At this year's E3 Expo in Los Angeles, both Sony and Microsoft pushed upcoming services and devices that allow users to download full games to their hardware. For Microsoft, it's a new arm of its online marketplace that will let gamers download full retail games to their system's hard drives. For Sony, it's the new PSP Go, a slimmed-down version of its flagship portable gaming hardware that does away with its game slot in place of pushing Wi-Fi game downloads to its 16GB of built-in memory.
Both companies are pushing direct downloads as the premiere way to buy new games, and many are expecting the direct-downloading technology to be one of the main selling points in the next generation of gaming hardware. As a side effect, the new revenue model largely cuts out used game retailers, since there's less physical media to resell or swap with friends.
But let's get real for a moment, this is nothing new. In fact, game companies have been trying to get direct-download games working on consoles since the early 1980s. Let's take a brief look at previous efforts to sell console games without any physical media:
Intellivision's PlayCable (1981-83):
Intellivision was the first home console to let users download games via a coaxial cable line. Subscribers rented a special cartridge that hooked up to local cable and would be able to download single games that could be played until users decided to download new titles.
The service's downfall was a result of innovations to Mattel's Intellivision game system, which began using cartridges with ever-increasing amounts of memory. The PlayCable service could no longer keep up, since the special cartridge could hold only a fourth of the total space that newer games required.
The GameLine (1983)
Game consoles of the '80s pioneered the use of cartridges. Early on, many were simply ports of arcade titles and thus retained the coin-sucking gameplay mechanics that kept users playing again and again to get high scores. The only problem was that once the consumer bought the game, that was the end of the revenue stream for the publisher.
Then GameLine came along. This third-party game download service from Control Video (which later became America Online) worked with multiple game consoles and would let users download new games through a telephone line connected directly to a special cartridge. It would then limit gameplay to a certain number of plays that users would have to prebuy.
Despite GameLine's innovative approach to game distribution, it had two big problems. The first is that it never got big game publishers on board, meaning that users were paying big money for smaller titles that weren't available at retail. It also came out the same year as the video game crash of 1983, when most of the hardware vendors and software-publishing houses were going bankrupt.
The Sega Channel (1994-98):
The Sega Channel was a monthly subscription service for Sega's 16-bit Genesis system. Similar to Intellivision's offerings, users paid $15 a month to get access to an ever-changing library of games that could be downloaded directly to a cartridge that plugged into coax cable. Not all of Sega's games were available on the service, but it had several big titles that could be downloaded without leaving the house. It was also the first service to give users special games that were never released as retail offerings.
While the Sega Channel's special cartridge kept the same amount of internal memory throughout its life span, newer Genesis games were growing in cartridge size. To work around that limitation, some Sega Channel games were split up into parts that could be downloaded and played on their own. This kept it from running into some of the size problems that led to the demise of Intellivision's PlayCable.
The Sega Channel was discontinued at the end of the Genesis life cycle, and it was not brought back to work with the company's follow-up console, the Saturn.
The Nintendo Satellaview (1995-2001)
The Satellaview was an ambitious project by Nintendo of Japan to offer games, music, and news over satellite. Users could tune in at certain times of the day to get at the content, which would be downloaded into a special add-on accessory that strapped onto the bottom of the Super Famicom system.
Nintendo offered a wide range of games to the Satellaview. It also featured an innovative menu system that played like a video game. Users would have to navigate around a virtual house in order to download certain titles or access news feeds.
Satellaview operated by subscription and was never released outside of Japan. Its service ended when Nintendo released the Super Famicom's successor, the Nintendo 64.
Nintendo's RandNet (1999-2001):
Nintendo's RandNet service was specific to the 64DD add-on to the Nintendo 64. Released only in Japan, this peripheral added a magnetic disk drive to the bottom of the console and allowed for games that took up more space than Nintendo 64 cartridges could hold.
For about $30 a month, users got a special cable modem cartridge that plugged into the top of the N64 and hooked up to coax. It fed information into the 64DD, with which games up to 64MB in size could be downloaded from an online service. Users could also play certain games with one another, surf the Web with a built-in browser and, most importantly, download early levels from unreleased games. There was no game purchase store for full titles, but with a little more onboard storage, it could have led to that.
