I gotta level with you, it isn't just the number of games on the Wii and 360 that lead me to purchasing them. My decision was also based on the fact that I could rent games and buy them used. Renting and used games just aren't an option for the PC. The simple fact that I can't rent or buy used, limits the number of PC games that I purchase. The offset is that I can get most of my PC games through direct download or subscription services.
For me, this trend kind of snuck up while I wasn't paying any attention. I still rented console games from Gamefly, bought used games from GameStop and bought my PC games on clearance. But I bought my last two consoles... new. What's more, I downloaded a lot of virtual console games on my Wii as well as a few classic Playstation games from the Playstation Store for my PSP. I even purchased The Orange Box, Everyday Shooter and Beyond Good & Evil through Steam. Suddenly, I'm not killing the industry by being frugal anymore. Suddenly, I've become something of a download-aholic.
Yeah, many direct download games are old, but good games are good games. The NES version of Contra is just as good today as it was in 1988. People are still playing Quake 3 and Counter-Strike 1.6. Over the years, there have been too many great games released for anyone to have played them all to completion. The Wii and the Playstation Store have allowed me to go back and catch several games that I missed the first time around and relive some games that I haven't played in years.
Think of it this way: I don't have to wait for the postal service. I don't have to drive across town only to put up with unattended kids running around the store and screaming at my feet. I don't have to deal with apathetic assholes behind the counter making it a point to display how much I'm inconveniencing them by having the nerve to ask a question or <gasp> actually buy something. I don't have to worry about scratched disks or CD Keys. I don't have to deal with a limited selection of what's in stock. I just have to wait for the download. And normally that's less than an hour. Three to four hours tops.
The convenience of direct downloading is often complimented by a lower price. Steam had UT3 available for $30 two weeks before anyone else. The most expensive downloadable game on the Wii, Virtual Console or WiiWare, is about $15. Most classic PSOne games at the Playstation store go for five to ten dollars. Seriously, Steam put Bioshock and Assassin's Creed at $30 about three days before most retail stores in this area brought the price down.
Consider that I currently subscribe to Gamefly. For about $25 I get to check out two games at a time from the entire library of games for nine different consoles. Out of those nine consoles, I own seven. Well actually, I own four but since three of my consoles are backward compatible... You get my point though, that's a lot of game. Since it takes about a week for me to send back a game and receive the next title in my game que, I usually get to play about four games, from beginning to end, a month. If it wasn't for the postal service, I could actually play more games than that. How much do you figure Microsoft would charge a month for unlimited, instant, online access to every game in their console brands library? Sony? Nintendo?
And that brings me to Gametap. I had a trial subscription to Gametap when it first came out. I liked the large library of retro games that they had and how easy the whole thing was to use. I hated the fact that I had to call their customer service department to cancel rather than just being able to do so through their web page, which was the deal breaker for me. I must be the only person that cared since the service has grown in leaps and bounds since its debut. Ten dollars a month or $60 a year gets you unlimited access to 950 (retro) cosole, arcade and PC games. Currently, you can play 140 of those games absolutely free. I'm definitely thinking about subscribing and I can't quite shake the feeling that all gaming is going in this direction.
Not that games on demand is a new idea, mind you. Way back when, certain fortunate gamers could pay $15 a month for The Sega channel, unlimited access to Sega Genesis games via their cable provider. Years before that, Atari had a similar service called Gamline that allowed people to directly download Atari 2600 games from a special modem. Ditto for Mattel's Intellivision. Good ideas never really die and now that the internet is in most homes, games on demand is a very inexpensive reality.
Oh, the industry won't go subscription over night of course. But I wouldn't be surprised if the next generation of consoles didn't come with any drive or cartridge slots at all. I'm guessing that the next group of consoles, both set top and portable, are going to offer direct download of the games. Removing the retail aspect entirely.
This is something of a double edged sword though. Sure, it gets rid of piracy and helps keep the price low since the publisher doesn't have to pay for packaging or shelf space, but renting and buying used games becomes a thing of the past. This system also leaves out anyone that lives in an area where broadband internet isn't available. From a business perspective, cutting out those that don't have broadband isn't a big deal since we already know that there are millions of people worldwide that do have it. Reclaiming the secondary markets of rentals and used games isn't a bad thing for game publishers either. How long have game publishers and developers tried to shut down or get royalties from operations like Gamstop? At least since such secondary markets began.
With retail, the publisher makes a profit off of every unit sold. Ditto for direct download. Subscription models are a little bit trickier. Part of the reason why Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo don't offer their retro games on a subscription service is because it turns the console gaming business upside down. Instead of a developer paying a huge licensing fee to the console developer, the consoles subscription service would have to pay the developer to carry a particular title. The amount of payout could be adjusted according to ratings, or advertising revenue, but it would mean that the big three would have to pay for their line up rather than being paid.
Direct download, however, has a different problem for consoles: Since there won't be any rental chains buying the games in bulk, the number of sales will actually take a very quick nose dive. So it'll eventually boil down to making the subscription model work somehow. And the subscription model as already been proven effective via MMORPGs.
In a way, I blame MMORPGs for this industry shift. If it hadn't been for the subscription based business model of MMORPGs, then game publishers would just laugh and point to failed services like The Sega Channel and go about their business as usual. But if MILLIONS of people are willing to pay $15 a month just to play one totally boring, gawd awful game (most MMORPGs are terrible and I'm not alone in this opinion) then imagine what they'd pay for a whole library of really good games! And thus subscriptions and microtransactions for extra content became industry buzzwords.
So the only real question here is whether this will save the consumer money or ultimately cost more for the consumer in the long run. Gametap beats the both Wiiware and the Virtual console when it comes to price. The Playstation store, Xbox Live Arcade, and even Steam cost more in downloads than a year of Gametap. What's more, Gametap hosts many games that Xbox Live Arcade and Steam charge eight to ten bucks to download (BloodRayne, Beyond Good & Evil, Deus Ex, Neo Geo Fighting games, etc.). But what happens when Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo enter this space? Is it really such a bargain when you're paying $500 for the machine and another $300 a year ($25 per month) for a subscription? Would you be still be saving you money if you owned all three consoles and subscribed to all three services? I already know that there are many tools, who consider themselves “hardcore,” that would drop $2,400 for games in a heartbeat, but those people are definitely in the minority.
From a development point of view, very little changes. The industry will still be hit driven with everyone trying to rip off the highest rated games. Hype will probably die down to the level of ordinary TV industry buzz: A welcome change to the fanboy zealotry that currently plagues gaming culture. I also think that games ratings, kind of like TV ratings, will give developers better insight into how to make better games.
Even though all of this is still about five years away, I haven't quite decided how I feel about it yet. I really like the idea of actually owning my games and being able to play them whether I'm hooked up to the internet or not. I want to be able to play my favorite games years and years from now after any sane ratings system would have discontinued support for the game due to lack of interest by the public. I also don't like the idea that these services would be able to monitor my gaming habits, even it was totally anonymous. But if it saves me money... And it's the only way to play games.... Well....