Sony CEO Kaz Hirai recently spent some time reassuring the teeming masses that, whatever other innovations the next PlayStation might bring to the gaming table, exclusively digital distribution of games would not be among them.

No doubt there are sound reasons behind Hirai’s comments, including that Sony has a horse in the content distribution race. Namely, Blu-ray. Having spent an obscene amount of money guaranteeing Blu-ray’s victory in the hi-def disc wars, Sony is in no hurry to abandon the format.

Personally, I was disappointed by Hirai’s remarks. I think the time for the exclusively digital distribution of games has come. Game publishers and developers may well agree with me, as digital distribution addresses two of their biggest concerns: piracy and the used game market.

As much as I’d like to see developers and publishers (despite the coarseness of THQ’s Cory Ledesma) more fairly compensated for their efforts, and as much as I’d like to see piracy curbed, my desire for a console exclusively equipped for digital distribution is less altruistic than that. Greedy even. I think it will make games better. And, maybe, cheaper.

Today’s retail game market is centered on the blockbuster, AAA, big budget game that sells for $60. Nearly every game released, regardless of whether it even begins to warrant such a treatment, is inevitably targeted to be just that. Why? Because games simply must hit that price point in order to pay for the cost of development, advertising, production, and distribution. In the end, the vast majority of games fail to become the smash hits they need to be in order to turn a profit. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Modern Warfare 2 Stimulus Overgrown

Not every game has to be Modern Warfare 2.

Doing away with physical production and distribution gets right at the heart of the $60 game. If it doesn’t have to sell for that much, then it doesn’t have to be a bloated, AAA wannabe. Smaller ideas suddenly become viable. Developers, freed from having to make every game an epic, might actually gain the freedom to attempt some more creative work. Ideas that never would have seen the light of day on retail shelves suddenly become eminently possible.

You can see this effect at work right now, on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, and WiiWare. When XBLA first launched, the very idea was met with a certain wariness. “You want us to pay $5 for simple, short little games to play on our super expensive, high definition console? Why?” And then everyone played Geometry Wars, and understood.

Of course, Geometry Wars would be an anomaly if it were released today. Xbox Live Arcade has moved on. Those short simple games have evolved into much more fully realized experiences. Just look at the games released in the last few weeks. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and Hydro Thunder Hurricane would almost certainly have been released as full retail products, with full retail prices, just a few years ago. Instead, we got them for $15 a piece, and they were available to us at any hour of the day or night.

Guardian of Light is a particularly interesting case, because it hits all the strong points of digitally distributed games. Yes, I do believe that, were it to have been released in 2005, it would have been a full priced, disc based game. But would the game, as it currently exists, ever have been given the green light in the first place?

Publishers tend not to take chances with their marquee titles, and Guardian of Light is fundamentally unlike any other game starring its titular hero: it’s not called Tomb Raider, the perspective is different, the mechanics are different, and there is a second main character. Of course, it turns out that Guardian of Light is Lara Croft’s best game in years. And we’d never have gotten it without digital distribution.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light screenshot 3

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy my fair share of big budget, AAA games. Where would we be without Modern Warfare, or Uncharted, or Gears of War? But there is nothing in an all digital distribution system that precludes those kinds of games. It just means that not all games have to try to be them.

I also understand that infrastructure is an issue. But that is an issue that is being solved, every minute of every day. Frankly, areas with truly poor internet have bigger problems than not being able to download games.

Finally, for those who claim that the public just plain isn’t ready for full digital distribution, I say “ask Apple.” They’ve sold an awful lot of music, and a staggering number of games, without any physical media ever changing hands. If their success has proven anything, it’s that consumers aren’t just ready for an all digital future, they’re eager for it. All it takes it the right device, and the right price.

So, Sony, I’m sorry to hear that your next console will not support exclusively digital distribution. Perhaps one of your competitor’s consoles will. But, make no mistake, exclusively digital game distribution is coming. And as soon as it hits, everything else is going to look obsolete.

Ranters, where do you stand on download only consoles? Do they belong to the distant future, or are you ready for them now?

PS4 mock-up by Tai Chiem

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