Digital By Default: A look at the digital console market.

Digital Only. To some gamers, it’s a dirty term, meaning a market where they can’t re-sell their games and are forced to use up their precious bandwidth. To others its a wonderful treasure trove of undiscovered games and cheap deals. To even more, such as the founders of the Humble Bundle, its a way of raising money for charity and over at Good Old Games it’s a way of keeping the classics alive.

You can hardly blame Microsoft and Sony for wanting a sweet, sweet piece of that digital pie – and yet they are making it almost absurdly difficult for themselves.

A quick look at both the Playstation store and Xbox live show the root of the problem. The price for digital versions of games go both the new-gen consoles is ridiculous. The most immediately comparable game is Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. In both the Xbox and PS4 stores the game is priced at £44.99. That’s £45 for a game with zero resale value and – other than server space – zero overheads for the two companies. Meanwhile, over in reality, Grainger Games is selling the same game for 10 pounds less. Given that the consoles are relatively new, even with the current level of depreciation on games you can get £25-£27 of that back at Grainger’s current prices.

This is a farcical situation, and you can understand why people are refusing to use these services whilst simultaneously praising services like Steam and GoG.

Now, the obvious solution is to lower prices. No matter how you spin it, the money that you get from a digital sale is at least 85% profit, so charging a tenner more than a brick and mortar price is past stupid and somewhere into the downright asinine. On top of that, real-life stores have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want to be competing with digital distribution, and gamers have made it clear that they don’t appreciate being roundly screwed on pricing.

Other than the occasional indy release, I’ve never bought a game through Xbox Live. I’m certainly not going to pay those prices for them when I can get an actual from a shop for cheaper. A digital buy has to offer both value and convenience in order for it to be worth the effort. The current stores offer neither.

Now, a thought occurred to me as to how we could reach an accommodation between both worlds a while back, so allow me to run it by you. When I bought my Xbox One, I got the day one edition, and nestling in amongst all the packaging was a small card with a QR code on it. The card was for a digital download of FIFA 14 – something that was offered as a sweetener to offset the price of the console compared to the PS4. The fact that they were able to do this for free shows just how much money they can potentially make off of digital pricing. FIFA 14 is about £50 on Xbox Live.

So, given that Microsoft can clearly afford to drop a triple-A sports title for free on day one of their console launch, why not use this as an alternative way of selling the games.

A laminated card with a QR code on them probably costs all of 25p to make. I’ll admit that’s probably an underestimate when you take into labour costs, but the overhead would be far less than those of a blu-ray disc. So why not sell these cards in shops? Sell them to the shops at a tenner with an RRP of £25.  At that cost it would sweeten the deal on the lack of resale, make profit for both the shop, the publisher and the console manufacturer, and get usage out of the digital editions. Hell, I’d even be willing to go as high as £15 supplier cost and £30 consumer cost. At £10-£15 less than the physical version, it makes the whole prospect a lot more enticing. Bring the online costs in line with that and you’re hitting both markets. You’ll also be gaining further direct access to the market of people who either don’t have or refuse to use their credit/debit cards on your consoles. Even though Sony assured people that held card details weren’t accessed in their big shutdown from a couple of years ago, confidence has been knocked in the security of those accounts – and as much as gamers bait back and forth, that lack of confidence will have carried over to Microsoft as well.

I’m not going to pretend that this is the best solution for everyone, but I’d like to think it has possibilities, because with a near £100 pound version for call of bloody duty on there the current digital console market isn’t suitable for purpose.

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