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Gaming: Digital Distribution – The Display Issue

It seems likely that at some point the games industry (and media in general) will move to a full digital distribution model, where the games are bought online and immediately downloaded for use and there will be no physical copy. There are all kinds of issues with such systems at the moment – DRM-laden downloads and services that can render games unusable if the authentication servers go down (temporarily through outages or even permanently), lacking the ability to easily transfer from the downloaded system to other systems for viewing, ISPs that limit download speeds or cut off access if you download too heavily, the inability to trade a game when you’re done with it or take it back if you don’t like it, and so on – but something happened recently that got me thinking about one issue in particular: not being able to display your games on a shelf, lacking that tangible evidence of ownership.

I don’t find it to be a big deal personally but for some people it’s considered an important issue (often among the first things they’ll bring up when discussing this topic), a big problem that can’t easily be overcome where digital distribution is concerned. A group of folders on a PC or a list of downloads on a website can’t really compare to shelves full of game cases, can it? The thing that kept making me think of it is the recent UI overhaul Steam underwent. Steam itself is possibly the most successful digital distribution channel so far, not least because it also incorporates an online gaming service that means its users are always within the same programme as the store interface and are immediately alerted to deals and new releases. Games on Steam used to be presented in a fairly basic list that gave you a few pieces of information (update status, metascore, etc.), but with the new beta upgrade there were a couple of display options added, of which my favourite is grid view:

Steam's grid view.

Click the image for a full screenshot.

It seems like every game on Steam now has its own large image (the blank ones in the image above are mods that were downloaded long before the UI update but the functionality is probably there) and the size of them can be adjusted so that you can fit two, three or four onto each row. Each stands out from the others around it and to me the display has the same visual appeal as a shelf full of cases, and with a click you can see more details about the game, be informed of all the latests news about it and set it to installing if it isn’t installed.

In addition to that the collection is public in a way that the physical equivalents wouldn’t be. All it takes is a look at my Steam profile to see every game I own on that service, and it’s the same for Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network (most of which are actually disc-based games but the system would be the same with a full digital model). Friends can see what games I own with one quick look from the consoles themselves or through the PSN or Xbox Live sites, as well as the level of progress I’ve made on those games:

PSN Trophy List

The PS3 version isn't quite complete because of the initial couple of years before trophies were introduced, but from 2009 onwards every game has included trophy support and is put on these lists.

Xbox Achievements List

Live hides the data behind a Pasport login but the overall information is available on sites like mygamercard.net

With some of its games Valve takes things even further, providing a wealth of statistics about how I play games like Left 4 Dead 2:

Left 4 Dead 2 stats

Including my love for shotguns and terrible accuracy. Click on the image for a link to the full thing.

As far as I’m concerned that kind of record is a strong incentive to use services like Steam because I enjoy seeing details like that (and Bungie is similarly detailed with its records of Halo games while connected to Live). I also find the online records built up by the current generation of online services a worthy replacement for a physical collection, providing information about progress that a boxed copy doesn’t and which ‘display’ your collection in a way that’s more shareable than the physical versions, having the advantage of being visible from anywhere in the world and looking better than a collection of photos.

Games shelf.

Though I do take bad photos.

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