Sony’s ‘Day 1 Digital’ Downloads: How Much Longer Until Retail’s Demise?

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Sony’s PlayStation Network-related announcement on Tuesday about “Day 1” digital game downloads was both unexpected and inevitable.

Inevitable because digital storefronts are flourishing and putting significant pressure on consoles — on a PC service like Steam alone we’ve had day-one digital sales for years.

Unexpected because Sony announced not just one or two but eight games, due in October, all of them “AAA” (in Sony’s words).

“AAA”? Try Resident Evil 6, Dishonored, Medal of Honor: Warfighter and five others, just a few clicks and so many gigabytes away from your PS3’s hard drive — no need to make a trip down the road (or further) to a store that lays out games in snap-open plastic containers on actual shelves. No going into the store beforehand to lay money down just to guarantee a copy at launch. No having to politely wave off sales associates trying to up-sell you on strategy guides or special store club-card memberships. No standing in out-the-door lines after midnight to pick the game up.

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That you can buy and download games online isn’t news. That you’ll be able to buy eight “AAA” titles the same day they arrive on store shelves, on the other hand, is. Digital downloads of retail-released games through Sony’s PSN or Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE have existed for years, but these games typically appear months if not years after the retail debut. Day-one downloads of games like Need For Speed: Most WantedDOOM 3: BFG Edition and 007: Legends? That’s new.

Well, almost. Sony made Borderlands 2 a PSN day-one download just last week. In hindsight, that now looks like a test run. And following with some of the biggest-name holiday games less than a week before several of them are due to launch? That, no one saw coming.

And here’s where the retail knife really twists: Sony’s also offering a 10% discount on many of these games during their launch week, so long as you’re a PlayStation Plus member (a $50 a year subscription) and pre-order them through the PSN.

Check out the full list, with prices and release/download dates:

Resident Evil 6 ($59.99, 10/2)

NBA 2K13 ($59.99/$53.99 for PS Plus members who pre-order, 10/2)

Dishonored ($59.99/$53.99 for PS Plus members who pre-order, 10/9)

DOOM 3: BFG Edition ($39.99/$35.99 for PS Plus members who pre-order, 10/16)

007: Legends ($59.99/$53.99 for PS Plus members, 10/16)

Medal Of Honor: Warfighter ($59.99, 10/23)

Need For Speed: Most Wanted ($59.99/$53.99 for PS Plus members who pre-order, 10/30)

Assassin’s Creed III ($59.99, 10/30)

Offering day-one digital downloads of games like this would itself be cause enough to annoy — if not outright alarm — retailers like GameStop, but to then sweeten the deal by offering PlayStation-related discounts exclusively?

What’s more appealing to you: making multiple trips to a store where you’ll pay full price, or just tapping a few times on your PS3 and waiting a few hours (assuming you have average or better broadband) for the game to come down?

Before you get too giddy, a few caveats: You can only download what fits on your PS3’s hard drive (obviously, though also not-so-obviously — see below), and you can’t resell digitally purchased games.

How big are these games? If you scan the PlayStation Store, you’ll see a new “Day 1 Digital” button at top left. As I was typing this, Sony was only listing four of the above games: NBA 2K13, Dishonored, DOOM 3: BFG Edition and Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Click around and you’ll find descriptions, demos, preview videos, notes about each game’s output (720p vs. 1080p), ratings, the number of supported players and the save game size.

Missing is the most crucial metric of all: install size. It’s a critical omission, considering how big these games can get (see this list for a look at PS3 games from five years ago). Blu-ray discs can hold up to 50 GB of data, and there’s a reason something as gargantuan as Metal Gear Solid 4, said to approach the 50 GB mark, isn’t and may never be a PSN download.

My PS3 slim has a 160 GB hard drive with about 66 GB free space — not bad, but hardly roomy. I’d like to know how much space a game’s going to occupy before I download it, wouldn’t you? That’s been a staple of PC software requirement lists for decades, and if we’re supposed to take Sony’s “Day 1” downloads seriously, it needs to be one for consoles, too.

[Update: Sony contacted me to clarify this, writing: “In many cases, at the time pre-orders launch, the final games are not yet available, so we are unable to include the install size. That being said, we currently list the install size for every available product on their product info page.”]

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Let’s say Sony remedies this, gets those numbers up, and you realize you won’t have enough space to close the deal (some of you, I assume, are still using 20 GB PS3s, after all).

One solution: The most spacious PS3 on sale today comes with 320 GB, while there’s a 500 GB model — the vanguard of Sony’s new super-slim model lineup — that’ll be available on Oct. 30. Plenty of room (and headroom), in other words.

But that’s an expensive fix, buying another PS3 just to update your internal storage. Here’s another idea.

Unlike Microsoft, who’ll ask you to pay as much for 320 GB of proprietary Xbox 360-branded storage as you would for a 1 TB standalone hard drive, Sony lets you treat your PS3 like the PC it really is. With a bit of light, entry-level screwdriver work, you can drop in any store-bought 2.5-inch SATA drive, removing the ceiling on storage size entirely.

You’re out the cost of that hard drive, of course, say $100, give or take, for 1 TB. And there’s a legitimate price argument here: If the average discount on a PSN-bought game is $6, you’d need to buy 16 or 17 of these to recoup your outlay versus purchasing the retail versions and streaming most of the games off the discs. In this instance, you’d have to weigh the upsides of not having to hassle with retail against the storage upgrade cost.

Then there’s the resale issue. Many of you are used to the idea that games you own are a kind of currency you can use to offset your investment in new ones. GameStop, Amazon, Walmart and more let you trade old games for cash or store credit. Downloading games digitally eliminates that perk. Sony’s discount scheme helps a little, but you’ll still surely pay more than you would were you trading in a game that might net you as much as $10 to $20 in store credit.

The counterargument: Digital downloads aren’t “one possible future,” they’re the only one (in an “I own it” future, anyway — there’s cloud gaming and gaming-as-a-subscription-service to think about). Digital downloads provide the “solution” publishers and developers have been clamoring for, packing a one-two (pro-sales, anti-piracy) punch.

A third caveat: download times and ISP data usage caps. As noted above, if you have an average or better broadband package, you’re probably fine, speed-wise — able to grab something like a 10 GB game in just a few hours.

But we all know, or should by now, that “unlimited” is a marketing department fiction. You’ll want to verify what your ISP’s threshold is, and if you’re a heavy data user, streaming Hulu and Netflix HD-quality videos daily and/or downloading (or re-downloading) digital content like games, movies and music, you may need to start keeping tabs on your monthly draw to avoid bandwidth throttling.

Last but not least, there’s the question of how Sony allows us to download these games. Will we be able to pre-load them, like on Steam, such that the games are ready to play the minute the clock strikes 12? If not, there’s a “firsties” feather in retail’s cap, albeit one that probably applies to a fraction of the hardest core.

Will we see another list of “Day 1” titles in November? Every month here out? I’m betting yes, in which case this is how it begins. And expect the competition — Nintendo’s already said it’ll offer digital versions of Wii U games at launch on Nov. 18 — to follow suit.

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