Late on Tuesday afternoon, a panel convened to discuss the potential future of digital distribution, as well as its drawbacks. Moderating was Gabe Zimmerman, Chief marketing strategy officer of Boonty inc.
Panelists were Kris Alexander, Sr. Product Manager of Digital Media & Gaming from Akamai, Eric Hartness, Senior Director of Marketing for EA Nation of Electronic Arts, Royal O'Brien, Founder and CEO of Game xStream, Sutton Trout, Vice President, Digital Content, Consumer Products, of IGN Entertainment, Yoav Tzruya, Chief Operating Officer of Exent Technologies, and Jason Williams, Marketing Director of GoGamer.com.
Gabe began by asking the pointed question of which of the current digital distribution was the most effective. Eric Hartness answered first by saying: "Xbox Live Arcade and the Marketplace in general. It provided an extended life for games. Ps3 will probably follow that up, as will the Wii." Yoav Tzruya followed up with: "Companies will start treating games like other media, like movies and music. I think the players who put their foot in the door will work out best. Turner Broadcasting and its GameTap, and maybe Google or Yahoo! will actually take the lead. It probably will be swamped with ads, but..."
Moderator Gabe interrupted him with the fairly astute question as to why traditional media companies are a factor. Royal O'Brien fielded that question: "If you don't have the marketing, the content doesn't matter. And it's been proven that these big companies know how to get the product noticed." Tzruya continued by saying that: "Traditional media companies have the funding for the service, but they don't have the infrastructure for direct consumer contact." O'Brien then quipped: "If you don't have the talent, you buy it. Like what happened with MySpace."
Jason Williams then pointed out that he was the only member of the panel who represented traditional retailers, and gave his opinion: "I'm not sure if gamers want to go to Turner Broadcasting or News Corporation to get the hottest PC game. I think players will still want to go to names they know. I'm not sure these gigantic media companies will know how to market games. It's [digital distribution] definitely coming... but who's going to be best at it remains to be seen."
The mention of retail brought out a response from Tzruya, who countered: "I think retailers are still the best for marketing games, but these are for the hardcore gamers. My mother never went to an EB, but she'll play games online. I think gamers will still consume games from EB or GameStop, whether in traditional outlets or online. But I think media companies will create special outlets and make it attractive to non-gamers, like what was done with Cartoon Network [referring to its library of old forgotten cartoons, whose rerun profits eventually allowed for original content]."
Moderator Gabe then asked the panel if a distribution model for casual games would be significantly different from a model that targets dedicated gamers. Constantly enthusiastic O'Brien summed it up best and most obviously with: "I think it will still be split. The only cross-proliferation will be a service that actively provides both." However, Eric Hartness countered that with the somewhat insightful: "I'm surprised about all this talk about hardcore and casual. The older woman who plays Pogo will play it for twenty hours a week and customize their avatar, which is just like what the "hardcore" Xbox live player does."
As the discussion continued, moderator Gabe managed to categorize what he saw as the six major models of online distribution discussed by the panel;
1. Sell the games themselves.
2. Sell the games along with a subscription.
3. Sell a pure subscription that's title agnostic.
4. Games relying on in-game advertisments for revenue.
6. Episodic content.
There was not a consensus reached about the future of digital distribution, but then again, that may not be the point of such wide-ranging discussions that are intended to be thoughtprovoking, rather than canonical.
The most fun and pointed question from Gabe came in the form of confronting EA's Eric Hartness about where the company hopes to go: "Wouldn't you guys gain a lot by creating a universal distribution service?" Mr. Hartness replied with surprising candor that: "I'm opinionating here, but I've been at EA for six or seven years now. The main challenge is the breadth of content. Just EA alone can't provide everything, that's why we partner ourselves with Sony and Nintendo and eventually probably Yahoo! and Google. It would be hard for EA to be that kind of service if it's providing only its own content." However, later, he would sarcastically state that at EA: "We don't care how we get the money as long as we get it!"