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Getting Steamed: digital distribution for games isn't there yet

Online distribution should be world-wide, and yet we're still thinking inside old market models.

Steam is becoming the online gaming distribution system du jour, with big publishers flocking to sign their titles on to the download service. Such is the penetration that owner Valve software has indicated interest in distributing media content outside of games.

It's all rosy then — if you live in the USA.

Steam users outside of North America have been on the receiving end of some pretty questionable treatment from the big publishers for a while now. Either games suffer a greatly marked up price outside ol' Uncle Sam, or are simply not available.

Valve has consistently responded that they offer the service worldwide, and it's up to game publishers to determine availability and pricing — so we decided to track down the local publishers, and where possible elevate it higher to get an answer. The range of responses was interesting, to say the least.

Ubisoft: "Ubisoft is still studying the different options concerning the digital market and official announcements on this subject could be made in the coming months."

THQ AU: "Unfortunately we are unable to comment on the situation with Steam at this stage."

Sega AU: "We honestly have nothing to do with Steam here in Australia."

Atari AU: "This is a US deal with Steam done by Atari Inc and has nothing to do with Atari Australia." Kotaku AU got a bit more of an answer, managing to get it's "US-only due to licensing agreements".

2k Games AU: 2k Australia forwarded a request to 2k US, but we're still awaiting a response. According to Kotaku AU, the games catalogue used to be there and is coming back eventually.

Rockstar: No response.


Big kudos to Ubisoft for opening the curtain a little bit on what has so far been a black box of "we're not telling" from the rest of the publishers.

There are many more games available at the US Steam store.

Limited Release

Given that the answers aren't greatly forthcoming, we're left to speculate on the reasons why games aren't available locally, or are (as in the case of Call of Duty 4), ridiculously overpriced.

The first potential issue is distribution rights. While online distribution cuts out disc replication, packaging, design time, logistics and dealing with retail fronts, different companies handle a publisher's distribution in different regions. Cutting out this middle man potentially takes the legs out of an entire business model, and leaves a lot of pissed off people.

The shopfronts are also bypassed, and so it's quite the delicate situation — especially since these still make a fair whack of money. Nonetheless, removing these barriers to the customer should lower price — and with EB and JB Hi-Fi pushing used titles hard and potentially cutting into publisher's profits, it's interesting they haven't been pushing to snip the cord sooner.

Next we have to consider what Valve charges for the service — frankly, we don't know. Presumably deals would change depending on the size of the corporation they're dealing with, the amount of titles distributed, the amount of expected traffic consumed and maybe even the Metacritic rating. Let's face it, the more triple A titles that are on the service, the more attractive it will be to customers, potentially making it worth Valve's while to give highly rated games a bit of a discount.

Another issue is licenses — take for instance, music. It's pretty common these days for games to have audio licensed from a major music label, rather than being done in-house. These deals are region specific, based on how much expected exposure the audio will get, how it's used, and even how popular the song is. When you open the scope up to the world, costs greatly increase, and could be a valid reason for titles to cost more in one region than another. The international licenses for Rock Band must have been migraine inducing.

Finally we have to deal with local classification systems. Admittedly Rockstar might have a get out of jail free card here — a number of its games have been banned locally and have subsequently been altered for store release — whereas the online versions are likely to still contain the contentious material.

Despite Steam's age and presence in the market, all these things point towards an industry that is only taking its fledgling steps into dealing with a true global economy, simultaneous worldwide releases and unilateral licence agreements — and on top of this they have to drag others along with them to get there. Thankfully, games seem to be moving faster than movies.

PlayAsia will even tell you if your game is region locked. So far PlayStation 3 games are region free, while Xbox 360 is split into PAL and NTSC regions.

Overcharging

Even if we're a bit forgiving on release times, the days of international price gouging — both online and in local stores — are beginning their inevitable stumble into demise. The slow disintegration of region locked games, and the rise of online stores such as PlayAsia means that importing identical, vastly cheaper titles from overseas is an option, rather than going down to the store for your local bloated price game-fix. Why buy for $109.95, when you can buy for $59.95, with $5 to $20 shipping? From what we've observed, a sizeable import culture has sprung up as a result of Australia's over-expensive store offerings compared to the US.

