Sunday, April 13, 2008

Don't take away my shiny discs

I've been somewhat of a detached observer in the whole HD-DVD/Blu-ray format war. Although I'm intrigued by the possibilities of better pictures and more features, considering how few movies we watch in the Knight household that aren't produced by Disney and/or Pixar these days, it's just not a priority. I suppose now my preference here is moot, since the war is over (and, in my opinion, the inferior format won — but that's a rant for another time). But throughout the debate and beyond, there has been talk that has been bothering me a lot. It's this mantra from various executives saying how the whole format war is unimportant anyway, because the future is "digital distribution".

This bothers me for a lot of reasons, so many that I don't know exactly where to start. I suppose, though, I'll start with three little letters that seem to be at the root of so many of my issues: DRM.

Since this is a gaming blog, I'll start with one game-related anecdote that should get the ball rolling. It should come as no surprise to anyone with some interest in this generation of video game consoles that my first 360 died. At the time, it was over 3 months old, and Microsoft had not yet extended their initial warranty beyond the original length. So, rather than pay Microsoft to repair their faulty console, I used the Best Buy product replacement plan, exchanged my red-ringed 360 for a new one, and was up and running again that very night. The customer service employee even helped me open the new console and swap out the hard drive (they were quite familiar with this process). Smooth as silk, right?

Well, almost. While all my disc-based games worked just like they did before, there was a little issue with the Xbox Live Arcade games. You see, the rights to play those games are tied to the Gamertag and the console on which they were purchased, meaning the purchasing Gamertag can play them anywhere, and anyone can play them on the purchasing console. My kids could play the full versions of all the games I had purchased before, but now that the console was no longer the "purchasing console", that right was denied them.

The more content I purchase over Xbox Live, the more I worry about this. I will say that, when my second 360 failed and was repaired by Microsoft (which was only in-warranty because it was within a year of the previous store exchange), Microsoft did transfer all the DRM licenses from the previous console to the new one (although the ones from the very first console are still un-linked). The fact that I must go through Microsoft to get this done, however, is unsettling to say the least.

Xbox has been heralding their Video Marketplace as the future of movie distribution, but this, too, I see has problems. To stay on the DRM topic, they place so many restrictions on how you watch it that it makes me uncomfortable renting a movie through them. For one thing, you can only watch said movie on the 360 console on which you rented it. If I rent a movie from the local video store, I can put that shiny disc into any DVD player in the house. I can even start watching the movie in the family room, move it to the computer in the office while I do some work, and move it to the bedroom and finish watching the movie before bed. Second, although the rental is supposedly good for three days once you download it, they place the additional restriction that once you start watching it, you get 24 hours, and that's it. With the interruptions that kids can provide, I can't guarantee that I can start and finish a movie in 24 hours. In fact, since I usually have to start such things after the kids go to bed one night, if I do get interrupted, chances are I won't get time to finish it until after the kids to go bed the next night, 24 hours later. Shiny disc? I get it for 3-5 days, and I can watch or not watch it as many times as I want in that entire time frame.

Another big, big issue around the lack of a physical disc is the fact that I can't borrow or lend it. I have a copy of Samurai Warriors 2 that I've borrowed, that my kids are absolutely loving. This would've been impossible if FireMedic didn't have a disc he could put in my hands. In fact, a lot of the events around that time — renting games from Blockbuster to get achievements for that challenge — would've been impossible in an all-digital world. The copy of TimeShift that hyperdive loaned me that I still need to mail back to him? Never would've happened. The copy of Call of Duty 2 that I loaned Solstice? Likewise. And although this isn't a problem in my household where we only have one Xbox 360, those that have more than one have expressed their frustration when they can't transfer a game from one console to another in the same household without having to carefully play the rules of DRM.

The lack of physical media has been suggested by some to be a factor in driving prices down, since there is a savings on distribution, production, retail overhead, and so on. However, I feared there would be an opposite trend, that it would keep prices up — and I've already seen evidence of this.

One of the things I offer as a reason games get cheaper is that publishers and retailers have to compete for shelf space. One of the things they compete with is newer games. In order to have the shelf space for newer games, retailers have to get rid of the older inventory; and because it's a physical product, their only options are to sell it off or throw it away. That, I offer, is a reason why game prices decay over time: retailers slash prices to move inventory to make space for the new hotness. Secondly, games have to compete with themselves. Because there is a market for used games, the same game can be available at a lower price. I admit I can't say exactly how this drives the retail price of new games down, but it does result in lower prices for the same game for consumers in the end.

In the world of digital distribution, however, physical space and used units are no longer available. Essentially, a distributor only needs one copy of their product available, which is then digitally copied and streamed on demand. And disk space is cheap. There is virtually no incentive for a distributor to clear out space.

