Amidst all the talk of digital distribution versus retail sales at the LA Games Conference today, one big reason arose for game publishers to keep the retail channels open: the midnight launch. While a lot of gamers might tell you that it's a pain for them to schlep out into the cold to pick up the latest game or expansion, publishers actually prefer it. Pascal Brochier was the president of Global Retail at Vivendi Universal Games when it released World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade expansion (one of the biggest retail launches ever), and he says that while Blizzard had the option to digitally distribute that game, it chose not to. "We were patching all the time," he told Joystiq. "It was always in the discussions internally; 'Should we go direct digital or should we go both with retail?'"
In the end, the company wanted the extra exposure that a big retail launch provides. "When you're at the store with all of the events, you actually have people who've dropped [their subscriptions] come back." And being in the stores doesn't just drive return players, it drives new players as well. "The midnight events and all of the functions help people come back who've stopped playing, but also guys who've wanted to try it will be attracted to the event and become new-found players."
A few weeks after launch, says Brochier, Vivendi did enable digital distribution quietly. But even for a game so tied to the online experience, he adds that "retail is a very important critical part. There's also a significant percentage of players who just play through pre-paid cards, and that's retail, that's a retail model. So you've got to find the balance."