The Pros and Cons of Digital Distribution

posted by on 9th December 2011, at 8:06pm

Everyone in our generation takes digital distribution for granted. While it is still a relatively new approach to purchasing and installing games (as well as acquiring music, books, and more), it has quickly become a widely accepted method of getting newer games. However, with the many great things digital distribution provides there are also shortcomings that make it an undesirable option for some. It would be worthwhile to take a look at the benefits and disadvantages of digital distribution before everyone starts moving more rapidly in that direction.

A Somewhat Brief History

It is good to first familiarize yourselves with the origins of digital distribution to understand why it continues to be one of the most popular ways to purchase and own electronic material, specifically in the video game industry.

There was a time when digital distribution didn’t exist (Amazon, Ebay, and other online retailers didn’t exist either), during this time electronic material such as music, videos, and games all had to be physically purchased. A consumer had to go to the store, search for the product they desired, and then pay a cashier before they could enjoy whatever they wanted. For games, a CD was used to store information and install on your computer. Retailers depended on marketing and having numerous stores available in many cities throughout the country to make money by distributing their product. Also, costs associated with bringing the product to the store factored into the price of the item, making it more expensive. This remained the only viable option for obtaining the product. Yes, it’s all very archaic and inefficient, yet important to note.

With the advent of modern technology such as the personal computer and the opening of the World Wide Web, life was made much easier. Communication was sped up through email and instant messaging. Information was made freely available and places of open discussion allowed for even greater communication and sharing of ideas. A rise in labour demand for jobs in IT and web site design occurred. Websites of every kind were created to meet different purposes. I think you guys get the picture, already knew the story, or could have figured it out for yourselves what the internet was like in those first few years. The point is that it was a new and untested frontier with exponential potential, especially for retailers.

Soon, online retailers began to appear, selling goods over the internet. All that was necessary was an address and a credit/debit card and you could purchase a product online and have it shipped straight to your house. Not only that, but it was much cheaper than going to an actual store to get a product. Real world retailers soon caught wind of this and would furtively play catch-up to create websites where consumers could go to view and buy their products online. Unfortunately, online-only retailers had the distinct advantage of lacking physical stores and fewer employees to manage. The cost to online retailers was much less and could allow them to drop prices on similar or identical products of physical retailers.

With the boom of technology came a new consumer mindset and a new way to reach information. You didn’t need a CD player to play your music anymore. With things such as the iPod, other MP3 players, and growing computer storage hardware, a user could now store digital content they had in the form of files on their computer, discarding their CDs or cassettes that had before taken up space as well as being difficult to sort. This, combined with software for digital cataloguing such as iTunes and Windows Media Player would soon come to the attention of retailers as a new facet for future sales. Using the ability to transfer information over the internet and the capability of users to store that information on the user’s computer, content could be sold and digitally distributed without the fuss of physically going to a store or having to do any extra work. Just download and play.

Now that the history lesson is over and you have a little context, we can now get into the main point of this article which is digital distribution usage with gaming.

Back to the Present

Electronic content retailers are now pushing more than ever towards digital distribution as a means of getting out their product to consumers in a fast and efficient way. For the video game industry, Steam continues to dominate much of the market but EA’s Origin and other lesser known digital distribution based companies (such as Green Man Gaming) are also competing with Steam for a share of the profit pie.

Since digital distribution won’t be going away anytime soon, it’s a good idea to take a step back and actually analyze the pros and cons of digital distribution as opposed to normal physical purchase and installation. With so many distribution companies to choose from, it’s hard to figure out which ones are the best and which are the worst. They all appear to be the same or similar as they all provide much the same content. They offer the same games, same publishers, same basic software to distribute the product, and same patching and updating. Yet, there are differences among these unique retailers and how they use digital distribution and the restrictions they put on the content as well as the user are very telling and reveal the benefits and perilous pitfalls of digital distribution.


  • Games can be directly purchased online and usually at a cheaper cost. Digital retailers have more sales and better deals on games than retailers like Best Buy, Gamestop, or Amazon.
  • There is no physical copy of the game, only electronic information. You don’t have to wait for the game to be shipped and show up at your door nor do you have to visit a store to pick it up. Instead, you can instantly (or however fast your internet is) download and play the game. You’ll never have to worry about breaking a disk or losing a CD key as it is already taken care of during the transaction and installation process.
  • Once you buy the game, you keep it. It can’t be taken away from you and remains yours (presumably forever) unless you hack or do something stupid (breach a Terms of Usage contract).
  • You can get almost all games through digital distribution now. You can buy and locate all your games in one place. There’s no need to go to a store or wait in line. You can pre-purchase, pre-download, and sometimes pre-play (through beta or vip access) the games you like when you want. No need to search and no need to wait.

You’d think with all those benefits that digital distribution is a great deal. For the most part, it is. There’s no denying that most these benefits tailor to almost every gamer’s wants and needs. But there is a darker side to digital distribution that should be considered before plunging head on into purchasing all your games online and rather than from a store.


  • The inability to do anything with the game once you have bought it. For all intents and purposes, you own the game since you paid just like everyone who went to the store. This is not quite true. What you really have is a license to play the game through the digital distributor, but not actual ownership of the game. With ownership, you have the option to sell or trade the game to other people if you wanted to. With digital distribution, you really only have the option to play the game on your account alone, unable to share it with anyone else.
  • Once it’s on your account, it stays there for good. Tying in with the previous con, you can’t transfer a game to another account even if it was intended to be a gift. You can’t give it to a friend or use the game to trade for other games with other people. It’s attached to your account and remains that way permanently. Also, with some digital distributors your account can be banned or locked if you attempt to sell the account to another person.
  • Specifically with Steam, updates and patches come through the digital provider, not directly from the publisher. The reason for this is that Steam must integrate its software with the update and ensure it works on their servers before it can be released to the players using their software. It adds a whole other layer of difficulty for publishers in maintaining their game and hinders them from getting out updates as quickly as possible. It also delays gamers from getting much needed updates to a game.


For the most part, digital distribution is a great option for gamers who just want to purchase a game for a good price, download it, and play it. That kind of gamer isn’t too concerned with ownership or selling/trading/sharing the game later, making digital distribution the preferred option for acquiring games. But for those who want to own the game and have the chance to sell/trade/share later if they wanted to, digital distribution may not be the way you want to go. What happens when you get older and have an account you can’t sell that’s stuck with all these games?

What I would personally like to see as the next step in digital distribution is the ability to sell games back to the distributor for credit, even if it be a small percentage of the game’s original worth. The problem of course (as I mentioned in my article titled The State of the Traded Games Market) is that you can’t and won’t get back even close to the original value for which you bought the game. Publishers don’t make games and retailers don’t sell games planning to buy them back later. Also, many games bought on Steam, for example, are bought during deals when the game is at a much cheaper price. It would be something else Steam would have to keep track of and manage to make sure everyone got a fair deal. People who bought the game later would be rewarded more than those gamers who had bought the game originally when it first came out.

Green Man Gaming is the only digital distributor I’ve come across that does this so far. You are able to trade and sell your games back for credit to get other games. Of course, gaming publishers don’t get a good deal out of this and neither does Green Man as well, but if enough people were interested and started using their system more, profits would make it desirable to continue. Granted, I don’t think we will see a change anytime soon from Steam or other digital distributors in any market do this. Still, it could potentially be the next step in digital distribution for the future.

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