4 Signs That Retail Games Are Dying

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"Die, GameStop, Die!" You won't see game developers saying that for publication--but they're all thinking it. Trust me. Get a few drinks in them (as I did this week at the DICE summit), and they'll vent about how the game retail giant is old news. But on the record, never is heard a disparaging word.

Two-wheeling with Grand Theft Auto IV.
This very easily could have been some tirade about the evils of second-hand games and how the resale market bleeds money from the game development community. After all, a retail chain that makes millions by selling used games and doesn't pay a dime in royalties to the game makers on those sales is slowly killing some game makers. It almost was that rant, but in chatting with developers and executives at the summit, I got to thinking. Between the recession and advances in digital distribution, 2009 will be the year that everything changes. Let me count the ways...

•1. Indie games will become a lot more sophisticated.

Small developers get a chance to play with the big boys, thanks to easily accessible online sales--but the big boys are learning lessons from the indie crowd as well.

With fewer retail chains and less money to invest in stocking stores, game retailers won't be putting nearly as many "risky" games on their shelves. Oh sure, you'll find the top 10 safe bets--the Madden NFLs and Grand Theft Autos of the gaming world--but the really out-there games won't stand a chance. How do you explain a game about flowers to a buyer from Walmart? (Hint: Use sock puppets).

Something clicked, however, when I recently downloaded The Maw on the Xbox 360. Here's a game that sells for 800 points (10 real-world bucks) and yet is so slickly polished that it could've been packaged as a full retail product. You control this cute, cuddly alien mouth that is basically the hungriest, gooniest pet in the universe. Sweet graphics, neat gameplay mechanics--I highly recommend that you download the demo to see what I'm talking about.

Look, Maw, no hands!
•2. "Second-tier" games will continue to move online.

Given the economy and costs that come with publishing physical discs, more big developers are adopting an "online-first" mentality.

Watchmen hits theaters on March 6, and Watchmen: The End Is Nigh is the tie-in game. It's tightly packaged with slick comic-book cut scenes and two-player button mashing that operate the way you'd expect a full-fledged, full-price game to behave. It's just shorter. And cheaper. And available only online.

Funny story about that: For a brief period, it was going to be a disc-based retail game. But rather than rush a half-done product out the door, the development team decided early on to focus on making it a downloadable episode. Smart move.

•3. Is the end of sequels nigh?

More developers will ditch the traditional sequel mentality and instead provide major downloadable content updates. After all, tell people that new additional material is coming soon, and they'll be more likely to hang onto the original discs. (Developers would never admit it, but it's a pretty clever way to keep people from reselling their games.)

Sequels will never, ever go away--they account for the vast majority of those safe bets that stock store shelves. But instead of rushing them out as quickly as possible, developers can just keep adding great downloadable content. Over the past few weeks, I've downloaded a full series of additional missions for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and I've grabbed the Operation Anchorage expansion for Fallout 3. Both added some new gameplay and story on top of what I'd already seen and done.

And this week, the guys at Rockstar did it again. The Lost and the Damned, going for 1600 points (20 bucks), feels like a whole new game built on top of GTA IV. Cut scenes, scripting--the works. Like Operation Anchorage, TLATD ingeniously uses the open world already there and adds a new layer over where you've already been.

•4. Prices are gonna go down!

This recession should finally shake up the pricing of some games. Does a game really need to cost 60 bucks--and with this recession, can it stay that expensive? And hey, why is it that you can buy a game on Valve's online Steam service, but the digital version costs just as much as a boxed copy?

Just the other night, Valve Software founder Gabe Newell gave a few great examples of how digital sales are the future--while jokingly apologizing for being a "Steam Whore." Last year's hit, Left 4 Dead, has done brisk business, with good sales both online and at retail stores--neither cannibalizing the other. But thanks to a major sale over the Presidents Day weekend, Valve sold more copies at 50 percent off than it did at full price when the game debuted. The trick is to find the magic price point where developers can sell enough additional copies of a game to justify the price cut.

The consensus around DICE is that retail isn't going to dry up overnight, but the game publishers and developers are rethinking how they interact with the community and how they release games. I can only hope that the end result is better, cheaper games for you--and more money going into deserving developer's pockets.

Until next time...

Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on gizmogladstone on Twitter for more time-wasting tips.

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