The transition away from boxed goods has taken a great leap forward - but are consumers totally on board?
When I first started writing about the games business over ten years ago, one of the persistent narratives - a story that would crop up almost every week, in fact - was the impending triumph of digital distribution. Broadband speeds were getting faster and faster, while the price of storage was plummeting. The confluence of these things was seen, even a decade ago, as ensuring that the boxed games business would eventually play second fiddle to digital.
In itself that's not exactly a dramatic prediction - anyone could see which way the wind was blowing, in a very general sense. Not only was the direction of technological change obviously favouring a move to digital distribution - so too was the direction of consumer behaviour. As odious and unpleasant as piracy may be, pirates do tend to be highly technologically literate and on the vanguard of consumer attitudes and behaviours. As the numbers willing to download multiple-gigabyte games off BitTorrent sites swelled, it became increasingly clear that downloading was something many consumers wanted - including those who'd actually be willing to pay.
Only a decade ago Valve was a developer with one immensely critically acclaimed game to its name, and a few canny moves in terms of taking successful mod developers under its wing
The problem with such predictions, though, is that they rarely sketch anything other than the roughest outlines of a market trend - and that the people most inclined to make predictions are those with a vested interest which biases their viewpoint.
Consider mobile gaming, for example - another area which was confidently predicted to be The Future around ten years ago. As it's transpired, mobile gaming is indeed an immensely important and growing part of the industry - but the shape of that transition is nothing like the shape suggested by pundits five or ten years ago.
All manner of disruptive things happened to mobile gaming on the way to supremacy. Ten years ago, nobody in that burgeoning sector would have taken you seriously if you'd told them that Apple and Google would be the leading platform holders, with Nokia and Motorola left desperately behind. You'd have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that the mobile networks themselves would find themselves relegated to mere data pipes, their dreams of turning themselves into media empires smashed by the rise of universal app stores which provide no revenue split or gatekeeping function to the carriers.
In reality, then, the only thing that everyone got right about mobile gaming was that it would be huge. We all saw the destination, but nobody saw the road that would be taken on the way there. Similarly, the path to our digital future has been full of surprises - and undoubtedly holds many more.
Consider, for example, the absolute dominance of Valve in the PC digital distribution market. It's amazing to think that only a decade ago Valve was a developer with one immensely critically acclaimed game to its name, and a few canny moves in terms of taking successful mod developers under its wing. Now it rules PC game distribution to such an extent that in EA's present efforts to challenge Steam with its own Origin service, most of the smart money seems to be on a triumph for Valve.
Other factors, too, simply weren't foreseen - or perhaps even foreseeable. Consider the immense rise in importance of subscription revenues, whose origins can be seen in the unprecedented success of World of Warcraft - prior to its launch, the global audience for MMOs was thought to be capped somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million players. The rapid appearance of social network gaming and the freemium model it brought with it, too, has disrupted any predictions made in the past.