One of the best and worst facets of PC gaming is Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam. By virtue of being a wonderful, unified and obtrusive overlay/marketplace, Valve’s bread-and-butter tangentially sent the hurting dinosaur of a platform into the 21st century, and by wisely partnering up with companies that have limited official presence in the market, the company also has an iron grip over supply and demand as it controls the marketplace. Valve is the de facto gatekeeper of all digital content for PCs (bar EA and Ubisoft’s clumsy attempts at splintering the marketplace), much like each of the big three console manufacturers.
Overall and on paper, this is a win-win situation for Valve and its partner publishers. By tapping into Steam’s built-in userbase, a company like Sega doesn’t have to spend much money on marketing a PC release of something like Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed; and arguably, this justifies the PC release even existing in the first place. Japanese companies often relied on third-parties to haphazardly port their releases in the past (Capcom’s reliance on Virgin and Ubisoft for its Resident Evil ports come to mind), as the market used to not matter. Having more content on the platform—no matter how obscure—ostensibly works to Valve’s advantage as well.
Here’s the big negative about this setup, however. The market also dictates how the games are priced, and since Valve enjoys selling its games at bargain-bin prices, oftentimes you’ll see people proudly declare “meh, I’ll wait for it to drop to $5 on a Steam sale.” As negative as this mentality is, Steam sales are kind of a double-edged sword for publishers, who often drop the prices of games in anticipation of an incoming sequel or DLC follow-up to an older game in order to build awareness.
Something fairly similar is happening in the console gaming realm. PlayStation Plus is a wonderful service, and over the past two years has proven to be an essential, value-packed addition to any PlayStation enthusiast’s library. Quite frankly, subscribing to a full year of PlayStation Plus gets you a lot of stuff. And while I’m going to save the tired argument of “renting vs. owning” on PlayStation Plus digital material for another day, this value also skews the perception most gamers have towards the service, and perhaps towards the concept of digital distribution.
Take for instance, Knytt Underground, a game that I would have gladly paid the $14.99 price of admission for. I took three swipes at the demo, sat down and earnestly declared “meh, I’ll wait for it to go free on PS Plus.” And it did! That, in my opinion, is a very dangerous mindset to have. Without any publicly-available figures on how the profits from PS+ are shared one can only assume that the smaller publishers that choose to put their games up on PlayStation Plus for free are entering into a losing agreement. But even bigger games have gone “free” on PlayStation Plus; remember that explosion of Vita games that launched the service? Sony practically put up every game worth buying for the system up for FREE. Crazy, ain’t it?
Going back to what I alluded to earlier, Sony has far less to lose than an indie developer looking to get their game out. From the consumer’s standpoint, Sony is gaining a lot of goodwill from this service, as it is a very rare example of a lopsided, pro-consumer digital distribution program. In this tough economic climate, gamers are less apt to purchase a game on the first day when they can get it for free by simply waiting a few months later. Hardly anybody buys games on day one anymore. Coming from a service-oriented standpoint, it is always a bad idea to always give the consumer what he/she wants. By over-empowering a consumer base that’s already a well-entitled bunch to begin with, Sony could very well be on the road to creating a toxic atmosphere for small publishers wishing to place their wares up on the PlayStation Store.
Or maybe not; by all accounts Sony has actually been the most accommodating of the big three publishers with regards to indies. That’s your counter-point right there!