The business of selling games has rapidly changed over the past few years, mainly because online services have allowed developers to bypass the middleman that is retail stores.
There are major advantages to purchasing a game via digital distribution: it's insanely more convenient than driving to a store, customers avoid pushy salespeople, the titles themselves are often cheaper than physical copies, and no one has to keep track of the game disc.
As it turns out, though, that last aspect might not be entirely true, because one of the biggest digital distributors requires customers to buy the option to re-download programs for more than a limited amount of time.
When Spore first came out, I was too preoccupied with other titles to pick it up, but I've found myself intrigued recently when I watched my brother play it over the holidays. Since I'm currently in Tahoe, where there isn't a video game shop or a Best Buy within a 45-minute drive, I checked out EA's online store; downloading the game for $40 sounded more appealing than driving to Reno and spending $50 for a physical copy.
However, that option quickly became less appealing when I saw something extra sitting in my shopping cart: the "extended download service," which cost an extra $6.99, had automatically been added to my cart. Wondering what this was, I clicked on the helpfully-titled "what is this" link and received the following descriptor:
My first reaction was to automatically assume that EA was just trying to milk a few extra dollars out of its audience, but it turns out that the publisher isn't to blame for this move; instead, it's the digital distributor, Digital River.
As opposed to other download services, such as independently-created systems or major ones like Steam and Greenhouse, Digital River only lets a customer re-download purchased software for a certain amount of time before it's gone. Exactly how long time frame is seems to vary, but the longest free period appears to be six months. If we want to retain the option for two years (not even indefinitely), we have to pay an extra fee.
This might not seem like a big deal until you realize that you might be getting a new computer sometime in the next two years and might want to install some of your favorite games on the new machine; alternately, the threat of a hard drive crash isn't terribly unlikely, either, and gamers could be up the proverbial creek if they lose their data and didn't pony up an extra seven bucks when they bought the game.
Electronic Arts claims that, since the downloaded files can't be backed up to a CD or DVD, they can be repeatedly downloaded, which is true until the six-month marker has passed.
In the case of EA, the Extended Download Service isn't even all that necessary, as the installer files are stored in the EA Download Manager's folder on users' PC hard drives. But Digital River also handles the downloads for a large number of fairly major clients, such as Capcom, Best Buy, and Microsoft, and recovering files from these companies might not be quite so easy.
But why, exactly, would something like the Extended Download Service even be in existence? Keeping records of who buys what and when they bought it seems like standard business practice and would appear to be one major advantage to buying digitally.
Allowing customers to access these records and re-download what they've already paid for seems like a no-brainer; charging people for that option just seems slimy. Unfortunately, phone calls to Digital River resulted in a thirty minute perma-hold when waiting to talk to customer service, and repeated disconnects when attempting to get in touch with someone in the PR department.
So what are the options if gamers want to download EA's titles without having to deal with Digital River's distribution methods? Well, PC gamers can now use Steam and, as an added bonus, not deal with any third-party DRM. Mac users, unfortunately, are still stuck with dubious download services, though gamers can exercise a little patience and buy what we want from Amazon.
In this brave new world, could it be that having to keep track of a physical game disc is actually a better long-term prospect than purchasing something from the cloud?
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