly's site about why Civ 4 wouldn't connect, but I have a clue. GameFly has a beta client software they would like me to download. I'm assuming that this is their new distribution model for their games, and what I would have to do if I wanted to play Civ 4.


Once again, I went to a torrent site, downloaded a Civ 4 .iso, installed it and was playing shortly after the download finished. No hoops, no muss, no fuss.

Since digital distribution is still in its infancy with only Steam being an established provider, purchasing from any other company can be a crapshoot. Will the company still be in their current form a year later? Two years later? Will any activation methods still work? Of course, the companies don't care because they have your money already.

As we've mentioned, Good Old Games steps around this. If Good Old Games were to go out of business tomorrow, every game that I have purchased through them would still work. Yes, they already have your money, but they still provide you with the followthrough that makes their business work.

And don't even get me started on the one time I tried downloading Age of Empires 3 from the Games for Windows Live client. Ugh.

This is what's driving me crazy. Most digital distribution providers are providing an experience inferior to what the pirates offer, and they're charging us money for the privilege! I've learned my lesson: When it comes to digital distribution, stick with the companies that trust you as the consumer, since most of them don't. Give them your money in appreciation of the great work they do, and maybe some of the other ones will get the hint eventually.