Could Digital Downloads Threaten Blockbuster Games?


As software quality and expectations climb, the resources needed for gaming companies to compete at a national retail level have quickly come to rival those of major motion picture studios.

Sports titles such as "Madden NFL 11" have already raised the competitive bar by sewing up exclusive deals with professional leagues. Music games including "Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock" and "Def Jam Rapstar" have long required leading record labels' cooperation.

But now, other games are starting to pack so many features that they have to be released in multiple parts. Some game releases come with downloadable add-ons to expand scenery and challenges. Others let players share in-game creations.

The increasingly competitive landscape means that there's little room for error with large-scale releases; anything that isn't a well-known sequel or a branded title runs the risk of getting tossed or marginalized by publishers.

In High-Stakes Market, Big Publishers Chase Predictability

For everyday fans, that means Best Buy or GameStop shelves stocked with cookie-cutter sequels, spin-offs and intelligence-insulting titles which play to the least common denominator.

The rise of smaller and shorter digital downloads certainly has its upsides, especially when you're trying to juggle relationships and careers with stopping undead outbreaks or saving the galaxy.

No pressure, no diamonds, or so they say, too. Out of necessity, thousands of scrappy smartphone and Web-based game developers are steering the hobby in bold and exciting new directions.

But as digital downloads exert pressure on traditional game makers, the publishers with the biggest pocketbooks (and most influence over the industry's future) are chasing predictable results – and, hence, mass appeal – to save face.

Where will we be in five years, when even more fans turn to downloadable games for amusement, and even the most well-known franchises are just a single flop or two away from disappearing?

And with shelf space shrinking, will there still be a place for games that don't fit the most generic stereotypes or genre categorizations?

No one can say, but software publishers' present response has been to push towards a one-size-fits-all Hollywood and Top 40 Radio model. That's a shame for both fans and industry insiders alike.

Alas, I fear many will be tricked into thinking carbon-copy shooters and vapid mini-game collections are the best the biz has to offer.

Scott Steinberg (@GadgetExpert on Twitter) is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and creator and host of online video series Game Theory. He frequently appears as a high-tech analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.

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