Publishers still playing by retailers’ rules

Recent console digital distribution prices show who wears the trousers.
Today’s PlayStation Store update is somewhat lacking in quality new content, at least when compared to recent weeks. What it doesn’t lack, however, is the (now normal) ridiculous pricing applied to many of its games.
The big joke today? Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, available to download for a whooping £49.99. Come on guys, seriously? Who in their right mind is going to buy that?
A quick trip down to my local Game store (a UK high-street retailer) tells me that the Space Marine is being flogged for as little as £19.99, less than half the price of the digital-PS3 edition. Hopping onto Google’s ‘Shopping’ section, I see that no less than 54 online stores have the 360 and/or PS3 edition for £28.
Plus, for £28 I got a box, a disc, a receipt and shiny new manual. For £49.99 I get a two-hour wait while it downloads and further God-only-knows-how-long for it to install. This isn’t an isolated case; last week saw a digital version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters land on the PS Store for £57.99, Driver: San Francisco arrived for the same price while Fifa 12 entered at £54.99.
Interestingly, of all the games mentioned above, it’s only Fifa 12 that was released on the same day as the boxed copy – Driver, Tiger Woods and now Space Marine all arriving three weeks or more after initial release.
What this pricing and release schedule demonstrates is, at least as far as PS3 game sales are concerned, that the power still rests firmly with the retailers. Rather than compete with the likes of Game, Gamestation, Best Buy, Amazon etc., publishers would rather keep them happy by pricing their own games out of the digital market. 
The risk they run by doing otherwise is that retailers will decide not to stock their products, essentially playing the ‘sell through us or we’re not going to show our millions of customers what you’re offering’ card.
Fifa 12, £54.99 via the PlayStation Store.
Remember the fuss stores kicked up when Sony announced that the PSP Go would only play downloaded games? Sure, the system itself was flawed, but retailers’ reluctance to stock it didn’t help its fortunes. Retailers knew they would sell less PSP games if Sony found success with the Go, so some didn’t bother selling it while others barely bothered to display it.
Still, the landscape is slowly changing. Even as recently as last year it was extremely unusual to see full retail copies of recent games available to download straight to your console. Sure, Xbox Live Marketplace’s Games on Demand has been around for a while now, but those games are usually at least a year old, if not two. Their product lifecycle has all but run its course, making them safe to sale without annoying retailers.
By offering us the chance to download brand-new games, even at inflated prices, it is getting us used to the idea that everything will eventually be downloadable – on day one. Plus, portals such as Steam and Apple’s AppStore have only served to further enhance our expectation that everything should be available without leaving our house/office. 
Yes, the prices now are crazy and not worth indulging in. But soon it’ll be different, soon the prices will come down (probably to a point below that of the retailers – seeing as their own cut should be removed, or reduced), internet speeds will increase and we’ll be downloading ourselves some Fifa 12 while saving enough money to stock up on snacks.
Surely that’s one of the major reasons Sony and Microsoft are playing it so coy when it comes to the realise of their new console… they’re waiting to see just what the consumer landscape will look like two years from now. They sure don’t want to release a new machine that locks them into an archaic and dying form of consumption.
I’d be very surprised if the next generation doesn’t make digital distribution a focus. It would also make sense to implement an OnLive-style system of streaming content, presuming internet speeds have improved to the point that makes a move viable for the masses.


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