The download-only era of games may be closer than ever, but today retail has one key advantage: the High Street is still the first stop for all new releases.
While the PC has long since offered digital versions of the latest titles on day one, console gamers are still dependent on bricks-and-mortar stores or mail order outlets.
Downloading full retail titles on other formats is already a reality. Microsoft’s Games on Demand has been running for two years, but has yet to offer simultaneous digital and retail releases.
Sony, however, is more ambitous. It broke new ground with PS3 title Warhawk, which launched as both a download and boxed product in 2007, and continued this trend last week with the retail and PSN launches of EA’s Mass Effect 2.
“For some products, it makes sense for publishers to provide digital content at the same time as the packaged product,” says PSN content manager Ross McGrath.
“This benefits both distribution channels and grows the market for the content concerned.”
While digital sales figures remain notoriously elusive, Sony believes there’s certainly enough demand out there for such a strategy providing publishers are smart.
“Titles such as Warhawk and Burnout Paradise, have seen very healthy sales,” said McGrath.
“Feedback has been mostly positive for digital Blu-ray titles, but it is up to the publisher to price their content competitively. Similarly, the release date of a title is something that the publisher must decide.”
THE FIRST ATTEMPT
And let’s not forget the PSP, understated pioneer of day-and-date digital releases.
Since 2008, all first-party titles have been made available digitally as well as on the High Street at launch – a concept taken one step further with the download-only PSPgo.
McGrath says that “many publishers also release their PSP titles digitally to coincide with their retail releases” and that Sony would continue to do this with its own games “in order to benefit all PSP users, including those with PSPgo”.
The inevitable question is: when will day one digital releases make retail redundant?
Not any time soon, according to McGrath. He says that DLC and PSN Minis – the bulk of Sony’s downloadable library – pose no threat to boxed product sales.
“The PlayStation Store is a complementary service to retail,” he said. “The vast majority of content on the Store is less suitable for retail.
“There will always be some cross-over between retail and the Store but it provides choice for consumers. It’s likely you will start to see older titles migrate to digital as they reach the end of their life at retail. Digital releases can provide a new lease of life and reach a new audience.”
Consumers currently have to wait anywhere between six months to a year for the biggest titles to be uploaded to the PlayStation Store or Microsoft’s Games On Demand.
But the gap is closing, and with the PS3 edition of Mass Effect 2 standing out as a landmark launch, perhaps the day when on-demand services can live up to their potential is closer than we think.