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.