Editorial: Downloadable Games Deserve Justice

by Joe Juba on May 01, 2013 at 06:12 AM

With the impending announcement of next-generation hardware, the major console manufacturers have undoubtedly spent a lot of time analyzing their approach to the current systems, taking stock of what worked and what needs to improve. Flashy new features are inevitable, but companies also need to focus on not making the same mistakes. I hope the incompetent handling of downloadable games is at the top of everybody’s “don’t make these mistakes again” list.

It’s easy to point to successful titles on services like Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare and say that the systems work. After all, they brought games like Journey, Castle Crashers, Braid, and Cave Story into our living rooms. But for every title on these services that gets a solid release date in advance (and the marketing to raise awareness), dozens are handled with a baffling lack of care and planning.

Look at The Cave, for example. Sega revealed it was publishing the adventure game from Ron Gilbert and Double Fine last May, and it had a solid E3 showing…but interested gamers didn’t have any solid release information to hang their hopes on. Even with trailers and information trickling out, having a definitive date to look forward to is invaluable. It lets gamers plan ahead in terms of budgeting time and money, and it lets publishers ramp up excitement gradually in the weeks prior to release. That didn’t get a chance to happen with The Cave; fans only got one week’s notice.

I won’t pretend to know any specifics with regards to The Cave’s release, but I’ve seen similar things happen to other titles. Can you imagine why a developer would want one measly week to promote and generate excitement for its game’s imminent release? Probably not. In the downloadable game space, that’s not a choice you would make for yourself; it’s a choice that’s made for you.

While the publishers are supposedly responsible for getting games into people’s hands, most of the blame lies squarely with Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. They are the gatekeepers of their own services, and they decide which games are available and when. I once played a complete game five months before it finally went on sale. When I played it, the developer was planning to see release in a few weeks, so something must have gone wrong on the other side of the equation. If developers don't even know when their games are coming out, how are gamers supposed to find out? 

Here's a fun game to help illustrate my point: Do a quick search online and try to find what games are coming out on Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network for the month. Good luck! According to Major Nelson right now, the only upcoming Xbox Live Arcade game is called Special Forces: Seal Team X – which allegedly comes out tomorrow, despite the fact that I can’t seem to find any corroborating proof that it exists. How is a studio supposed to build up any hype prior to release if gamers can’t even find out what’s coming out in the next four weeks?

These fluid (or non-existent) release dates are an inexcusable problem. They may not be as profitable as triple-A releases, but downloadable games don’t deserve to be treated like second-class citizens. For the next generation, all console manufacturers need to get this area under control. Downloadable games are only going to become more important, but the current lack of planning and communication surrounding them is essentially setting them up to fail. It does a shameful disservice to the developers who work so hard on these games, and to the gamers who might otherwise have enjoyed them.

This story was originally published on February 5, 2013.