Throw Out the Game Cartridges and Embrace the Digital Age

Pat: Digital distribution has been detrimental to media like films and music that rely on DVDs and album releases to generate extra income for the studios. However, the opposite is true for video games in that avoiding brick-and-mortar retail outlets actually cuts costs for developers. A new trend is emerging in the gaming industry toward titles produced exclusively for digital distribution.

There is something to be said about having a tangible object in your hand, even for a video game. Book enthusiasts have been hammering this point for 10 years ever since the world’s classics began to be transcribed and distributed free of charge on the Internet through Web sites such as Project Gutenberg.

Still, the trend is moving away from the production line. Amazon’s Kindle, a wireless reading device that allows the user to download thousands of books for a fee, is marketed to embrace the trend away from paper and binding.

In the same way, video game developers are beginning to launch software exclusively for download. Production costs on HD titles have become so exorbitant that corners must be cut. As such, large publishers are producing smaller projects for download only, such as Capcom’s “Mega Man 9,” while upstart developers are cutting their teeth on digitally distributed titles, like 2D Boy’s recent WiiWare hit “World of Goo.”

Hardware manufacturers are noticing the trend, particularly Apple, whose iPod Touch and iPhone are now becoming contenders for the home console industry by way of the “App Store” — a marketplace of micro-transactions where users can download classic games and new software for the platforms.

Nintendo has been following Apple’s business model closely for the last five years. The Wii has a catalogue of low-priced, download-only WiiWare — digitally distributed software — available through the Wii Shop Channel. The only games available for the launch of Nintendo’s latest handheld console, the DSi, were digitally distributed.

While it is sad for collectors like me to see the box, instruction manual and cartridge go by the wayside, developers can cut costs drastically because they avoid the production line entirely, and thus can’t over-estimate demand. The only risk, then, is in the development cost.

The ability to sell a game via micro-transactions also allows developers to experiment. Capcom’s “Mega Man 9,” eschewing all state-of-the-art HD graphics in favor of a 1988 NES game engine, was a huge success for Capcom. Even though it didn’t produce blockbuster sales like “Halo,” it was inexpensive to produce and a fun title that garnered enough downloads to reward the developer and satisfy gamers.

Apple’s success with the “App Store” and Nintendo’s success with simple, casual games seems to indicate that the trend is heading toward digital distribution in the gaming industry, and the cartridge and game disc, like the CD, might soon be phased out.

Shapan: The digital era has helped cut down production costs in making video games, but what does this mean to gamers? Gaming companies like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft have all already embraced the idea of utilizing the Internet with their wireless game-play connecting gamers to their peers around the globe. But taking advantage of production of games through the Internet is a bit bolder, considering the traditional idea of having a cartridge/CD in your hand and popping it in a system is nostalgic enough for even the most serious of us college students.

However, with the trends already in place, gaming companies are taking advantage while still giving gamers their own sense of possession. The new fancy systems like the Wii, X-box 360 and Playstation 3 all give gamers their personal system while practically acting like a secondary computer. Accessories can now be downloaded just as if you were using your laptop.

With all these advances in technology and gaming accommodations to go along with them, it was only a matter of time before video games were released digitally. After all, even if you miss the boxes and the manuals, you still have your own unique library stored in your own gaming system, starting a new revolution of game collecting.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of having games sold digitally would be the easy availability of old games that would be impossible to find in modern video game retail stores. Production costs of new video game releases would be more expensive if they were put out into stores physically, but they’d still be readily available for the public in stores.

Older games for the Super Nintendo or even the original Nintendo are harder to find than they’ve ever been, and the option of making these classic games available digitally seems to benefit all parties. They’re put out for cheap and gain the attention of old gamers as well as new gamers curious about their legendary status.

Apple took advantage of this method ages ago, as its vast iTunes library contains even the oldest, most obscure songs that would be tough to find at any record store. No longer do you have to set aside your impulsive urge to play “Sonic the Hedgehog” because you can’t find that stupid Sega Genesis adapter.

All in all, the new digital era seems to satisfy all parties in gaming. The quick and easy embrace between the two parties makes this transition feel seamless to even to the most traditional gamers. While the transition with movies, television and music to the Internet hasn’t been as painless, it is happening, and the digital revolution is in full swing.