Sony Toys With Idea Of Downloadable Games, Then Changes Its Mind
May 31, 2012

Sony Toys With Idea Of Downloadable Games, Then Changes Its Mind

Enid Burns for

The next evolution in the videogame console war almost went to download-only games. Both Sony and Microsoft reportedly considered videogame console systems that required gamers to download programs rather than buy discs. An article in the Wall Street Journal quotes separate sources close to both Sony and Microsoft.

Sony is likely to release its next videogame console in 2013, and Microsoft will likely follow in a similar timeframe. Systems from both console manufacturers will have an optical drive. Sony says it opted for disc-based media rather than downloads because it feels internet connections around the globe are inconsistent, and might leave some gamers hanging while waiting for games to download. Microsoft cited similar findings.

Digital delivery can clog up bandwidth, but it has some advantages for console manufacturers and videogame publishers. Some believe the protection against piracy is stronger with digital downloads. The protection that digital delivery provides may be why both console manufacturers considered the method.

PC games have moved to digital delivery and authentication over the past few years, though not entirely. Many publishers offer games through Steam, an online management system run by game developer Valve Software. Gamers can buy and download games through Steam. Even when a hard copy of a game is bought, portions of the game often have to be downloaded via Steam, and gamers often have to authenticate the game through the online service before playing. Several videogame retailers have attempted to go digital with the offer of digital downloads. GameStop carries discs, which it sells at retail locations and online, but also began offering certain games digitally.

On the console side, digital delivery has been tested to a lesser degree. Many of the games and programs provided by the online portion of the consoles, Microsoft Live and Sony's PlayStation Network, are delivered through download. It is only a matter of time before larger games are available online.

What's not clear is whether Sony or Microsoft planned to provide games for download, or a cloud-based gaming system that doesn't require a game to fully download, but does require an online connection for gameplay. Sony is rumored to be in talks with cloud-based gaming services Onlive and Gaikai, an article on TechCrunch speculates. Such a service would let gamers play videogames stored elsewhere and not require lengthy downloads.

While both Sony and Microsoft say they will provide an optical drive, it doesn't shut the door on downloadable delivery. It is possible publishers can still opt to provide games via download, or offer both a disc or download option. A number of PC game publishers provide both formats, and let the consumer choose how to purchase the game. There is room for both formats on the virtual shelves. Digital downloads also opens the door for serial-style episodes to games, or additional content.

Sony has some experience with online-only systems. Its PSP Go handheld, which is a smaller version of the PSP, is only able to get games via digital download. Sony has had mixed success with the compact device.