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Digital distribution in games: a code of conduct for publishers

Downloadable games are the future, with convenience being the key. However, some publishers are getting in the way of this, either through byzantine requirements or missing sales opportunities. We look at the top 10 ways publishers can keep users happy.

In the fledgling world of digital distribution, games companies are really starting to find their way.

However, there are a lot of circumstances where, quite frankly, the publishers are taking us for a ride. Whether it be the influences of brick and mortar stores, squeezing out extra dollars on the basis of regionalisation or infecting a title with more Digital Rights Management (DRM) than should be sanely used, there's some pretty dense decisions being made.

Below is how we think things should be done. We'll be referring to Steam here as the dominant platform, but the same ideas can carry to any service.


  1. aware of the ability to upsell.

    If someone has previously bought a publisher's Complete Pack and another title is added afterwards, reward their loyalty and give them a discount on the new title. Engage in the Pokémon mentality — gotta catch 'em all! The reverse is true too: if someone's bought a significant amount from your stable (say, three titles), give a discount on the Complete Pack. iTunes already does this with great success with its "complete my album" function.

    The same thought should be extended to Game of the Year editions. Fallout 3 is the perfect example of this: it exists as two editions on Steam; the normal version, and the Game of the Year edition, the latter of which comes with expansions. These expansions aren't available as individual titles on Steam due to an exclusivity deal with Games For Windows Live (GFWL), meaning owners of the regular version will have to tangle with the GFWL service if they want the expansions — never a fun thing. Why not offer them a discounted rate on the Game of the Year edition instead?

    Finally, if someone buys a Complete Pack and it results in them having two copies of a game, let them give it as a gift to another user as Valve does. It's not cool that we're paying for two games, but only getting one.

    • Bethesda: for not allowing upgrades on Fallout 3.
    • Every publisher: which has a Complete Pack.
  2. ...update your games so they run on current operating systems and hardware.

    Digital distribution means there's no such thing as "shelf life" any more. Thus the publisher has a responsibility to ensure the game works on the most recent operating systems and hardware, not just supply a bogus "system requirements" list and point at it when people complain. While we don't expect a reworking like Tomb Raider: Anniversary, we do expect the game to be playable without workarounds.

    At this point in time, Windows 7 64-bit is fast coming up on XP 32-bit as the most popular operating system on Steam. In May 2010, Windows XP made up 33.80 per cent of the audience, while Windows 7 64-bit was at 24.39 per cent. XP will continue to shrink over time, while Windows 7 will continue to expand.

    Some of the onus lies on graphics card manufacturers with their drivers as well; making games obsolete from a driver set is no longer feasible if they're still being sold.

    • LucasArts: for its adventure game re-releases on Steam.
    • Ubisoft: for having the gall to sell the incredibly broken Beyond Good & Evil. The installer is broken for some Windows platforms, requiring you to edit the registry. If you have a multi-core processor, audio de-syncs in cutscenes without serious workarounds. Any modern graphics card will cause texture flickering unless half the graphical features are turned off. If you own an Nvidia card, any scene with water will slow it down. If you own an ATI card, you'll be constantly pestered that your video card drivers are out of date, and the game won't run if you leave triple buffering on.

      Ubisoft's shovelling of broken software doesn't stop there. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within and Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones are broken on Nvidia hardware. If you enable fog on the first two, and AA on the last, the screen will quickly fill with a single solid colour, rendering it unplayable. Going off Steam's hardware survey for May 2010, this means that currently 59.11 per cent of users on Steam will experience this bug.
    • Interplay and Nvidia: for a bug in Sacrifice that causes the CPU to go to 100 per cent when an ally is on screen in Windows 7 64-bit when using an Nvidia graphics card. ATI users have no such issue, but once again, 59.11 per cent of Steam users are running Nvidia video cards.
  3. ...launch simultaneously, worldwide.

    This one can be tricky, we realise. There are legal issues to deal with like classification, potential translations or localisations to do, and marketing may not have the budget to whip up global hype simultaneously. You've also got to consider synchronising the sale of boxed copies with digital releases, something that's impacted massively by logistics.

    If we may be so bold — unless there are translation delays, release the downloadable copy first. Don't wait for physical distribution. No doubt brick and mortar stores would be incredibly annoyed at such a situation, but otherwise we fear people will get itchy torrent fingers when they hear about all the fun their US counterparts are having.

