The new consoles are almost here and the entire gaming press is wringing hands and wagging tongues. There is a lot of talk about what the hardware can or can't do, different online strategies, and social networking hooks. I think it will all come down to the stores.
I’ve said before how I think that this generation will see the end of disc based games. Discs certainly have a function, that is, allowing people to easily and quickly store, transport, sell, purchase and run a huge volume of data. By the time you drove to a store, purchased the latest Naughty Dog Game, and then returned home to put it in your PS3, the download of the same game would only be a fraction complete. Network speeds are nowhere near what they need to be to reliably deliver tens of gigabytes of data to millions of players. But that’s only if you have to download the whole game before you can start playing.
Netflix, youtube, and Hulu only exist because video can be streamed. If you had to wait for the entire movie or show you want to watch to be downloaded in it’s entirety, none of them would function. In fact the web would barely function. stuff gets streamed to you everytime you open your browser. Little bits of information gradually filling in the mosaic of a web page. Games, to this point haven’t had to worry about streaming. They were all contained fully in plastic cartridges and plastic discs.
A few massively multiplayer games on PC use streaming to shorten the wait times on players while kilometers of digital terrain downloads in the background. To be fair that aforementioned Naughty Dog game, The Last of Us, could be played after 50% of the game had been downloaded to your system. The Last of Us is a 50GB game, so 50% of that is still going to take a handful of hours on fast broadband. The new consoles have streaming built into the architecture. A downloaded game should be playable within a few minutes, while the bulk of the games content continues to download in the background.
So here is what is going to happen. A year or two into the new consoles, a couple of premiere titles will appear as a download first, or even download only. One of the smaller publishers will stop putting games on discs. Not long after, disc releases will be a novelty item reserved for AAA, top sports franchises, and special edition releases. How on earth can I be so sure? This already happened on the PC a few years ago and, with the inclusion of streaming at the system level, the consoles are positioned to follow.
The PS3 store started out as an abysmal mess. Through the years it has improved massively. The current PS3 store is almost as simple and user friendly as Steam, GOG, or Origin, which is saying quite a bit. It has a little way to go before it can equal those services, but it’s more a matter of evolving the current system and layout.
The XBox 360 store started out janky but not unusable, became quite usable, and then became a miserable pile of smoking garbage. The store on the 360 is a slow rolling train crash, that Microsoft seems to be unwilling, or unable to correct. Seriously, when you put an item on sale it probably means that you want to sell that item. A lot of that item. You put that sucker right up front in everyones face, you don’t bury it 7 layers deep. Do they use their own interface? Its madness in there.
I haven’t really used the Nintendo E-Shop recently, so I’m not sure how it stacks up. From what I remember, I would classify it as “serviceable”.
On the PC Steam and GOG are juggernauts. They have taken the lessons of Amazon to heart and created stores that actually help you find what you are looking for, and present you things you didn’t know existed.
When the discs fade away, these stores will be where the games will come from. Providing a place for customers to actually find and purchase games will be more important than any minor variance in hardware clock speeds or internal memory bandwidth.