Wouldn’t it be nice to have the ability to play the same or to find new video games at a lower price? Gaming platforms are experiencing a rise in the “click-to-buy” market of digital gaming across the globe. American digital game sales were over $2 billion in 2012 and over $1.2 billion of sales in the UK, France, and Germany. While people used to have entire bookshelves and CD sleeves dedicated to their gaming media, it is now all available for download to their hard drives. The rise of digital distribution has been important in the past few years because it is redefining how people buy video games on their PCs and Macs.
Advancements in infrastructure and broadband technology over the last decade have allowed the Valve Corporation, with its gaming platform Steam, to become the largest games distributor for PC and Mac. At one point during Thanksgiving break of last year, over six million users were concurrently signed into the service. Steam is similar to other platforms like Electronic Arts’ Origin service, and it has improved over the years to boast more depth and community features. The Steam platform began as a method of streamlining the patching process of one of its most popular games—Counter Strike. Steam was not highly recommended by users at first, but ultimately the platform came to replace the framework of the World Opponent Network (WON) service and also emanated as a distribution and digital rights management for entire games.
Many attributes of the Steam software are all-inclusive, and it boasts convenient features such as cloud saving and in-game voice and chat. Users are able to manage the software across multiple computers, and there are extensive community features. Distributors also recognize a convenience in digital gaming—creator of the software Universe Sandbox Dan Dixon explains, “There is essentially no upfront cost for the developer, and it is risk-free” to produce infinitely duplicable software. Despite a deficiency in advertising, Dixon explains that once people know about games it is easier to buy them online using a credit card. Dixon says, “Steam is the only name in town” in the eyes of digital developers. “It is well-regarded, easy to use and, most importantly, fair to developers.”
There is no need for a digital distributor to have any physical inventory because everything is distributed over the internet. In brick-and-mortar stores, they only carry the most popular and/or profitable titles as they are unable to stock massive catalogs of older or smaller titles. On this same note, digital distribution is allowing a huge amount of new indie developers to compete with AAA titles for a fraction of the cost. There is no need for the large initial capital costs in launching a title and getting it onto store shelves. Ultimately, this allows for a much greater amount of creativity and innovation to thrive in the industry because people are able to take greater risks. It allows for truly novel ideas to compete with the often more conservative and regurgitated AAA titles. It is the reason that games created by small indie companies like Amnesia, Terraria, Natural Selection, and others can be found alongside the AAA titles on the Steam most-downloaded list. One game that stems from a hobby project by developer Dan Dixon is an interactive space simulator, Universe Sandbox. This game is available for an extremely reasonable price, and it is constantly evolving into a scientific space simulation.
The rise of digital distribution has been important in the past few years because it is redefining how people buy video games on their PC.
Dixon never imagined his software would end up on Steam and become his life’s work. Originally a user of Steam distribution himself, Dixon says there really has not been anything done as well or as complex as his vision, which he and others describe as “aesthetically beautiful.” Universe Sandbox has been available for one and a half years, before which Dixon worked on the project in his free time. Since launching the software individually, he has acquired four team members that are helping to produce a new version.
Dixon says that one of the men, an astronomer from Montana, has provided “great inside knowledge—more than can be determined from a Wikipedia article.” Two men from Germany are also involved in the development process with one being a coding architect that assembles all of the pieces and the other being the graphics programmer. A team member from Denmark that specializes in computational physics has been able to incorporate a complex 3-D fluid simulation; instead of using pictures to generate the code, he writes code procedurally and mathematically. “The math behind gravity is straightforward—it is ten lines of code consisting of multiplication and division over and over again. Elements of simulation beyond this become quite a bit more complicated,” says Dixon. Features of the software such as galaxy simulation, dark matter, pressure weight and the pressure between stars and gases make the software more realistic but are all difficult to produce. Dixon further explains that simulating atmospheres and weather can be “crazy complicated, and it is computationally expensive to keep performance real-time on a normal desktop or laptop.”
Universe Sandbox is now available through “Steam for Schools,” a limited version of Steam that allows any school to sign up for free. Dixon believes he has made notable educational software and explains that it is easier to give away the software for free rather than selling it. From the perspective of a developer, Dixon says, “It is complex to go through schools without the convenience of the online purchasing process. There has to be a quote, a purchase order, an invoice and then a check in the mail which turns out to be a lot of work.” Alternatively, he explains that Steam has extremely popular holiday sales of 50 to 75 percent off of hundreds of titles, and he can make up to eight times as much as the rest of the week without putting in any additional effort. Dixon ultimately looks forward to “making the amazingness of our reality acceptable and interactive in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
Whether they are a small independent company or a large software house, all developers must ultimately look at the data and think, “What are the players looking to do right now? What are they looking to buy? What could they want? How can we make purchasing content and games easier and, ultimately, gain a bigger following and increase our revenue?” This approach is likely to produce better results than simply taking individual ideas that are viewed as promising by the producer. This has pushed many producers to provide a higher quality product and is one of the driving forces in the rise in digital gaming today.