Xbox Live Arcade/Marketplace (2004-present):
Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) is a downloadable game service from Microsoft that's stretched from the original Xbox into Microsoft's current game hardware, the Xbox 360. When it was released for the original Xbox, gamers were required to have a special Xbox Live Arcade DVD in their systems to access any of the games they had purchased and downloaded to their hard drives. Once the Xbox 360 was released, Microsoft simply built it into the system's software to let users download games directly.
Games on XBLA are typically casual titles. Early on, they were limited to 50MB in size to be able to work for Xbox 360 owners who had purchased the lower-end versions of the machines that did not come with hard drives. Microsoft later lifted that cap to 150MB, then to 350MB, though several games have managed to get by that limit, including a movie tie-in game for "The Watchmen" that was 1.2GB in size.
Full-game downloads on Xbox Live's Marketplace didn't come until the launch of a service in late 2007. Called "Xbox Originals," the service let users download select original Xbox titles that could be played on their Xbox 360. Unlike the system's backwards compatibility with most older Xbox titles, Xbox Originals provided full digital copies that would be downloaded directly to the 360's hard drive.
At this year's E3, Microsoft announced plans to offer a similar service to Xbox Originals, except for Xbox 360 games. Called "Games on Demand," Microsoft is going to offer a selection of older titles, along with releasing new games as direct downloads. Each title falls somewhere between 4GB and 6GB in size, and can be redownloaded an unlimited number of times, if deleted.
Wii Shop (2006-present)
The Wii Shop came as built-in software on Nintendo's Wii. It lets users purchase Wii applications and games using virtual currency tied to real-world dollars. The shop houses classic games from older consoles (including some of Nintendo's past competitors), along with new downloadable games that have been specifically developed for the Wii.
Due to size restrictions on the console, these games are not as large or full-featured as standard Wii titles. They're also similar to what's found on Microsoft and Sony's download stores.
PlayStation 3 / PSP Store (2006-present)
The PlayStation Store, which comes preinstalled on the PlayStation 3, lets users download movies, music, and video games. Like the Wii and Xbox 360, it has a selection of low-cost casual games that can be purchased online only. It also has some original PlayStation games that can be downloaded straight to the hard drive and run using a software emulator.
In late 2007, Sony began releasing select PlayStation 3 titles as direct downloads. It was the first current-generation console to do so. These games cost about the same as their Blu-ray Disc retail counterparts, but only eight have been released as direct downloads out of the hundreds of titles that have hit retail.
Along with games that run on the PlayStation 3, users can also purchase some games for Sony's portable system, the PSP, which can be transferred via USB cable to the device.
PSP users can download some games directly to their device instead of purchasing them on Sony's proprietary UMD physical format. Sony has not made all the games it's released at retail available for digital download, but it is expected to do so later this year to coincide with the release of the PSP Go, which features no UMD slot and uses internal solid-state memory instead.
DSi Shop (2008-present)
Nintendo's DSi portable system includes DSi Shop software, which enables users to buy DSiWare games over a Wi-Fi connection, and store them on the system's internal or external memory. Unlike what's available on the PSP, however, these games typically have fewer features.
The future (2010 and beyond)
Going forward, direct downloads are sure to be a staple in all next-generation console hardware, for both the home and on the go. There are serious benefits to distributing game code digitally, especially for publishers. With built-in digital rights management, they get tighter control over leaks, and with the removal of a used market, their sales potential increases.
What's changed over the years has been less about delivery and more about storage. Storage, naturally, is an area in which some of the biggest problems crop up for hardware manufacturers.
Back in the '80s, GameLine and PlayCable were working with mere kilobytes of storage, whereas Microsoft's new Games on Demand service will have titles pushing 6GB. Some PlayStation 3 titles are nearly four times that size, maxing out single-layer Blu-ray Discs, which can handle up to 25GB.
Sizes like that aren't going to work for downloads, unless you've got some serious hard-drive space. The PlayStation 3 tops out at 160GB, though it can be expanded, if users install third-party drives. That has to be one of the factors that has kept Sony from making more of its titles available as direct downloads.
With advances in storage size and broadband speeds, optical media's days are definitely numbered, but we may be seeing the same hybrid approach we're seeing in this generation for the next one too. Where game companies like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo face the biggest roadblock is in trying to balance the ease of distribution with the burdening necessity of pricey and underperforming storage mediums.