I said I had evidence, so here are a couple examples. The Xbox Live Arcade game Wik: Fable of Souls was released early in the console's life, on 12/15/05 according to its page. It was 800 points on release, which equates to $10 in real money. Over two years later, the game can still be purchased on Xbox Live Marketplace for the same cost. There has been no decay in price whatsoever. And there are many, many more games like it. In fact, only a handful of games have been reduced in price since their launch, due to their "Arcade Hits" promotion (which, ironically, reduces the price of some of the best-selling games, instead of those that actually need a price drop to stimulate sales).

To take another example, a while back, a few of us Geezers decided to have a "retro" game night and play a little Call of Duty 2 (in anticipation for the upcoming Call of Duty 4). One Geezer managed to find a used copy of the game for about $7 at a garage sale (a transaction that would be impossible in an all-digital scenario), so he was pretty excited about being able to join in. He figured, too, that he could download the extra map packs. Surely by now, since there had already been one sequel published and a second two months away, the map packs should be bargain-basement prices, right? Au contraire! The map packs are still at their original prices, which, according to the page, are free, 400, and 800 points, respectively. Thanks to the wonders of digital distribution, the extra content for the game is now more expensive than the market price of the actual game itself!

As a counter-example, I bought a new copy of Perfect Dark Zero a while back, about two years after its release, for a mere $20 in a retail store — and that was a "Platinum Hits" release that included maps that were released as for-pay downloadable content.

One thing standing in the way of digital distribution is the distribution part of the equation. When I was recently playing Rock Band over at Solstice's, I decided to download some of the songs I had purchased to his hard drive so we could play them while I was there. (One time when "DD" worked out in my favor; I didn't have to fret over not bringing a disc or memory card, I just downloaded it, and the game knows that it's ok to play when I'm there, but it doesn't "cheat" and give him a free copy when I'm not. I'll give it credit there.) I found the songs and started downloading. And then we waited. And then it finished, and I went to the next song and started downloading. And then we waited. And then we got smart and dumped back to the dashboard where we could use the background download queue, and I queued up six of the songs for downloading while we played.

The point is, in the grand scheme of things, these were not large downloads, and yet they took a not-insignificant amount of time.

For a bigger example, when Bungie released maps for Halo 2, they released them in disc format as well as online. I opted to buy the disc. Aside from an initial annoyance when EB Games refused to sell me the disc until a day after they were released online, I never regretted my decision. I was rewarded with this choice when I first got my 360. As I booted up Halo 2 for the first time to play with my friends, I realized I didn't have the new maps. I thought I could conveniently download them, since by this point they were all free. So I started the process. When I saw the progress bar and how slowly it was moving, I very quickly aborted the process and booted up my map pack disc, and loaded the maps from there. Now, at the time, there were three map packs. The disc had two, and a third had been released online later. Just the process of downloading the third map pack (not counting any extra time of booting up Halo 2 or entering the content download option) took nearly twice as long as the entire process of booting up the map pack disc and installing both of the other map packs.

Although we are a lot further along than we once were, having to sit through all these downloading progress bars makes me feel like we're back in the days of dialup.

I'm not sure if the Video Marketplace uses a dedicated network for distribution, but my experience there was quite different. They had some movies for free, and although my wife is not a fan of low-brow comedy, I was glad I had an opportunity to try out Video Marketplace by downloading Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. I was rather impressed by how quickly the movie was ready to play. And, fortunately, even with an interruption from the kids, we were able to finish it that night.

But while we're on the topic of movies, I do wonder what the digital wave will do to that experience. DVDs are loaded with extras these days. Admittedly, I only watch them once or twice (which is why I opted not to get the more expensive two-disc version of the last Harry Potter movie — the second disc almost always ends up gathering dust), but I haven't yet seen a digital download that I've had the option of watching with director's commentary, or with a French soundtrack, or even deleted scenes or so much as a chapter menu.

Even without all these extras, at least in our family, we need the discs. We need to be able to buy a disc so the kids can grab a movie and pop it in and watch it for the 27th time this month, or so we can grab a dozen or so to put in the DVD player in the minivan to watch while we drive across the country to visit relatives — a scenario that wouldn't even be possible if all the content were digital (and, I presume, DRM-linked to a single hardware device).

1 comment:

Yakko Warner said...

I just saw a post on ArsTechnica about DRM, how legally-purchased music is about to become permanently tied to a specific computer (or set of up to five computers), and once those devices bite it, that's it. The link is here

I could easily see this applying to games as well. I have 10 year old Sega Genesis and CD games that are still perfectly playable. If I could find my Atari 2600 games, I'm sure those would still work, too. And if the console died, I could replace it with one off of eBay and still use all the same cartridges. What happens to the XBLA games in 10 years when my 360 dies, or when Microsoft decides to pull the plug on those rights?

(While personally, the question is more academic than practical — when it comes down to it, I don't even touch that library of Sega Genesis games gathering dust in my basement — it's still a rather disturbing concept...)