Could Digital Downloads Threaten Blockbuster Games?

Bigger isn't always better when it comes to today's video games.

Dec. 3, 2010— -- 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.

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.