Game Downloads: Beyond The Hype

imageDigital distribution has turned the music and print-media industries on their heads, and by most accounts, the video-game industry is next. Big-name publishers like *Activision* and EA are increasingly tacking on extra chapters and new levels to games, and expect to make big money off this downloadable content. But for all the hype, there are still some major obstacles blocking digital distribution of video-game content on a massive scale: speed, the limited storage capacity of consoles, and the return on investment publishers get for developing the content.

Downloading a full game takes far too long: The console-game networks were built to handle small bits of content, not gigabytes worth. Depending on connection speeds, it can take almost six minutes to download an 89-megabyte game demo (via MTV Multiplayer); a good video game expansion pack falls in the 2 GB range, and can take between two and four hours to download. Four hours is a long time to wait, especially since gamers can’t really play other titles in the meantime. More after the jump.

BBC News reports that U.K.-based gaming company Awomo is trying to tackle that challenge. Awomo’s technology rapidly downloads the core elements of a game so that users can play some levels while the remainder downloads in the background. One of the first games available this way is Eidos’ Tomb Raider Legend, which weighs in at about 7GB. Gamers need to download less than 10 percent of the game, or about 652MB, before they can start playing. “For the first time we have created a system that really does for games what iTunes does for music,” CEO Roger Walkden told BBC News. The problem is that Awomo works for PCs, and consoles are what’s fueling most of the current growth in video games. The tech also doesn’t attack the issues of limited storage capacity or flimsy revenue streams.

Consoles can only hold so much data: “None of the consoles, even the elite models, have enough hard-drive space to make it convenient for your hardcore users,” said Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) analyst Jesse Divinich. “And those are the early adopters that you need to eventually influence the mainstream.” Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 offer built in storage in the 20GB to 60GB range; gamers can buy external storage cards, but the bottom line is that they aren’t designed to store and stream massive libraries of games.

How much is all this downloadable content worth, anyway? One of the most anticipated DLC titles has been The Lost and Damned, the expansion pack to Rockstar’s blockbuster GTA: IV. *Microsoft* paid Rockstar $50 million upfront for exclusive rights to the content, and says it broke the first-day sales revenue record for all previous downloadable content on Xbox Live. Neither *Microsoft*, nor Rockstar has released actual sales data, but analysts estimate that global sales topped the $18 million mark just two weeks after it was released; EEDAR is projecting The Lost and Damned to do $40 million over the course of the next 12 months.

That’s stellar performance on one hand, but a drop in the bucket when compared to the $800 million in retail sales GTA:IV is expected to generate overall. And since the manpower Rockstar devoted to producing The Lost and Damned could have actually been used to work on the next full-scale GTA game, it raises the issue of whether developing it was the best use of the company’s resources — at least while the digital download market is still relatively nascent.