Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Digital Distribution Dilemmas

Is digital distribution coming of age or are there barriers preventing customers from embracing the advantages of cloud-based distribution? We look at the recent example of Mass Effect 2 for PS3 and questions who really stands to gain.

Mass Effect 2 posters
(Image: Derringdos, 2010, Flickr, CC)

There has been plenty of hype and excitement within the gaming press over the past few weeks regarding the release of critically lauded Mass Effect 2 for Sony Playstation 3.  This game has been out for quite some time on Xbox 360 and PC as it was released back in January 2010 and the game received high praise at the time, with Metacritic scores in the high 90% area.

I've seen several sites refer to the PS3 version of the game as either the definitive or the most complete version of the game, mainly due to the bundling of the Downloadable Content (DLC) that followed the original releases onto the PS3's Blu-ray disk. You can find a list of what DLC appears where and at what cost from this table.  Not all of the game's DLC is bundled onto the Blu-ray; that would be a missed opportunity for additional revenue.  However, what is genuinely surprising about the PS3 release is the cost of digital distribution.

Purchase options

If you wanted to go out an buy the game today you'd have a number of different options.  You could walk into your local high street game store or supermarket and hand over your cash.  The advantage here is you'd be able to play the game as soon as you got home, although you may be a hostage to price if there are few competitive stores in your locality.  You could hunt the game down online using a service like Gamestracker to find the best UK price and have it delivered to your door.  The advantage here is price (£35.86 delivered via ShopTo), but the disadvantage is the delay in getting the game in your machine.  The other option involves you downloading the game direct from the Sony PSN store direct to your machine.  The game is currently retailing at £47.99 on the network and I'd guess it would take a while to download for many folk.

For the record it's worth noting that the RRP for the game is £49.99, so the PSN store comes in at £2 cheaper.

Price disconnect

The price difference between the direct download and the ShopTo next day delivery is pretty marked at £12.13 in price.  Somehow, I can't see this direct download being a bargain purchase, especially when you could purchase much of the game's DLC with that difference as you can see from the image below:

I haven't been able to confirm this yet, but the Cerberus Pack DLC shown above comes in at £11.99.  What I'm finding a little confusing is whether this DLC is unique content or if it's the material included on the Blu-ray itself, especially as it seems to include material that reviews have hinted at as being included for free (eg the Mass Effect comic, the Zaeed character, etc).  If this is the case, the digital download strategy is one which seeks to make the most money off the PSN purchaser.

Digital Downloads

On this evidence I can't see myself ever opting to pay for the digital download format over the Blu-ray original - there's just too much doubt and not enough clarity from the PSN store regarding what you are getting for the increased price.  This has not gone unnoticed by the gaming press.  What could possibly justify the inflated price?  There's no dick, box, or manual costs. There are no transport costs bumping up the price to the consumer. OK, there may be bandwidth and storage costs incurred but it's not as if the PSN is hosting 50 copies of the game package.  Perhaps there is a licensing deal in place which prevents the PSN version from undercutting the RRP by a certain amount.  If that is the case, how is that money divided up?  We can see from the image below how that cost is divided up in the physical world.

Straight away we can exclude £6 of costs for returns as very few digital downloads will be returned. A game disk may be returned if it was damaged or faulty, thus becoming useless.  This same item will have already incurred marginal distribution costs in order for it to get to the shop shelves, and a return will need to be sent back to the publisher.  The figure of £3.50 per game per distribution seems excessive when there are no confines of physical shelf space.  I'd like to see more info on how digital distribution deals work.

For consumers, there is also no chance of selling on the digital copy if you tire of the game, and there's definitely no benefit to those interested in video game nostalgia - I can't see anyone pulling the game out after a decade and musing on the wonders of digital files.  That file certainly won't make it to eBay...

If Sony and others like them are serious about digital distribution then they really need to sweeten the deal, otherwise people will continue to flock to those environmentally unfriendly shiny disk formats.

1 comment:

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