Sunday, September 21, 2014

. . . A Taste of Things to Come (Digital Game Distribution)

There are not many auto racing video games that are part of a game series that command the measure of respect and anticipation that the games of Forza Racing do.  That is a simple statement of fact.

On 30 September - in just 9 days - the first sequel to the newest venture in the Forza series - Forza Horizon 2 - will launch, and when it does it will be a monumental event for several reasons, not the least of which being the fact that it is the sequel to a game that broke the traditions of Forza, which for its entire existence has been a simulation of traditional track-based professional racing.

The break with tradition in the case of Horizon is that unlike the previous games in the Forza Motorsport series, Horizon took the players off the track and onto city streets and highways, country lanes, and dirt tracks.  It not only broke the tradition, it shattered it.  And it did so with quite a lot of respect on the part of the players, who just love it do death!

But that is not the bit that I am referring to when I say the launch will be monumental.  No, that bit is the manner in which a significant portion of the players will actually play the game come midnight-oh-one on 30 September...

Traditional Video Game Distribution Paths
The history of game distribution is pretty simple and easy to assess.  In the past it worked like this: the games were completed, manufactured in their retail boxed presentation, and shipped to the various outlets that sell them.

Once at the retail end, a handful of employees - and their friends - would get to buy the game early, take it home and play it, and thus join briefly with the legitimate members of the video game press in having an early go at the game.  

Their illicit access is brief compared to that of the games journos, who get the games weeks before they are released.   For example as I write this there is a copy of Forza Horizon 2 sitting on the hard drive of my Xbox One, and it has been there since last Friday.

The game - or rather a code for a digital copy of the game - was provided to me by the PRs who are in charge of that sort of thing for Turn 10 and Microsoft - and I am using it to evaluate the game in preparation for writing my review.  

That is all I can say about that, because the details of the game are under embargo until the end of the week - but FH2 makes an excellent illustration for this post, as you will shortly see...

Digital Distribution
The problem of early release copies getting out into the wild has always been the sore point in the challenge to find a way to distribute games online.  Since the introduction of broadband on a wide scale worldwide, game distribution has been headed in that direction.  But up until recently that sort of distribution had its own set of impediments...

Modern games come in two flavors these days - traditional retail boxed copies, which the gamer has to either pre-order or go stand in line on release day and hope that they can get a copy - and digital downloads, which the gamer can obtain in the comfort of their own home.

On release day though, with tens of thousands of gamers trying to redeem their digital key and download the game, issues like failure to connect to the download server and bandwidth limitations have plagued the digital side, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of many a gamer.

The release of Forza Horizon 2 though, that may change both perceptions and the experience.  Why?  Well for a very good reason!  You can buy and download a digital copy of the game right now.

Seriously - you can purchase a code online, then plug that code into your Xbox One in the Redeem a Code box, and then actually download the full game, as we speak.  I know because I downloaded the game from the standard server using a standard code provided by the PRs.  This system works!

You can't PLAY the game mind you.  Unless you also have a special Unlock Code, it will not function, will not load, and will not allow you to race up and down the streets in its virtual world, at least not until Midnight-oh-one on 30 September.  

The fact that you can't play it is not the important bit here - the fact that you HAVE it. That it is already ON your hard drive and just waiting for the release date?  THAT is the big deal.

For FH2 there will not be any slow downloads.  There will be no failure to redeem codes, or issues with the server not having adequate bandwidth or connection sockets.  In short, they have solved the problems associated with digital downloads of video games!

Now before you think, oh clever gamer, that you could buy it, download it, and then simply set the date on your Xbox One to 30 September and be playing early, no, it don't work that way.

When you run the game - every time you run the game but more important the first time you run it - it connects to the game server online to check a number of facts such as does a launch-day patch exist?  Should it update the client?  And hey, by the way, what day is it?
You were probably expecting the most modern of rides - and they are there - but were you expecting anything this bloody cool?  That is a war-vintage Willys Jeep!  How cool is that?  Massively Cool!

The Wave of the Future?
Definitely.  I don't care how you look at the whole issue of modern games and gaming - whether you think they are too expensive, or not big enough.  The many and varied ways that critics of games and video gaming have to spout their rhetoric and issue complaints do not interest me.

What interests me is the fact that some very clever people finally worked out how to sell games early and online, cutting out the necessity of dealing with the gnomes that man the counter at your typical game store and who, in my experience, enjoy feeling superior as the gatekeepers of access to the newest and bestest games out there!

I am not joking - that attitude you experience when buying a new game on launch day is very very annoying.  Words like disgusting quickly come to mind.  And these are barely educated almost children who are treating you that way.

If you ever find yourself wondering how an entire nation could go power-mad and create the sort of hard feelings and horror that leads to World War, I suggest you visit a game store on launch day for a major title.  I am just saying...

But back on topic, the method that they are using to distribute FH2 digitally is nothing short of brilliant.  Every gamer with an Xbox One who decides they want to own the Day One Edition of Forza Horizon 2 can own it.  Can buy the code and redeem it early so that launch day for them simply means loading the game and bam!  They are racing!

If the experience that Turn 10 and Microsoft have with this launch is smooth and trouble free, I think we can expect to see more games go this route, I certainly hope so.

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