The shape of the future is rarely clear, especially in an industry which moves and changes so rapidly as interactive entertainment - but on one point, at least, almost everyone is in agreement. Although physical, boxed products are unlikely to disappear entirely, an increasing proportion of games are being sold over digital channels - a delivery mechanism which is likely to account for increasingly large majorities of the industry's distribution in years to come.
This shift changes a lot of things. It changes consumers' relationships with games - directly affecting prices, which will be driven down (although right now, many publishers are hobbling their own digital distribution efforts by desperately clinging to RRPs that no customer ever pays at a physical retailer). It moves the balance of power in the value chain, eventually rendering companies such as GAME and GameStop obsolete, unless they can find a very good new reason for their continued existence.
Digital distribution will open doors for new players to enter the market, by making retail and distribution channels - formerly the high-cost preserve of dedicated publishing companies - available to anyone with an internet connection and a simple suite of software tools. We can already see the effect of this in the resurgent indie games market on the PC and on iOS devices - marketplaces where exactly the kind of creative, low-budget games whose death we were lamenting only a few years ago are now thriving.
Should firms which operate digital store fronts act simply as repositories of content, or as curators of that content?
This change, however, is a lot more complex than simply replacing a store front made of bricks with one driven by clicks. As we move increasingly rapidly towards a digital distribution future, a major divide has emerged in the strategies of the companies at the top of the market. It's a divide along both ideological and practical lines - a divide over the question of whether the firms which operate digital store fronts should act simply as repositories of content, or as curators of that content.
That might sound like a fairly minor thing to disagree over, but in practice it's a huge difference in approach. Curation is what the games industry has been based on, for the most part, for years. Publishers and platform holders acted as gatekeepers, selecting which products to fund and developer, effectively acting as a massive pre-filtering process for the content that was eventually made available to consumers. Walk into a branch of GAME today and you're seeing curated content - only games which a publisher has been willing to throw millions of pounds behind have ended up being put in boxes and placed on shelves.
The advantage is that, in theory at least, you get a much higher baseline of quality, and consumers who aren't terribly au fait with the selection get clear indicators of what's worth buying. The disadvantage is that the curators essentially act as gatekeepers, meaning that content they don't explicitly select simply never gets distributed through these channels. Curated channels have high barriers to entry - there's little or no potential for an individual or a small team with a great, offbeat idea to create an underground hit in this model.
Moreover, curated channels - which are preferred by every existing console platform holder - are inflexible in terms of their business model. They generally have a few fixed price points and are, for the most part, focused on an up-front lump payment model, with some limited potential for DLC after-market income. In essence, they're an attempt to crowbar the existing console ecosystem into the digital distribution world.
Contrast that with non-curated channels, such as the PC indie market or Apple's App Store. Here, innovation both in terms of content and in terms of business model is rapid and utterly undaunted by the cumbersome movement of a long-established content market. iOS games are a great example; in the past couple of years, not only has their quality improved immensely, but their business models have shifted radically from up-front payment to freemium systems. That kind of shift would take many years to take root on a content channel curated by a major platform holder - on the (almost) anything goes App Store, it can happen practically overnight.
However, listening to the passionate arguments for non-curated channels which are made by many developers - most often those who have been successful on iOS or PC and want to make the leap to consoles - I find myself agreeing with the basis of those arguments, but not with the conclusion that curation is an approach whose day is done.
The App Store and its ilk, after all, still suffer immense growing pains from the sheer volume of content available. Apple tries to get the best of both worlds by insisting on a quality baseline - the games must, at least, work on people's devices, and cannot infringe certain basic rules - making the App Store a much more friendly experience for the average user than the rather wild frontier that is Google's Android market. However, even so, the App Store teems with games that lack ratings, reviews or any clear guidance for buyers.
Simply driving people to buy a game that's already a top-seller just isn't a nuanced enough approach
Top-rated and top-selling games are clearly indicated - a user filtration system which advocates of non-curated channels believe to be far superior to curation. But this approach, too, is flawed. If something is popular, it may well be quite good - but that doesn't mean it's to your tastes. If the digital transition has taught us anything, it's that the range and variety of human tastes in media is extraordinary. In music, in particular, digital distribution has started to erode the appeal of the mega-artist in favour of spreading people's purchases over a wider range of artists. That's likely to happen in games, too, and simply driving people to buy a game that's already a top-seller just isn't a nuanced enough approach.
The conflict between curation and filtration, in short, is a false dichotomy. For some consumers, a filtered channel, crammed with content which they can browse through using various filters and search tools, is ideal. For others, however, a curated channel is far preferable - somewhere that'll give clear recommendations and act as a trusted source for content. Not all consumers want the same approach, and preferences in terms of discovery methods vary just as much as preferences in terms of content and genre.
Indeed, far from declining, I believe that curation is likely to evolve into quite a powerful force in terms of games discovery and the path to purchase. Not just curation as it's practised by Sony, Microsoft, and so on - but an emergent form of curation which draws on the strengths of the App Store model, by establishing trusted channels for recommendation.
We can already see this happening, to a degree - speaking personally, I know that I've bought a large number of iOS games based on the mobile game review round-ups which are published on Eurogamer, for example. What is that, if not one step away from being, in essence, a curated channel? Wouldn't it make sense for that kind of content to actually be integral to the App Store - essentially a third-party, trusted-source curation "layer" which sits on top of the content repository? Consumers would end up subscribing to the source they trust most and buying games based on those recommendations and reviews - in the process, creating exactly the direct link between game reviews and game purchases which many publishers have long decried as a myth.
The argument, in other words, is not over which is a better approach - curation or filtration. Rather, it's over how each approach can learn from the other to create something better, and help to make sense of one of the biggest challenges presented by digital distribution - the sheer volume of content and how to let consumers cut through it to get to the games they actually want.