Could Digital Downloads Threaten Blockbuster Games?

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The holidays are always cause for celebration, but especially so for video game fans, as software manufacturers wrestle to cram shelves full of increasingly huge and jaw-dropping titles.

But even as game sizes and budgets continue to balloon, for many shoppers, spare time and disposable income continue to plummet.

Worse, as smaller, more affordable online or downloadable games gain traction, the eternal arms race may be a road to oblivion for all but a few blockbuster franchises.

You can be sure that genre-defining juggernauts, such as the online fantasy series "World of Warcraft" and the chart-topping musical act "Rock Band 3," will never cease to captivate legions of hardcore fans.

But epic games that sell for $50-$60 a pop require players to remain tethered to a PC or gaming console, and take dozens of hours to complete, are at a distinct disadvantage in our economically-depressed world.

Games Compete for Players' Money and Time

Parents, working professionals and even your average teenager all have greater mobility, less leisure time and fewer dollars to spend.

You tell me which seems more viable lately: Spending weeks immersed in "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's" endless Renaissance-era realms, or firing up the iPad or Facebook for 15 minutes of fun during a brief, much-needed coffee break?

Larger-than-life, traditional games aren't just competing for a limited share of shoppers' pocketbooks anymore. They're also fighting with other off-hours activities for a share of players' diminishing spare time.

At the same time, competition within the gaming field has increased by an order of several thousand.

Once, software makers struggled to outdo a handful of rivals. Now, they have to contend with dozens of relatively inexpensive downloadable titles, 500-plus new iPhone games a week and thousands of free-to-play online amusements.

Gamers Play It Safe, Stick to 'Call of Duty'-Type Mainstays

Knowing this, it's little wonder that casual fans and even many longtime vets have been forced to change their playing habits. Even the hardest of the hardcore no longer play on a single console system (e.g. PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360) so much as game on a variety of devices and platforms.

Passing admirers are increasingly voting for practicality and convenience too, with more than half of gamers suddenly splitting attention between multiple platforms, according to a recent study by research firm Frank N. Magid Associates and gaming company PlayFirst.

Worse for the industry, even those who do have time to sit down and devote hours to traditional blockbusters are being choosier about where they spend their time and money.

Players don't want to take risks on new franchises when budgets are tighter and they know that trusted mainstays like "Call of Duty: Black Ops" guarantee weeks of hearty online play.

Who Has Time to Spend Hours Playing a Single Game?

Given buyers' reticence to broaden their horizons, top-tier publishers don't want to invest in innovative or original ideas, which are seen as riskier financial bets. So it's often left to smaller, cheaper downloadable games (which are generally easier and less expensive to produce) to innovate and push the bar.

While this may appeal to the creativity of game developers, it only further undermines major retail games and fragments audiences across platforms and devices. And it also ups the ante on those pricey Hollywood-style releases.

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