  4. Don't

    1. ...double dip DRM.

      If your title is on Steam, you should not require GFWL sign up, or bundle SecuROM/Tages, or run a separate key/activation server for the single player portion of the game. All of this functionality is already provided by Steam, and every level of DRM added is a barrier to purchase, not to mention seriously hampers usability for the legal owner of the game.

      Regardless of what digital distribution platform is being used, use that platform's copy protection. Then at least if that service fails financially, it's a single fix to unlock all games for those who purchased them, rather than having to wait for every single publisher to catch up — some who we're willing to bet won't care.

      • Good Old Games: not strictly a publisher, but is laying down the law: no DRM is to be on the service.
      • Ubisoft: for its ridiculous permanent online requirement for its new games.
      • EA: for also requiring a permanent online connection for Command and Conquer 4 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2
      • THQ: for Company of Heroes, which apart from online activation uses a separate auto-patcher program even when distributed on Steam.
      • Rockstar: for GTA IV (SecuROM).
      • Atari: for The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (TAGES).
      • Codemasters: for Fuel (SecuROM).
      • Capcom: for Flock and Age of Booty (both have SecuROM).
    2. ...limit the number of installs or activations.

      This level of protection is usually put in place to circumvent casual copying or reselling of a title. Shame then, that it has no relevance for an online service where a game cannot be resold, and is assigned to an individual account that can only be logged in at one computer at a time. Handing out your log-in details to somebody is unlikely too, as doing so doesn't just loan one game title, but exposes everything you own, making people disinclined to share.

      If install limits weren't annoying enough, some publishers pass the buck to the protection schemes they're using. 2K Games, for example, uses GFWL on BioShock 2 to limit activations to 15 — if you need more, you don't contact Steam or 2K — you have to talk to Microsoft. Too many cooks guys, and not at all cool.

      • 2K Games: for BioShock 2 (15 activations), Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot (five activations) and Borderlands: The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned (five activations). It is not known if this install limit applies to the original Borderlands if this DLC is installed.
      • Ubisoft: for Dawn of Discovery (three activations), Dawn of Discovery: Venice (three activations), James Cameron's Avatar: The Game (three activations) and Far Cry 2 (five activations).
      • Eidos: for Batman: Arkham Asylum (four activations).
      • Sega: for Alpha Protocol (five activations).
      • EA: for Crysis and Crysis Warhead (five activations apiece).
      • Capcom: for Dark Void Zero (five activations).
      • Rockstar: for Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (15 activations).
    3. ...require sign up to additional services, unless it facilitates online multiplayer.

      Anything that impedes the speed of entry into a game should never be mandatory. This is worse than the gamer being asked to "register the game" way back in the days of CD ROMs, which conferred no benefit to the user, and was hence of no appeal.

      While we respect that bundling an application like GameSpy or GFWL to enable multiplayer might be easier than writing your own code, we'd prefer that it wasn't running when we're playing the single-player version of the game. We already have a Steam overlay, why do we want a GFWL one as well? It just creates more overhead for our systems to deal with, taking up precious cycles that could be used on the game itself.

    4. ...require a persistent internet connection for single-player games.

      If the platform you're selling on doesn't have as strong and flexible DRM as Steam does, then a single authorisation during the initial install, or at most at the launch of the game, should be enough. If a connection drops (which they do), under no circumstances stop the game. This ruins the suspension of disbelief, and throws people out of the zone. If you're on Steam, please, please, please support its "Offline" mode.

      Current technology simply isn't good enough to avoid internet drop outs — whether it's an overheating modem, faulty phone lines or a wireless connection that suffers from interference, requiring a persistent internet connection for a single-player game is like expecting people to stay awake forever.

      We'd also like to point out that there are still plenty of places in the world that can't get internet, let alone broadband, and people like to travel with their laptops. You're denying people who've paid for your game the actual ability to play the game.

      • EA: for Command and Conquer 4 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2.
      • Ubisoft: for R.U.S.E., Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Splinter Cell Conviction, Assassin's Creed II, Silent Hunter: Battle of the Atlantic, The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom and all foreseeable future games. You really are killing off your PC gaming division, and we think you're doing it intentionally.
    5. ...overprice games outside the US.

