The Eye Of The Digital Distribution Storm

By Colin Tan on July 21, 2011, 4:03PM EDT

Digital distribution isn't a new concept. It's a known entity in the industry and analysts have even boasted it as the future and rightfully so, it can after all be a "substantially more profitable" business model than the traditional box packages. Video games' paper boy Steam has spearheaded the effort, offering gamers awfully sick, irresistible deals, alongside other notable services like Direct2Drive, GOG and GamersGate. What is concerning about this method of service is when account holders aren't guaranteed ownership of the games they purchase. One need only turn to the recent events regarding EA's Origin store to see the ugly side of digital distribution.

Reading through Origin's Terms of Service, we find that account holders aren't necessarily guaranteed that the games they purchase will always be available for play. According to the terms, if a customer does not log into Origin after 24 months of inactivity, they are subject to account cancellation and removal of all "Entitlements."

"Entitlements" are licensed rights granted, awarded, provided and/or purchased by you to access and/or use online or off-line elements or features of EA Services and/or products. Entitlements include but are not limited to paid and free downloadable content, unlockable content, digital and/or virtual assets, rights of use tied to unlock keys or codes, serial codes and/or online authentication of any kind, in-game achievements and virtual or fictional currency not otherwise governed by a Digital Services Agreement.

We do not guarantee that any Content or Entitlement will be available at all times or at any given time or that we will continue to offer particular Content or Entitlements for any particular length of time. We reserve the right to change and update Content and Entitlements without notice to you. If you have not used your Entitlements or Account for twenty four (24) months or more and your Account has associated Entitlements, your Entitlements will expire and your Account may be cancelled for non-use. Once you have redeemed your Entitlements, that content is not returnable, exchangeable, or refundable for other Entitlements or for cash, or other goods or services.

The wording itself is so vague that it may not necessarily mean game titles specifically, but for that very same reason it can't be discounted either. Granted, 24 months is quite an extended period of time, but that isn't the point. Who's to say that a gamer won't stop playing a game and two years down the road decide to boot it up for nostalgia's sake, only to find that the account and game he paid for is no longer available? It's rather dodgy, and not very encouraging for EA's online service.

EA's terms aren't the only issue regarding digital distribution. DRM is yet another painfully accepted facet of the service's nature. While not all games force DRM onto paying customers, a good amount does, ranging from irritating requirements like limited installs or a constant internet connection. What happens when you've reached the maximum amount of installs? Buy the game again? Call up customer service and wade through ten pre-recorded messages before finally resetting the install count? What happens when an internet connection isn't readily available? It isn't a pretty result and the inconvenience caused to consumers is preposterous. It's the antithesis to good business.

Don't misunderstand, when properly done, digital distribution can certainly be a powerful and convenient service to consumers while simultaneously a profitable business model for companies, especially to smaller independent developers. Steam has provided a massively beneficial platform for smaller games. Direct2Drive, GamersGate, Impulse and other similar services offer a good deal of competition in the online space. OnLive, a new cloud-based gaming service, is proving to become the Netflix of gaming. However, the issue with terms and regulations arise yet again. Netflix recently doubled its subscription fees, making subscribers pay twice the amount for the same type of service.

Add bandwidth to the list of issues. Yes, there are ISPs out there that offer unlimited bandwidth for a reasonable subscription. However, how long can that last? ISPs in the US have already capped their limits and raised their prices simply because of how well streaming services like Netflix are performing. While these services reel in the profit, internet providers are left hanging in the dust. It isn't exclusive to the US either, the same problem exists in Canada where service providers are hard-up on charging customers more for the extra bandwidth they consume because of streaming entertainment. It won't be long before a switch to a usage-based model takes the world by storm. Verizon and AT&T have already jumped the ship.

With all the excitement and opportunities that digital distribution presents, there are just as many concerns and worries. Especially when it comes to a provider's terms of service and the problem with bandwidth. It's exactly why digital distribution still has a rocky future ahead of it. It certainly may become the dominant means of provision, but gamers will never have to worry about a physical box copy game being removed from their shelves after two years of collecting dust. Discounting unorganized keeping habits, of course.

[ Sources: Netflix,, Origin, NPD ]

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