Is Digital Delivery Doomed by the Infrastructure?

Steve Anderson : End Game
Steve Anderson
The Video Store Guy
| The video game industry has gone from a mole hill to a mountain in no time flat, Chris DiMarco is your Sherpa as you endeavor to scale Mount “Everquest”

Is Digital Delivery Doomed by the Infrastructure?

Talk to most any geek out there you care to name, and gently steer the subject to bandwidth caps in broadband data access. Chances are there will not be a lot of complimentary language on that topic; in fact, it's a pretty safe bet that you'll learn a few new obscenities. But the concept of the bandwidth cap is fundamentally changing, and that's certainly boding well, but is it changing sufficiently to open up the topic of digital delivery of games?

I have to tip my hat on this one out to the crew at Penny Arcade, whose Tycho broached the topic as only he could, declaring: “I have more or less demanded the ability to purchase games digitally since we had a digital.  Or, like, a Web.  I do that whenever I can, to get games first and foremost, but also…  there’s like a million reasons.  Going somewhere, anywhere, to buy “toys” when you have two molting larvae writhing all over the place, in need of supervision and calories, is a non-starter most of the time.  One some level I want it to register somewhere that this is how people want to get shit.“

Yet by like token, the inevitable problems of such an approach have emerged.  Games are not getting smaller. Some of these games are covering space that would make all but the beefiest of USB drives whimper in horror at the thought of containing even one. If this were “Ghostbusters,” and Egon made his legendary Twinkie speech again, we'd all find it oddly apropos, considering the idea of a game that was, relative to earlier games, “thirty five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds.” Beefier games require bigger storage; not so much a problem these days when any kid with a Benjamin can whip into a Best Buy and walk out with at least half a terabyte, maybe more if he shops carefully. But the bandwidth to deliver these huge games that's a problem.

Recently Comcast took a second look at the idea of bandwidth caps and decided to kick them up a notch, bringing out different levels of cap based on different speeds, and of course, different prices. Not a half bad idea, and those with the maximum speeds can now see fully 600 gigabytes before having to buy extra bandwidth in 50 gigabyte blocks. That's an improvement, but the question remains is it going to be a sufficient improvement? It's actually reasonable to say yes at this point; even at 30 gigabytes a game, that's still 20 games a month. Typically, there aren't 20 games released every month to begin with, so to suggest that someone might actually buy that many games in a month might be selling things a bit far. Plus, there are companies out there—like Google and Frontier—that as yet really don't subscribe to the whole “bandwidth cap” concept, so that's going to shake things up as well.

But the question that many of us—including, oddly enough, even Tycho—were left to confront was: is there still a case for the physical game? The answer, equally oddly, is yes. Even at shockingly fast speeds, downloading a 30 gigabyte game could still take hours; even someone who lived an hour from the nearest game store could drive there, buy the game, return home and start playing before someone with even impressive download speeds finished the download. Sure, there's a fuel savings involved there, but when a two hour drive is slightly more convenient than the wait on the download, there's an issue here that needs to be broached.

So the question of “is digital delivery doomed by the infrastructure?” has to be answered, as is so often the case, with a string of qualifiers. There are clear gains in the field that may make this much less a problem. Google Fiber is showing us just how the bandwidth game is played. Even Comcast is bumping up the numbers a bit. But getting all the numbers on the same page—and getting those numbers out to all parts of the country—is going to be the part that really says how far digital delivery will be able to go.
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