The origin of digital distribution
The last two generations of video game consoles have led the majority of the enthusiastic audience of the sector to source games by downloading them directly. Storage space on consoles is starting to get a little too “tight”, but it’s in no way slowing down the growth of digital distribution. While the popularity of digital-only games may still be a relatively new aspect, digital distribution itself certainly isn’t!
Nowadays, buying video games online has become, forgive the pun, a “no-brainer”. Online stores such as Startselect offer you the possibility to purchase a simple code and be able to start playing immediately after redeeming the code in question.
However, before all this there has undoubtedly been the hard work of many companies that have made this efficiency and speed of service possible.
The Atari 2600 already had an online distribution and even a digital game, developed through the use of a small device called the GameLine. The procedure consisted of downloading a game over the telephone line in which participants had to choose from 50 different titles. The cost was only one dollar and allowed to play between five and ten times, after which the player would have to reconnect to GameLine and pay to download a new session. GameLine was only the beginning of many revolutionary technologies that would have succeeded and over time would have been a resounding success. CVC, the company behind the device, had many great digital distribution projects! CEO William von Meister is quoted in an interview with Atari Magazine, in which he stated:
“In reality, we are transforming dedicated gaming units into multifunctional communication terminals and bringing the benefits of sophisticated computers within the reach of the average family. A video game console can become a real teaching machine. Many video game manufacturers have announced their intentions to develop additional equipment that will turn game units into small computers. “
Unfortunately, the innovation and fame achieved by GameLine plummeted together with the Atari a couple of months after the big launch, corresponding to the video game crisis in 1983. In the 80s and 90s, we see especially Sega taking the position leadership in digital distribution. In Japan the Sega Meganet had become available for the Mega Drive (Genesis). And not only has it chosen a rather explicit and effective name, but it has shown that it can do a lot more than the GameLine. Unfortunately, however, the results were equally disappointing and even Sega did not manage to go much further than what had been done by the GameLine. Although it was clear that it would not be able to achieve the hoped-for success, Sega was by no means ready to give up and abandon the concept of digital distribution. Three years later, in fact, he launched the Sega Channel. A notable difference compared to the Meganet, especially because it offered entire video games to download and the list itself was updated with some frequency. At its peak it had a quarter of a million users in the United States. At the time, the connection was still made through a dial-up modem, so it was not yet possible to have service availability for every region of the United States. Even though the games were popular, people weren’t actually that much interested; they were waiting for the Sega Saturn (or other 32-bit consoles) already announced and whose idea was already spinning in the air at that time.
The service was discontinued after five years, after which the Meganet could only be reached with an emulator.
Saturn had a similar function and processing: the Netlink modem, although the first case of digital distribution as we know it – embedded in the console – was conceived only one generation of consoles after the Saturn. Sega’s Dreamcast (1999) supported Windows CE, demos and DLCs could be downloaded to the console. Dreamcast also knew some (only) online games, such as Phantasy Star Online. In the last two generations of the console, digital distribution has become an important part of sales in the world of video games. The storage space for the Xbox 360 had to be expanded several times and also for PS4 and Xbox One there are versions with different storage sizes. Despite the lack of space, digital-only games are becoming and represent the majority of sales for publishers: gamers clearly appreciate the convenience of being able to buy a game quickly, immediately and comfortably in front of the TV, as well as being able to play. immediately after making the payment.
The distribution of (digital) pc games was started even before the Internet was available to the masses. This was made possible thanks to a dial-up connection – connected to a Bulletin Board (a forerunner of forums). It was actually something expensive and impractical, because it was necessary to connect with each keyboard separately. As the Internet became accessible to the public, users and publishers began to move rapidly around websites in the 1990s. As the new millennium began, the average internet connection speed increased rapidly and in 2004 Valve released their Steam platform. At first the platform was used to download Valve games and related and connected updates, but nowadays there are over 8000 games to download and pre-load. Some companies have devised and disseminated a comparable platform, such as EA’s Origin and Upplay’s Ubisoft. Today there are also many websites that offer games in the form of codes (which you fill out to redeem and download the digital game). The reliability of these sites is clearly diverse, which has sparked some controversy. Of course, there are many alternatives that operate in full regularity and in compliance with laws and privacy and consequently several publishers allow you to buy the codes directly. Probably the future will give us faster and more convenient ways to download and obtain digital games; it will almost certainly be possible to have connections fast enough to allow those who want to access games in streaming and this new frontier could easily take the place of downloadable titles. For now we only see digital in rapid and continuous growth and this leads us to have more and more downloadable games.