The obscure and grim side of digital distribution

By on February 27, 2012, 3:49 AM

In many cases digital distribution services deserve praise - Steam being the prime example in my book - but it's also true that as content publishing moves to pure digital form, we are slowly getting forced into closed ecosystems, whether it makes sense or not, or when convenience comes at the cost of freedom.

For example, if you want to play the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Old Republic, you must sign up for EA's Origin, the only place where you can buy a digital copy. Battlefield 3 received a similar treatment last year, though it was also made available through other competing services, but not Steam. Evidently, EA wants to use blockbuster titles as leverage so once they hook you in, they can hopefully promote other games and make you spend more money in the future through their distribution platform (rather than depending on the competition's).

Outside the PC, mobile platforms and in particular iOS, are being heavily favored by developers in hope they can come up with the next Angry Birds idea.

In our regular weekend reading post yesterday, Matt linked to a deeply interesting story titled "The dark side of digital distribution". Over the years we've covered our fair share of DRM fail stories, however the tales described on this article go well beyond mere inconvenience.

"... (UK newspaper) The Guardian, for example, released an app just over two years ago which sold for a one-off payment of £2.39 (which is fairly premium-priced in iOS terms). Many thousands of people bought it in good faith, but when the Guardian decided that their one-off payment wasn't enough, it simply discontinued the app and brought out a new subscription-based one. The original was first updated to force users through a nag screen for the new subscription service every time they loaded it, and then stopped working altogether with iOS 5."

There's also the case of Touch Racing Nitro, an iOS racing game that originally went on to sell for £2.39 on the App Store. The game received good reviews and after experimenting with many different price points in a span of a year or so, it was updated to go 'freemium'. If you are familiar with the way apps are updated on the iPhone then you know you rarely pay attention to what's new and simply tend to update all to the latest version.

In this case it meant the game you had previously paid for would become free to everyone, but two out of three (previously available) game modes would be locked unless you paid to upgrade. This in addition to the ads that were added to the newly free version of the game. Apple has been criticized in the past for not having a completely user-friendly mechanism for users to complain or ask for refunds (though many have found the iTunes complaint form effective), but more noteworthy was the horrific response received by Touch Racing's developer when responding to a complaint.

According to the developer, only 4% of the 2 million downloaded copies of the game were paid for (~80,000 paying customers) and thus it was justified that they pursued a new strategy for monetizing the game through ads. Because of the way the App Store works, if they had released a 'Lite' version of the game, they would have to start from zero and couldn't force ads into the 2 million users that had downloaded the game before.

Though I haven't been directly affected by any of these aforementioned scenarios, the rationale used by these companies irritated me to the point that I felt compelled to write this story at 5am in the morning and spread the word, so hopefully you are not caught off-guard by some unscrupulous publisher in the near future. Have you ever been caught in similar schemes due to the walls imposed by digital distribution?




User Comments: 22

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Guest said:

Have you seen this issue in Android?

Besides, people dumb enough to own Apple products can afford to be ripped off.

Guest said:

I must be thick. Maybe someone could explain where companies make money advertising stuff no one wants on other apps. No one intentionally clicks the ads, they are placed by the touch screen buttons on phones to get a few accidental clicks.

On the publishers head it sounds like false advertising, selling a product people believe is ad free or subscription free, and then railroading them to have a cr-app. Cr-apps should be vetted and removed.

Im sure people will disagree but this article made me think of sony. Heres a ps3 capable of yada yada yada and Other O/S. Oh wait we have changed our minds. Digital firmware spells remove Linux. And the customer is always wrong.

I also hate apps where you buy in game items at crazy prices. And half the virtual items u buy have one time or limited uses. My gf's kid plays some youngsters game on her ipod touch ( i know i know i told her no kids to play with it... ) and bam £10 on a virtual ice cream for a virtual giraffe... are you feckin kiddin me.

The ability to rip people off knows no bounds.

fimbles fimbles said:

Theres plenty of android games with adverts and trial modes.

alexandrionel said:

@guest 2nd row. It is Apple's fault on how they managed the situation.

I think everything digital has went down. If a few years ago a game would be almost perfect from beginning, do DLC, and few patches, now a lot of them have DLC, require a lot of patching and of course the total cost is also high comparing to just the game a few years ago.

