I was interviewed last week by Paul Hyman of The Hollywood Reporter, for his weekly column appearing today, delving into the oncoming wave that is digital content distribution, a la Steam, and new contender on the block, Game xStream.
There's a lot of resistance to digital distribution because of the way Valve handled it with Half-Life 2, which even today continues to annoy more than its fair share of paying customers. Definitely, there are kinks to be worked out, but rather than condemn digital distribution based on Steam alone, I think it has a bright future. And if anything, it may be one of the most promising ways for independent developers to bootstrap themselves, and bypass the entire publisher/retailer model, which is closed to most indies.
I have a strong belief that digital distribution is about to catch on like Jar-Jar bashing. Or, more seriously, like CDs did after Myst hit the scene in the early 90's.
Sure, we all hate only authentication, but that's not an inherent feature of online distribution. Online distribution, at it's core, is merely a way to buy a game without having to go to a store. That's it. Steam has given everyone the impression that it also means an online tether used as copy protection. But that's something else entirely, and has unfortunately given online distribution a bad name.
3D Realms choose to work with Game xStream because their service is not only highly flexible, meaning that a whole list of features can be either used or not, but because it allows what in my opinion is the most important feature of all, and one that Steam does not support: A player can buy a game, and within minutes start playing it, without needing to download the entire game. For example, I can start downloading the Doom 3 demo -- one of the most content intense games currently available -- and within six minutes I'm playing it as if I have the full game, racing like a madman through the opening level, while the game continues to download itself in the background. (You can not catch up to where new content isn't available.)
This single feature makes digital distribution truly viable for the mass gamer market, because it satisfies the desire to play the game right away (or nearly so). Without this single feature, you'd need to wait an hour to many hours to begin playing, and that sours the impulse desire of buying and playing right away.
I've been on record for saying that I didn't think digital distribution would ever catch on for the triple-A games, because I didn't think people wanted to wait for massive downloads, but Game xStream jumps this hurdle. And another nice thing is that there's no effort by the developer at all. No need to order content in a certain way. The process is completely transparent to developers. That cannot be underestimated as a selling point in getting Game xStream (or similar systems) accepted by publishers, and developers.