Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Digital Distribution Problem

No one will deny that we are entering a new age of distribution of games. Players are no longer expecting that their games be confined to a disk or cartridge that can only be run by a single proprietary device. "Digital" has already swept the world of music, and we're next if it isn't already the norm. This is not a bad thing; no longer needing the capital that a physical copy of media requires has made distributing your games an effectively "costless" endeavor.

However, this ease of access to content has made it simpler than ever to circumvent the "price" to consume it. No successful game can claim a 0% piracy rate, and technologies that have been developed to protect their content (a.k.a. the average DRM software of today) only serve to stymie the ease of access, thus causing outrage and more piracy than they would have had had they not made the technology to begin with.

Piracy is not the problem with digital distribution. The problem with digital distribution is the fact that you can effectively produce an infinite number of copies of your game at very little expense. Video games and other digital media are not immune to supply and demand; if you have an infinite stock of something, the value of it is essentially worthless.

Then, there are the "marketplaces."

The Marketplaces

Today's current solution to the digital distribution problem is marketplaces. Marketplaces like Steam, the App Store, and the Google Play Store have found a good middle ground that provides their users relatively easy access and developers an unobtrusive layer of purchase authentication. That's good, right?

It's great, until you want to trade, resell, or otherwise rid yourself of one of your products. You're "stuck with it." That's not so bad though, yeah? "As long as I remain devout to this one marketplace, I'll never lose your access to it, so it's bearable," you say.

Until you lose your access to it, of course.

Unlike physical products, digital marketplaces put your rights to the content or products you've purchased entirely in someone else's hands. You're purchasing something that feels like a product, but is truly a "one-time" cost for access through a service. Now what's the difference?

Say Gabe Newell quits VALVE/Steam or something, and I become the boss. Sure, VALVE has stated that if anything were to happen to Steam, they would open source use and access to Steam so you wouldn't lose your "products." But I'm not Gabe Newell; I am the new boss, and I am a total dick; the thing you think can't happen actually happens, and I shut Steam down and no longer allow new products to be available and we're not going to support the software that allows access to the content because I want VALVE to focus on making Half-Life 3.

Some may think it's childish to speculate this way, but things like this have happened before. Ever buy a multiplayer game? Ever play it and wake up one day to find that the community simply "vanishes" or the company maintaining it says they're done running servers because of some extraneous business failure? The "product" you've purchased is essentially gone. Though it's not the exact same circumstance as the VALVE example, it shows the danger of allowing a marketplace or third-party hold the keys to the car.

Another example would be SEGA. But this case shows the benefit to the way physical ownership works. Because I physically own a SEGA Saturn and games to play on them (though I don't in reality), the fact that SEGA dropped the ball with it DOES affect the way I get new content for it, but it DOESN'T affect the way I play the games I already own—even on this very day in 2014.

Those principals are what make me nervous about the current state of "digital ownership." In music, there are well established digital formats, but much like games, there isn't really much of a way to "own" a digital copy of your music. You can have a raw .mp3 file, but that doesn't really allow a revenue win for the creators. (The music world equivalents are iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora, if you're wondering.)

Something's Got To Give

So there's the problem. What do I think is going to happen? My guess is that a major marketplace will likely have to "collapse" before we have a enough consumers who have lost their access or perceived ownership to their digital games. If the outcry from these users is large enough, someone will likely be willing to crack the "digital ownership" egg, which is ultimately the fix to this problem.

The conditions for success:

1. The user can have true, unfettered ownership of a piece of digital media

2. Be free to trade, purchase, and consume it without a third party

3. Allow the supply of the media be equal only to the the number of people who've bought it (and/or what the creator decides to "give away").

A model we could draw from could be Bitcoin. Because the system is designed to mediate itself without its creator (from what I understand, at least), people have a digital currency with the viability of a physical currency. There are people who simplify the process with a service if you can't be bothered with it, but the core of what makes it work is that you have a valid claim to ownership over your Bitcoins, and the third party services are completely optional in the end (think Gamestop or eBay).

I'd be interested to know if anyone has already been working on a solution. It feels like it's such a pivotal piece of technology to have, and it really seems like something realistic to achieve right this minute. I know there could be a great benefit for creators and consumers alike. I wish I had a better knowledge in order to implement it myself (lead by example and everything), but even if I did, my love and heart is within the creation of the games themselves.

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