Thinking inside the box: Why digital developers should bother with brick and mortar retail

The narrative goes that boxed games retail is dying as the digital market thrives.

The digital sector has, in many ways, lowered the barrier to entry in the games market and been one of the main factors in the booming indie movement.

Oh course, the physical games market is still worth 1bn. What’s more, that market is far from finished. And the likes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight and Team 17’s The Escapists are making their way to boxed retail.

We’ve done the first two seasons of [Telltale’s] The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us so far and they’ve all been really strong performers – despite the fact that, certainly in the case of the first season of The Walking Dead, they came out a long way after their initial release,” Avanquest games director Simon Reynolds says.

The window between digital and physical is getting shorter and shorter – Minecraft: Story Mode comes out two weeks after digital as a physical product. Going back to the first Walking Dead title, the performance was phenomenal. We were a little taken aback because you’d think that because it’s been out digitally for so long, everyone who would want it would have already bought it. It just goes to show there’s very much a thriving market for people who want to buy physical products. The same can be said for music and DVD. Those guys have been going through the same process ahead of us.”

Luke Keighran, MD of Merge Games – a company that publishes digital titles, as well as special physical editions of indie games for PC – adds: We’ve had the physical PC version of Terraria since before it became hugely popular. The game has been fantastic, absolutely brilliant for us. We do the collectable box – it comes with a Terraria keyring, and some poster art. We always try and build up the content of our collectable indie packs.”

"Why wouldn’t you release your game as a physical product?
There’s no extra work."

Garry Williams, Sold Out

Without a doubt, there will be many indie developers sat at their desks wondering why they should bother with a physical release. They’ll say that a boxed release costs too much to produce, and there’s so much admin that it just becomes a hassle.

Actually, there’s no extra work,” retorts Sold Out founder Garry Williams, who released Team 17’s The Escapists and Rebellion’s Zombie Army Trilogy at physical retail.

If you make a digital master you’ve got everything ready for a boxed release. You can release digitally because it’s simpler – you go straight to market, you push a button, there’s not too much planning. You probably don’t do much marketing because you rely on the format holder to do that for you, so it’s a simple process. With boxed, there’s more work involved and, for that reason, basic inertia stops people entering it. What we are trying to do with Sold Out is give developers the opportunity to benefit from our publishing skills. Developers aren’t taking the overhead, we take a percentage and you can turn us on and off as you need us.”

Keighran adds: Steam has become very busy hasn’t it? So many games launch on there each month, so whatever extra retail presence or marketing exposure you can get can only be a good thing. It’s a good idea to do retail as well. It’s probably a bit disappointing that retailers have given up a bit on PC. But I actually think that they will start selling PC products again. People don’t just want to buy digital cards, they want to buy things as a physical gift.

"In a lot of cases, consumers buying these physical editions will already own a copy of the game. But with the extra goods that we do and the collectable nature of them… if you look at Limbo, people still want to have that gift box on their shelf, similar to what DVDs have with collector’s boxes and things like that. We always find out that developers really like the physical goods that we do. For the majority of developers that we sign, we try and bring out a full box set.”

Avanquest’s Reynolds says a physical release will yield extra money for nothing for developers: A boxed version may only make 15 or 20 per cent of their overall revenue on a product, but it’s 15 or 20 per cent developers would not have otherwise got. They’ll be able to exploit digital – Yacht Club [Shovel Knight developer] has done a great job of doing this and formed a really healthy community. There are a lot of people who bought the digital property that actually want to own it physically. There’ll also be a lot of people who will go into a store and see Shovel Knight for the first time – they won’t know it’s a digital property. There’s a whole market out there that wouldn’t come across the game if it was purely digital.”

"There’s a whole market out there that
wouldn’t come across these games
if they were purely digital."

Simon Reynolds, Avanquest

Indeed, there will always be consumers that don’t like or trust downloads.

They’re consumers who just won’t go digital. People are happy to stream their music, they’re happy to download TV shows or watch them on Netflix, but not as many are happy to do that with their game experience,” Williams says.

There are lots of barriers. Some will want to trade-in games, some don’t want the download charges in certain territories, others want a physical copy because it’s better than giving away a code and they can swap and share or whatever. For the majority, the boxed market is their way of dealing with products. The majority of revenues comes from boxed software. It seems somewhat negative not to follow that.”

Reynolds concludes: There’s very much room for both physical and digital and I’d argue that developers and publishers would benefit from having both, rather than pursuing one route or the other.”


The likes of Avanquest, Sold Out and Merge don’t just put games in boxes – they also offer a raft of support for these titles at physical retail.

We offer a secondary promotional route, because obviously they’re promoting it through their own websites and social media, but we push it from a completely different angle – we’re advertising in magazines, we’re putting it on the shelf, we’re taking out new release bays in-store,” Avanquest games director Simon Reynolds says.

We’re raising awareness of the title and basically helping them deliver the game in a different way. They are good at what they are doing in terms of digital, we’re experts at what we do in terms of delivering product at retail.”

Sold Out boss Garry Williams adds: We provide expertise in knowing where developers are going to go, who to talk to to get some advanced payments to go onto a different format. All of this is just revenue extension really. That’s what publishers have always done and still do.

For example, if you are going to put something out in Germany you have to do USK ratings. If you don’t know how to do those, if you don’t know the process and don’t know how to fill in the forms, your title can come out late. There are lots of procedural things in publishing with a box that these guys don’t care for.”

Interface takes place on November 12th at St Mary’s Church. Indie devs can bring their projects along to pitch to the likes o

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