Philosony: Raise high the downloads, gamers!

This is the second of a two-part column on digital distribution and its effect on the psychology of your average gamer. In part one we discussed the pros and cons of replacing physical discs and game boxes with digital downloads. This week we discuss the way our gaming habits themselves, from the type of games we play to the time we spend playing them, may be affected by digital downloads.

It looks like Sony Japan has finally gotten hip to the idea that when it comes to portable systems digital distribution is the way to go. Heck I've taken plenty of advantage of the UMD Legacy archives for my PSP. After all, there's nothing portable about lugging around a physical library of discs just in case you happen to get the urge to bludgeon an undead abortion in public. There are many arguments in favor of digital distribution for handhelds, particularly as handhelds fit well with the type of "quick-fix" games that most original property digital downloads tend to be. But this column isn't about what makes a good handheld title. It's about what sort of games we want crowing up space on our 80 60 40 20GB hard drives.

One could easily make the claim that we are entering a gaming Renaissance. Sure we've still got big name developers and high profile titles evoking Pavlovian responses from the masses, but smaller games and hobbyist developers are increasingly getting their due. With some of these games now appearing on consoles even the Independent Games Festival is starting to garner attention from mainstream gaming press instead of being relegated to obscure PC fandom. But will this require a paradigm shift on the part of your average gamer? Is there a sense that once the novelty wears off these games will become the interactive equivalent of Sundance films and considered too highbrow and artsy by the majority of gamers?

I, for one, think not. Independent films still require a hefty budget to make and the usual physical distribution channels. That means lots of middle men and lots of money, resulting in a final product that still costs the consumer as much as the big budget titles. The beauty of digital distribution for independent games is that they can be made relatively cheap, enticing the consumer to take "risks" and try things they may not otherwise have tried.

For example, I was curious about this gameart thing called Linger in Shadows. Certainly not $60 curious. Probably not $10 curious. But $3 curious, sure - I pay twice that for lunch most days. And what I great buy! I learned a little about demoscene, expanded my definition of "interactive entertainment", and had that existential experience long talked about by philosophers known as Angst of the Flying Beagle (I think it's in Kierkegaard's unpublished works). None of this would have been possible without digital distribution.

Having said that there's more to digital distribution that just trying something new. What are we willing to play as a quickly accessible title on the XMB that we might not be willing to play off of

a disk? The natural inclination is to lean towards older titles but not because they take up less space or are less demanding of hardware requirements. Older titles like Gauntlet and Q-bert (some of the first titles available from Sony via digital distribution) were originally intended for arcades and thus designed for short play sessions. When an attack of orange, armless, big-nosed, foul-mouthed nostalgia comes on it is rarely strong enough to warrant a trip to the store for Gottlieb's Greatest Hits Collection. But if our furry friend is just a quick download away, what's to stop us?

What digital distribution may do, then, is rekindle respect for the art of short form, arcade style gaming. The core of the difference between big budget and indie films is special effects. While this difference certainly exists between big-budget and indie/digital distribution games a major style difference is present as well. Games like the PixelJunk series, The Last Guy, and the damned fun to say Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket Powered Battle Cars promote pick-up-and-play-while-you're-microwaving-a-bean-burrito style game play.

At the same time, though, there's an incentive to make games that have longevity. The arcade games of yore were great, but lack the appeal that would keep most gamers playing them with any regularity for years. With digital distribution a game can be enjoyable in short bursts but have room for refinement expansion in the form of downloadable content. This makes good business sense for even a small-time developer and as consumers we get to look forward to little perks that keep the game fresh. Games like Mega Man 9 are adopting this model. Buy the basic core and then customize the game futher to your liking with optional for-a-fee add-ons.

Of course this may require a shift in gamers' perceptions of what owning, playing, or beating a game means. Most gamers that I talk to, myself included, are completists. We aren't happy until every nook and cranny of the game world, every optional side quest and divergent story arc has been explored. This is what makes sandbox titles frustrating for some. Does this mentality manifest itself in digital distribution titles by infecting us with the need to own the complete game? Getting a kick out of Super Stardust HD? Will you really be satisfied if you haven't bought all of the extra modes?

I personally think these changes are quite positive. There's very little danger of losing classic long-form epic gameplay the likes of Fallout 3 or Final Fantasy XIII. If anything this new model injects much needed breadth to the industry. Reading can take so many forms, from epic novels, to nonfiction science reports, from magazines to RSS feeds. No reason why video gaming can't be just as diverse. What's your take on the new style of digital distribution games?