"Digital domination is a marathon, not a sprint"
2nd Dec 2012 | 14:00
Life was so much more straight-forward six years ago. Fancy a pick 'n' mix? Pop into Woolworths. Fancy blowing £50 on a designer whisk? Habitat has your back. Need to know if your studio's brand new videogame will break even or not? Take a gander at HMV's shelves in seven days time and you'll have your answer.
The gradual death of brick and mortar shopping may be a disaster for fans of pick 'n' mix and fancy whisks, but for gamers it has been something of a revelation. The shift to online retail - and increasingly, digital download - has benefited us in numerous ways: a more competitive pricing structure, quicker delivery (sometimes), a wider spread of choice and, of course, convenience.
But there's one other way in which our change in buying habits has worked to our advantage. One more important than all the others put together. It's actively going to encourage people to make better games.
I should point out that this isn't going to be another discussion piece about the reduction of overheads and how it allows small-scale devs to take greater creative risks, although that is one of digital distribution's more attractive qualities. It's difficult to imagine current-day indie darlings such as Super Meat Boy, Fez or even Braid getting the greenlight during the creatively-stifled Xbox era, where every new release had to justify a print run.
But the ramifications of what I'm talking about stretch much further than the indie scene. Going forward, the rise of digital distribution will have to raise standards across the entire spectrum of games - from 'AAA' blockbusters such as Call Of Duty on down. And the reason is this: if you can potentially continue selling a product forever, then the best and most enduring sellable trait it can have is its quality.
To illustrate my point, let's go back to the aforementioned PS2 era and look at some of the critical darlings of that period. We're talking about games such as Okami, Beyond Good & Evil and Psychonauts - names that have become synonymous with commercial failure. But is that fair? Psychonauts ended up selling over 400,000 boxed copies worldwide after a sluggish start, and is still selling for a pretty penny today on digital services such as XBLA, GOG.com and Steam.
MAKE A SLOW BUCK
With the benefit of hindsight, this makes the hand-wringing that accompanied Psychonauts' dismal first-month sales seem like classic games industry short-sightedness, but you have to remember this was a time when physical shops still ruled the roost and online/digital had yet to properly gain traction.
Physical shops stock physical copies, which have to find homes on physical shelves. In this environment, your performance during the first two weeks is critical. It's survival of the fittest - or, at least, of the most sellable.
Underperform in the first instance and there will always be a FIFA or a Need For Speed waiting in the wings to knock you off the prime display slots and into the bargain bins - and, effectively, out of the public eye. This creates a high-pressure situation where the first two weeks of sale are the be-all and end-all. No wonder 'AAA' games have become so conservative and brown and shooty over the course of the last few decades.
By contrast, the internet is a shop without borders; it's possible to sell an infinite amount of copies of an infinite amount of games over an infinite amount of time - or until the planet spirals into the sun, at least. And this is how the race for commercial success has evolved from a sprint into a marathon.
Time has a way of bleaching all but the very best from memory, and already we can see this in action on Steam, XBLA and elsewhere. Whilst the cynically-produced tat of the early noughties has faded into obscurity, the likes of Okami and Beyond Good & Evil are enjoying HD makeovers.
Factor in future sales and it's not inconceivable that Okami, Beyond Good & Evil and Psychonauts will end up becoming some of the biggest grossing games of their generation. And who could have predicted that six years ago?
It's food for thought for short-sighted publishers who can't look past their next quarterly results. A few months of polish could easily result in a lifetime of sales.