Thursday, October 15, 2009

Online distribution enables great, affordable games.

It's interesting to see that several of the best releases (in what has been a rather weak year for gaming so far) are actually 2-D games, available for less than full-price on digital distribution channels.

Thanks to the CD / DVD based retail distribution that has been the norm for gaming over the past decade and more, gaming has been surely and steadily moving towards the blockbuster culture seen in films and books – the focus has been on high-budget, high-technology and high-profile products that will prove to be worldwide hits and generate millions of dollars in revenue in order to justify their production and marketing costs. This meant that there was hardly any place for good quality but low-budget games that didn't fit in to the scheme of things simply because they weren't suitable for mass retail distribution. Think small, independent films that don't make it to big screens because of distribution bottlenecks that have no room for low-cost, low-risk and low-profit products.

Thankfully, thanks to digital distribution channels like Steam, XBOX Live and PlayStation Store, that seems to be changing, if the recent success of titles like Trine, Shadow Complex and Plants vs. Zombies is any indication.

Shadow Complex is a 2D platform shooter in the best traditions of the genre. The developers have admitted to being greatly inspired by Metroid, and I couldn't help seeing traces of the classic 2D shooter Abuse when playing it. Importantly, Shadow Complex uses the Unreal 3 engine – resulting in a 2D game that has state-of-the-art 3D graphics. It features proven, timeless gameplay, a few interesting new features, and current-gen presentation – a mix that has proved to be a hit with gamers worldwide. Sure, it's short. Sure, it's 2D. But that hasn't mattered to hundreds of thousands of people who have paid for and downloaded the game on XBOX live, primarily because it doesn't cost as much as a full-retail boxed release. So the gamers get a great game for a good price, the publisher makes a decent profit since they don't have to incur huge marketing, packaging and distribution costs, and everyone's happy.

The excellent Trine is another example of a 3D engine being used to deliver amazing gameplay on a classical 2D platform plane. While the gameplay remains firmly in the Super Mario / Prince of Persia / Metroid genre, the lighting, textures, animation and environments have a completely modern 3D feel to them. It's a delightful, refreshing and altogether amazing game.

The same goes for games such as Plants vs. Zombies (the latest from those peddlers of addiction, Popcap), and older classics such as Braid, World of Goo and Portal. These games don't cost too much to develop, especially when compared to blockbusters like Killzone or Halo or Need for Speed. And they'd be profitable even without selling a gazillion copies priced at Rs. 2499/- or thereabouts. Now, thanks to internet based distribution, they can sell enough copies to keep the developers in business, without needing to be juggernauts.

This is important because it gives us a much wider range of choices – lots of great games that would otherwise never make it to store shelves are suddenly available for us to play and enjoy. This makes for a much healthier, vibrant gaming ecosystem.

I'm all for this trend – more power to smaller, independent developers who build quality games at reasonable budgets. Do support them by buying these games from XBOX Live, Steam or PSN. It means we'll have lots more great games to choose from.

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