      This one does our heads in. Quite often a publisher will take it upon themselves to price a title higher than a brick and mortar store, despite not producing a case, manufacturing a disc, having to ship to a country far, far away and then handle local logistics. It's simply pricing at a rate that it thinks the market can bear.

      Or rather, we'd imagine that if a publisher has a local presence, a local video games chain that has a physical presence has complained to them that they're being undercut, and so prices are pushed up to near (or often above) shelf prices in order to not annoy a major partner that still brings in significant revenue. It's not price fixing, but it's certainly anti-competitive.

      In Australia it's mind blowing, with new titles often priced near double their US counterparts. This isn't even a currency conversion issue — if an Australian buys on Steam, they pay in USD. It's an import, so there's no tax. These are goods that are being marked up on region alone, when there's no additional cost to the publisher to get them here.

      We'd be more tolerant if it was just an AUD conversion plus GST, but then that's likely not a good idea either. No doubt then every publisher who has a local presence would take us for a ride, just as they do now in brick and mortar stores, which has lead to the Lik-Sang (and now Play-Asia) mentality: we simply buy from overseas. Of course this in itself has lead to another blight: region locking.

      It makes our blood boil. It's not even a new issue. To illustrate the point, here's some of the more obvious offenders at the time of writing. We are not amused.

      Publisher Title Australia US
      2K Games BioShock 2 US$59.99 US$29.99
      Activision Modern Warfare 2 US$89.99 US$59.99
      Activision Call of Duty 4 US$49.99 US$29.99
      EA Battlefield: Bad Company 2 US$69.99 US$49.99
      EA Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight US$69.99 US$49.99
      Sega Napoleon: Total War US$69.99 US$39.99
      THQ Metro 2033 US$79.99 US$49.99
      THQ Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II Chaos Rising US$39.99 US$29.99
      Ubisoft Assassin's Creed II US$59.99 US$39.99
      Ubisoft Dawn of Discovery Gold US$49.99 US$29.99
      • Valve, id, Eidos, indie developers.
    6. ...region lock a game or service, or limit where it is sold.

      Unless a country's classification laws prevents sales, heinous music/video licensing deals come into play, or a translation is required, this is purely a way to enforce inflated local sales.

      The internet is slowly doing away with the old protection racket of banning parallel imports, not to mention in Australia it's perfectly legal to do so for personal use (reselling is a different issue). From the Digital Technology Law Journal: "Section 37 of the Copyright Act emphasises importation for trade, thus an individual can import copies of copyrighted material for personal use without infringing".

      • Sony: disc-based PS3 and PSP games (BattleZone aside) are region free, so why is PSN regionalised? The PSP also locks out features on a regional basis.
      • Microsoft and Nintendo: for regionalising games and their respective online services for Xbox 360 and Wii. DS carts might be region free, but DSi specific games including downloadable content are region locked.
      • Blizzard: Starcraft II's online play region lock.
      • Valve: for locking people out of the Orange Box if they bought it overseas.
      • Countless others.
    7. ...create a false economy.

      Don't make us buy "points" in one set of increments, then price games at another that ensures we'll always have points left over. While it may induce people to buy more points in order to afford a game, you can guarantee there'll still be points left over at the end of that purchase, perpetuating the cycle. Where does that cash go? Who knows, but if the companies are halfway smart, they're sinking the "free" money into the stock market.

      The only positive of this system is it may protect against fluctuating exchange rates. Still, we'd prefer a single US dollar total.

      • Sony: So close! While PSN allows you to pay in straight dollars, the intermediary "wallet" system requires you to have a minimum amount of credit to be able to purchase anything (the amount varies depending on geographical location). This leaves Sony with a nice pocket of loose change that most have given up for good. Yay, free money!
      • Microsoft and Nintendo: Microsoft and Nintendo Points? No thank you.

    And the loser is...

    For its ridiculous requirement for players to be permanently online to play its games, for marking up the prices of its games in different regions, for enforcing activation limits on some titles and for selling old titles that are broken on modern hardware and operating systems, Ubisoft is currently the most consumer hostile publisher online.

    We would urge publishers not to follow Ubisoft's incredibly poor example in the realm of digital distribution, and hope to see it put in a concerted effort to repair its very tarnished image with PC gamers over the next year.

    Got a beef with how a publisher is handling its digital distribution? Let us know in the comments below.