Opinion: Inside Digital Game Download Hell

In this thought-provoking opinion piece, game designer/author Ian Bogost takes a look at his experience downloading PlayStation Network game titles to make the argument that "people think that digital download makes content more accessible, but that's not
[In this thought-provoking opinion piece, game designer/author Ian Bogost takes a look at his experience downloading PlayStation Network game titles to make the argument that "people think that digital download makes content more accessible, but that's not always, or perhaps not often the case".] Recently, David Edery wrote a nice feature on Gamasutra about how to make trial versions of downloadable software sell more games. He has some good points, including observations about how a trial shouldn't just be the beginning of the game nor should it give away enough that a purchase is unnecessary. But there's something missing from Edery's analysis, and that's the larger process we go through to try or buy games provided through digital download. Often people think that digital download makes content more accessible, but that's not always, or perhaps not often the case. Here's some anecdotal evidence, albeit from a different digital distribution service than Edery's Xbox Live. I've been traveling or working nonstop on deadlines or both since early December, so I haven't really had time to play console videogames at home. Last night I decided to have a go. I wanted to get Pain (pictured) and Everyday Shooter on the PlayStation Network Store, and then spend a little while with each. I had just finished some work and allocated a half hour or so before bed. I turn on the PS3. My component video switcher is on the wrong setting, so I get up, walk over and press the correct one. I hear the PS3's symphonic start up sound. I hadn't set up my Logitech remote to turn off the cable box when I choose PS3 from its menu, so the two optical sources are mixing. I switch it off while I'm over at the television. The PS3 is set to autorun games, so it boots up The Simpsons Game, which was in the drive already. Splash screen loads, I pull up the menu to quit The Simpsons Game. The PS3 reboots. My controller has a low battery, so the PS3 tells me to plug it in. I do so. Now I'm sitting a foot from the screen. I try to access the PSN Store from the system menu. The PS3 tells me I have to install a System Update before I can do this. Back to the menu. I access the System Update and it starts downloading. Progress bar. I wait five minutes. Ok, it's done. The PS3 reboots. Now it's ready to install. It reboots again first for some reason. Ok, really ready to install. Another progress bar. Five more minutes. The update finishes installing. PS3 reboots once more. Now I can acccess the PSN Store. I find the games and add them to my cart. This takes a while because I have no idea what category either game would be in. I guess wrong a few times and then just use the alphabetical lookup. I'm ready to check out. But, I have no PSN credits. I have to add some. The service has stored my credit card so a couple screens later I've got enough in my account to check out. Back to the checkout screen. Sale completed, great. The PS3 prompts me to start downloading. I start the Pain download (200MB). I navigate back out to the main system screen to look around while I'm waiting. Hmm, I should have queued Everyday Shooter too so it will download after Pain is done. Back to the PSN Store. I need to access my game downloads. Where is that again? I'm one foot from the screen still so I crane my neck around. Right, top corner there's a link. I access that and start the second download (30MB). 230MB is enough that this is going to take a while. I wander back out and play Calling All Cars for five minutes or so. I suck at Calling All Cars. What a frustrating game. I think about David's article and how a trial download would have meant I wouldn't have bought it at all. Maybe $10 to experiment isn't so bad. The download manager notifies me that the downloads are done. I quit Calling All Cars. I look for the games in the proper section of the PS3 menu but I can't find them. Where are they? Ah, they're up above. I access Pain. The game needs to install. Another progress bar, but only for a couple minutes. At this point, I figure I might as welll install Everyday Shooter too. Much smaller game, so it installs faster. Now I'm finally ready to play Pain. Luckily I've been sitting at the console for 20 minutes by now and my controller is charged enough to allow me to retire to the couch. It's 12:30am, I'm pretty exhausted. Bleary-eyed, I start up Pain. Pain checks for saved data. It finds none, as this is the first time I ran the game. It tells me it will create a save file. It will save automatically for me, ok? Ok, I tell it. Now I have to go through the tutorial before I can play. Ok, no problem. I'm five minutes in. The game seemed simple at first but now it's feeling pretty nuanced (for a game about breaking things with a human slingshot anyway). There are combo hits. There are drifts and ooches. I'm still not even done with the tutorial. Yawning, I decide to stop and turn in for the night. I quit Pain, it autosaves for me. I press the PS3 button. Turn off console. Yes, really turn off console. Television off, receiver off, lights out. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow. I've picked on PlayStation here but the Xbox and Wii versions aren't really any better. It's true that downloadable games don't suffer from the cost basis, shelf-space, and individual marketing problems of physical media. But when I buy a DVD movie or game, I just pop it in and start playing. No system updates. No reboots. No fuss. How can these download services ever hope to top that?

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