Variety is the spice of life, but there’s precious little to be had at games retail at the moment.
A cursory glance at the charts in any given week will show the usual franchises scuffling over positions in the Top 10: FIFA, Call of Duty, Just Dance, Need For Speed – brands that have dominated sales for a decade.
But look at the Steam charts. Or XBLA and PSN. Or iOS and Android. Each Top 10 is riddled with rarities: a medieval combat game for PC, truck simulators, auto-run platformers, episodic outings like The Walking Dead, stunt racers, puzzle games, indie sensation Minecraft and all manner of Angry Birds variants.
The digital stores shift a far more diverse catalogue than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, but why is that important?
“Variety in gaming experiences is fundamental to growth in the industry, both in terms of appealing to many millions of consumers and the creativity that it allows developers,” says Xbox UK marketing director Harvey Eagle.
And if the games industry needs anything right now, it’s growth.
The rise and relevance of digital is not news to any MCV reader. The more pressing question these days is how you ensure that consumers find, and most importantly purchase, these downloadable delights.
With retail games, it’s comparatively simple: bung the bulk of your advertising spend into TV and print ads in an attempt to reach as much of a targeted audience as possible.
Older or smaller titles with less marketing support depend on customers who browse the shelves.
But with digital games, such ads might be too expensive and browsing through thousands of games listings is more likely to bore than win over consumers.
“Games can’t be pigeonholed any more by a dozen or so genres and require more defining attributes."
Shiny Loot co-founder Chris Palmarozzi
The trick is promoting your downloadable wares in as many targeted ways a possible, says Eagle.
“We market digital games through a variety of ways and channels,” he explains. “Dashboard placements and weekly updates to our Sales and Specials app highlight new releases and discounted games. Weekly charts help to show which games are popular right now, and newsletters to our community draw attention to upcoming releases.
“Consumers can even find the most popular Xbox Live content merchandised on-shelf at GAME stores, something we’ve been doing for three years now. Additionally, Bing Search recommends content based on your search term.
“With so much content available digitally, being able to curate and discover great new content is key for people and we are always looking at ways to do that ourselves, with our retail partners, and through the Xbox community of gamers.”
New digital retailer Shiny Loot has actually been built on the basis that standard search mechanics are no longer sufficient for the reams of downloadable games out there.
The site uses new filters that let users search for specific features, such as squad-based combat or Skyrim-style skill-based progression.
“Games can’t be pigeonholed any more by a dozen or so genres and require more defining attributes,” says co-founder Chris Palmarozzi.
“That’s a huge reason for why we created Shiny Loot. Users can search for games with over a hundred options that they can filter and cross-reference to find the game that’s right for them.”
One proven way to raise a game’s profile is price promotions. The famous – some would say infamous – Steam Sale held every summer and Christmas sees countless titles heftily discounted, while regular PSN and XBLA promotions draw more attention to those marketplaces.
“The right sales at the right times can help introduce more consumers to a game, or extend a particular title’s lifecycle,” says EA’s digital EVP Kristian Segerstrale adds.
“In many ways, consumers already have prices in mind that they’re willing to pay based on different factors including the type of game, platform they’re playing on, and more. We all want to be able to try more games, and as developers we want to have more people playing.”
EA Origin has also run its own sales, though its discounts were not as high as Steam’s. In fact, digital sceptics argue that extraordinarily low prices such as those in the Steam Sale or the 69p apps on iOS are devaluing download products.
But Sweden-based downloads store Gamersgate tells MCV that it sees sales of games rise after they have been temporarily discounted – even when they return to full price.
“Price is a significant driving force for digital sales,” adds Ztorm’s Anders Emblad. “However, we feel this is due to the price differences between physical and digital products, rather than a perceived lower value of the digital edition.”
Ultimately, it is consumers that dictate what does and doesn’t work online. While price promotions have proven to be popular, digital stores must be careful not to overdo it.
“The right sales at the right times can help introduce more
consumers to a game, or extend a particular title’s lifecycle.”
EA digital EVP Kristian Segerstrale
“I think the right way to handle this is to make sure the sales feel special,” says Palmarrozzi. “If scarcity is removed then sales lose some of their luster.”
Segerstrale adds: “Players will choose how they want to purchase, where they want to purchase, and whether a game matches up against their criteria for price. We want to meet all of those expectations.”
Another challenge and advantage of download stores is driving longer tail sales of back catalogue titles.
At retail, games have to make their money in the first few weeks with a massive drop in sales almost inevitable after a couple of weeks on shelves. Beyond the first month, only a select few continue to be stocked.
Not so with digital, of course.
Gustav Nisser, Gamersgate’s business development director, says: “We have a catalogue of over 4,500 titles, currently the largest in the world. Every month we sell over 70 per cent of that catalogue. Due to the high cost of shelf space, this is impossible on the High Street.”
Segerstrale adds: “The opportunity with a fully digital storefront is that games have a much longer shelf-life. For any number of reasons, gamers may be interested in playing older titles. With digital distribution and catalogues, more of those titles are readily available to them – and may be at a reduced price.
“So the long tail for game sales is much more easily invoked with digital, and that’s good for both consumers and publishers.”
Digital retail is still new compared to the High Street, but leading stores have already made great headway in creating the ultimate shopping experience for gamers.
But there is much to learn. Sony is experiencing great success with its Instant Game Collection, a range of titles that PlayStation Plus subscribers can download for free. Microsoft is constantly tweaking the Xbox Live Marketplace to better promote its wares. And even Nintendo has strengthened its digital offering with the 3DS and Wii U eShops.
And the variety of games made available for download will give firms the best possible catalogue to define the future of digital retail.