Fixing digital distribution
Posted at 21:56 on 1st May 2019 - permalink

Digital distribution of games (particularly on PC) is a mess. We currently have a situation where buying a PC game from a specific store often ties you into accessing that game through that store’s weird mini-platform, most of which were designed to pretend to be the ubiquitous standard (and stuffed with proprietary junk). To make things worse, ownership rights aren’t handled in the same way by different stores and can be withdrawn without warning. This landscape presents challenges for preservation efforts, and has significant (mostly terrible) implications for discoverability for new games as well.

For the end user this is suboptimal in the same way having the market split between a dozen different instant messaging protocols or sound card specifications was, and as with those situations it does not seem like something that is beyond human ingenuity to solve.

I think the best route out of this quagmire would be to create an open standard for digital game distribution.

For the market to adopt such a standard it would need to deal with all the existing stores’ bad design decisions behind the scenes, so the user simply sees one unified game library, friends list, etc. to manage.

This standard would be defined by a consortium (think CD and DVD) and anyone would be able to apply to use it. As far as developers and consumers are concerned, all stores would behave in the same way. Just as how barcodes and (for the most part) credit cards work seamlessly across all vendors.

The user would download a single client program that has close to zero local configurability or UI (it’s basically a driver – eventually shipping with the operating system like an API or a video codec). All account management and storefront functionality would be handled via the web. (There could be reference version of the account management website but stores and third parties could implement better, more fully-featured alternatives.) The client program would have a plugin architecture to emulate the legacy proprietary features of the different stores (where desirable), as well as offering open alternatives that can be run in parallel (which games would be encouraged to use going forward).

It would still be necessary (at least at first / depending on a given game’s revenue model) for billing transactions to be carried out by the source stores, but account creation could be streamlined.

As with CD/DVD, a suite of technologies need to be developed and brought together for the system to work, including:

1. A standardised production registry

Every unique piece of game software would be given a unique identifier, administered by a body independent from any store. Workable systems like this already exist: e.g., ISBN, Linux packaging schemes, and iOS and Android app standards. This identifier could be unambiguously linked to a specific rights holder.

The metadata would contain no information about the end-user license or revenue model used by the game: this can change over time for a specific game being offered through a specific channel, plus new models may be invented in future. Entries could be created by vendors and nested to allow them to offer bundles of multiple games and/or support materials (bonus materials, DLC, mods, manuals, etc.).

There is no reason that we should assume that an item in this database is a Windows (/Mac/Linux) executable, or even a computer program at all. Any game that can be packaged up as binary file(s) can be administered in this system. For instance, individual ROM images for old console, handheld or arcade games could be sold with the manifest describing the target platform, leaving it up to the store or customer to provide a way of running it (be that emulation, streaming, or the original or recreated hardware). ( are ahead of the curve here, having sold MS-DOS games bundled with DOSBox for years.) In this way we could finally get away from the holdover from physical retail of ‘retro’ games being sold in bundle packages.

If the system was immediately and obviously successful, there’s no reason that it would be limited to personal computers either – mobile and console platforms could also be supported. I suspect most of the big players are too paranoid about maintaining their walled gardens to fully embrace such a system but stranger things have happened.

If there was no cross-industry effort to develop such a system, I would hope that one company would develop it and (as with the IBM PC, Sound Blaster, the WWW, DirectX – kind of – and various Tesla inventions) open it up to encourage ubiquitous adoption. There is a danger that having one central authority as the de facto standard for recognising authorship could put too much power into one company’s hands. I’m not sure what the best solution would be to this problem – perhaps having several signing authorities that continuously monitor each others’ trust standing.

2. A transaction ledger

Everything I hear about blockchain technology is equally split between assurances that it will solve all human ills, and dire warnings that it’s all a huge con trick.

I don’t know enough about The Blockchain to know whether book-keeping across a diverse ecosystem of vendors would be a suitable (or wise, or practical) application of the technology. Having a fraud-proof way to look up whether a vendor is currently granting a license to a user seems like the sort of thing it’s made for though.

If blockchain tech actually is all an unworkable scam, assume that this will be implemented in an as-yet-uninvented technology, and transactions still live on the individual stores’ systems for now.

3. A brokerage (or several) between creators and stores

During the Macromedia Flash gaming boom (~2005-2012), there was a fantastic website called FlashGameLicense (there is still a site at that domain but it’s owned by an unrelated company now) which made it practically possible for Flash game developers to find commercial sponsors for their work.

It basically worked like an auction site. Sponsors (Flash game portal sites, which at the time attracted vast ad revenue-driving audiences) could bid on games and developers could negotiate deals with one or more of them. It was still of course possible for parties to make deals through private channels, but for the thousands of Flash game developers starting out who didn’t have the knowledge or resources to undertake B2B marketing, it was a godsend.

If all the major stores are compliant to a basic version of an open standard, it becomes much easier for developers to negotiate distribution deals. A developer could negotiate terms (exclusive content? exclusivity? better revenue share? bundling?) with each of the major stores that serve their particular audience, and perhaps set up a standard secondary contract for the hundreds (thousands) of smaller stores targeting specific audiences and territories.

I am sure there are already lots of people at PC publishers, online stores and university start-up incubators toying with these ideas, but even if it really is the best way forward it’s not inevitable that it will just happen. Like Microsoft’s huge effort to align developers and GPU manufacturers behind DirectX, or Apple’s work to get all the major music publishers to get on board with iTunes, it may need a significant amount of focused willpower and resources to get such an initiative to critical mass.

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