Reactions from businesses have been decidedly backward on this — from Sony's amazingly poor showing of shutting down Lik-Sang for exporting PSPs to regions that didn't have them, to surprisingly, Valve's reaction to people who bought the Orange Box from Thailand cheaper and loaded it up in the US, only to find they had been locked out until they bought US regionalised copies. The concept of region-exclusive downloadable content has also begun to rear its ugly head, essentially becoming the new form of region locking.

And yet, regardless of population density, regional sales, taxes, classification systems — the internet has let the genie out of the box. If people can get games or hardware for vastly cheaper overseas, they will. If they can't get it in their region and can't import it, they're going to pirate it. The model is broken. Rather than implementing crazy anti-piracy schemes that do nothing but drive up the cost of games and more people to piracy, publishers should be focusing on how they can improve their business model on a global scale — or risk becoming the shambolic, obsolete mess the music industry is today.

There's really only one, simple answer to all of this — a global price on all games, content for all. Sadly the process required to reach this solution is no doubt horrible and convoluted.

The Rest of World (RoW) group on Steam is attempting to change the tide on regionalised games.

Solutions

What can we do for now? Make a lot of noise, until the powers that be pull themselves into line. A group on the Steam website, Rest of World (RoW), has been created to point out the flamingly obvious that if publishers were to release their product to the rest of the world, they'd make more money (shock!). As of writing, it has 3,910 members, and is bound to be more fruitful than anything that turns up on the infeasibly useless and thoroughly ignorable petitiononline.com.

If you have a steam account, nip on over and join the group. The more people in there, the more publishers are likely start paying attention.

Below is a list of the titles that are region specific, or overcharged for on Steam. C'mon people, we're in a global society! Catch up already!


Overpriced games in Australia

Publisher Title Price in US (US$) Price in AU (US$)
2k Games Bioshock $29.95 $49.95
Activision Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare $49.95 $88.50
Activision Enemy Territory: Quake Wars $39.95 $47.50
Eidos Interactive Conflict: Denied Ops $39.95 $59.95
Pendulo Studios Runaway: The Dream of the Turtle $29.95 $49.95
SimBin RACE 07 $29.95 $39.95

Games not available in Australia

Publisher Title Price (US$)
2k Games Civ City: Rome $39.95
2k Games Civilization IV: Warlords $19.95
2k Games Prey $19.95
2k Games Railroad Tycoon 3 $9.95
2k Games Railroad Tycoon II Platinum $4.95
2k Games Shattered Union $29.95
2k Games Sid Meier's Civilization III Complete $29.95
2k Games Sid Meier's Civilization IV $29.95
2k Games Sid Meier's Pirates! $29.95
2k Games Sid Meier's Railroads! $19.95
2k Games X-Com: Terror from the Deep $4.95
Atari Act of War: Direct Action $19.95
Atari Act of War: High Treason $19.95
Atari Atari 80 Classics in One $18.95
Atari Desperados 2: Cooper's Revenge $19.95
Atari Tycoon City $19.95
Rockstar Games Grand Theft Auto Collection $29.95
Rockstar Games Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas $19.95
Rockstar Games Grand Theft Auto: Vice City $9.95
Rockstar Games Manhunt $9.95
Rockstar Games Max Payne $9.95
Rockstar Games Max Payne 2 $9.95
Rockstar Games Midnight Club 2 $9.95
Rockstar Games Wild Metal (Part of the Rockstar Collection for $59.95) -
Rockstar Games Rockstar Collection $59.95
Sega Medieval II: Total Wars $29.95
Sega Medieval II: Total War Kingdoms $29.95
Sega Sega Rally Revo $49.95
Sega The Golden Compass $29.95
Sega Worldwide Soccer Manager 2008 $29.95
THQ Frontlines: Fuel of War $49.95
THQ Full Spectrum Warrior $9.95
THQ Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers $9.95
THQ Juiced 2: Hot Import Nights $39.95
THQ S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl $19.95
THQ Titan Quest Gold $19.95
THQ Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War - Dark Crusade $19.95
THQ Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War - Gold Edition $19.95
THQ Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War - Soulstorm $19.95
Ubisoft Assassin's Creed $49.95
Ubisoft Far Cry $8.95
Ubisoft Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell $17.95
Ubisoft Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas $19.95
Ubisoft Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2 $49.95

Games available in Australia, but not available in the US

Publisher Title Price (US$)
Eidos Interactive Championship Manager 07 $39.95
Eidos Interactive Championship Manager 08 $49.95
Techland Call of Juarez $29.95