Q&A: Trion World, Microsoft Execs Predict Digital Distribution Takeover

Talking to Gamasutra at a recent HP event, Microsoft's Games For Windows director Rich Wickham and Trion World's Lars Buttler have been discussing the future of digital distribution, with Buttler suggesting that "the real power" of online game downloads i
Talking to Gamasutra at a recent HP event, Microsoft's Rich Wickham and Trion World's Lars Buttler have been discussing the future of digital distribution, with Buttler suggesting that "the real power" of the delivery mechanism is almost here. The event, which showcased HP's gaming products in multiple ways, including its recently purchased VoodooPC gaming PC division, as well as its game developer workstation technology and HP Labs research such as a curved, seamless display for gamers, also featured a roundtable including both Wickham and Buttler. We caught up with Wickham, Director for Games For Windows at Microsoft, to ask him about digital distribution following the public roundtable, and this is what he had to say: How long do you think it is before digital distribution is going to be de facto distribution channel? I think it will happen on PC before it happens anywhere else, but I think there is always going to be a strong case to be made for retail. I think that what you'll see happen over the next 3 or 4 years is digital distribution becoming more and more of the way that people get their games. Certainly it's the way that [consumers] get second run content, or that they get casual content or even advanced casual content. But I still really do believe that there is that retail experience that is still important to people -- to go see the game and have the box in their hand and all of that. I don't think that's going away. So what I think is going to happen is digital distribution is going to end up being as big as retail is today. Retail worldwide is about $3 billion dollars, and digital distribution will hit $3 billion probably within the next 3 years. I know you have to not tell the retailers that they are going to disappear, but you can get that box experience – sort of – from something like Live Arcade, and it could be argued that you get an even better experience because you can get a demo and then buy it. To be honest, we wouldn't be investing the money that we are investing at retail if we didn't think retail was important right now. Out of my budget right now we're spending tens of millions of dollars to make sure retail gets fixed. It's important. It's important to the publishers, it's important to the customers, and it's important to us. I just think of digital distribution as a channel, it's just another channel and I think it's going to be a very big channel. There are still going to be people who want to go to the store, try the game out, and have that box in their hand. While they're out they are at the store they might be there for a CD, but they pick up a game. I think that's always going to be there. Do you think it's going to be major portals, or is it going to be an every man for himself, every publisher for himself sort of thing? I think that there will be a mix. Certainly Valve is ahead of the game, and you've also got Direct2Drive, you've got Digital River doing a lot of back end solutions for people. The interesting thing will be to see how the publishers decide - the big publishers - whether they decide to go their own route or whether they decide to to partner with folks. But I don't think that they'll be like the one stop shop for digital distribution. I think that particularly in the console space that's definitely going to be a challenge, but in the PC space I think that you'll have a lot of different people doing it. -- Following the discussion with Wickham, we caught up Lars Buttler from Trion World, which is an "online publisher and developer of games and original entertainment for the broadband era" that's using HP expertise and hardware for its infrastructure, and recently partnered with Emergent's Gamebryo Element game engine and toolset for "a major game franchise currently in development." His comments follow: How long do you think it is before digital distribution becomes the de facto distribution channel for major PC titles? Well, in some parts of the world, it is already. If you look at all the online titles in Asia, it's the only mechanism. The question is actually when it is going to replace retail in North America and Europe. I think that it's probably a few years out until it becomes the number one mechanism. Many people still like to go to a store and buy a DVD there. The point is that in an ideal world you can have both channels in parallel, and you don't have to give people the same product, necessarily. You can have a different product at retail, a more premium product, and you can can have a free online download, but you can only do it if you have dynamic products and if you're not really tied to a retail channel. I think that's something we are going to see very soon, and that will make online distribution far more powerful. If you have to distribute the same title online that you give people in retail, you have to do it at the same time that the retail store opens, and you always have to play to the rules of the major retailers. It's not the real power of online distribution yet. Do you think that online distribution will eventually be the standard, and supplant retail, or do you think they will run in parallel? For the next few years in North America and Europe they will run in parallel, and I think that over time with broadband growing so rapidly and the download speed growing so rapidly, I think that at some point you'll have the majority in online distribution. It's more convenient, but I'm not saying that retail will ever go away, because some people like the physical. Like music, some people will always like to buy music, but the majority is already online now. I never buy music CDs in the store anymore. I only buy through iTunes, and I think that's going to come to all digital content, but not absolutely completely exclusive.

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