Everytime I see such things I remember the lyrics and the song:

"Look for the bare necessities

The simple bare necessities

Forget about your worries and your strife

I mean the bare necessities

Old Mother Nature's recipes

That brings the bare necessities of life"

LE:

Or the same message but in different words:

"Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy **** we don't need."

Guest said:

I used to use a texting app on my iPod touch a while back, at the time it only had a paid version, you pay $1.99 and then use it as much as you wish.

a week later, a free version of the app was released with the exact same features, simply with small ads at the bottom of the screen =(

Guest said:

This news is no news and it has nothing to do with the situation going on in mobile platforms. And when I say nothing, I say nothing whatsoever.

Be it Steam or Origin, every PC user has access to all of them. It doesn't matter where it goes because you can have them all.

On the other hand, iOS will lock you into a Market and even Android comes with one pre-installed that holds the majority of the apps (and that most people don't bother to remove).

It doesn't matter how closed the system is on itself. If one of the PC distributors screws up, you just move to the next one in less than two minutes.

Guest said:

Not exclusive to digital distribution.

Take a publisher with a good reputation, Blizzard. I'm a huge fan of Blizzard games, love them all, but their unscrupulous business practices often cross the line.

Example: I paid full price for a retail box Diablo 2 the day it released it, played nearly daily when I was in HS. Until one day an "Update" was released one week prior to the expansion pack launch. The update effectively made everything at higher levels immune to all my characters. Not to worry! They then launched an expansion pack exactly one week later to add new types of damage that everything wasn't immune to... only $29.99

Or I bought a cutting edge CD-RW drive back in 1996ish, worked great until there was an "update", then suddenly all copy-protected media became unburnable, and it was locked so I couldn't revert back.

yukka, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I bought the guardian app on the iphone when it first came out. Thought it was really cool. I have since stopped using iOS but was unaware they had killed the original app off entirely. The biggest problem here is that you buy something thinking you own it but the developers can change what they want when they want and hike the price up too.

I wonder what would happen if steam decided to charge everyone a sub to keep access to their games in the future when there are so many on there that they can qualify it by needing more servers space or whatever. If they said "sub now or no access to the games" would there be an outcry and would it make a scrap of difference.

Guest said:

It seems this trend in apps is following a model used on pc software. If enough interest is garnered in the app then go to the "free" and pay for "features". They used to call this "bait and switch" . Only legislation that cracks down on this behavior will stop this, but given the current legislative body that is so chummy with software vendors (i.e. SOPA, ACTA, etc...) I don't think we will see a stop in this behavior. Of course boycotting the apps could be a start in the right direction.

Timonius Timonius said:

"For example, if you wanted to play the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Old Republic, you must sign up and download EA's Origin software."

Nope. EA Origin software is absolutely NOT required to play SW:TOR. Can't believe you got this one wrong.

Darkshadoe Darkshadoe said:

"EA wants to use blockbuster titles as leverage so once they hook you in, they can hopefully promote other games and make you spend more money in the future through their distribution platform (rather than depending on the competition's)."

This is not a problem at all. If they can't offer their product through Steam, I won't buy it. As far as I am concerned, Mass Effect 2 is the final game in the series.

Staff
Julio Franco Julio Franco, TechSpot Editor, said:

@Timonius, you are right, you don't need the software but you must have an Origin account. Besides it's the sole digital outlet.

ramonsterns said:

Julio said:

@Timonius, you are right, you don't need the software but you must have an Origin account. Besides it's the sole digital outlet.

I may get infected when I do something stupid without noticing, but why would anyone download Origin on their computer is beyond me.

I mean, who downloads spyware willingly?

~~~~~~~

On a serious note, maybe we're feeling entitled. According to software companies, specially video game ones, we're being entitled little children because we complain about their business practices. True story.

Scshadow said:

Unfortunately, there is really no way to effectively fight back. These companies have to do something so polarizing that they encounter unanimous reaction. Unfortunately, these companies know that by walking the grey line, they can slowly push the consumer around however they wish. And certainly government has no desire to step in.

ramonsterns said:

Scshadow said:

Unfortunately, there is really no way to effectively fight back. These companies have to do something so polarizing that they encounter unanimous reaction. Unfortunately, these companies know that by walking the grey line, they can slowly push the consumer around however they wish. And certainly government has no desire to step in.

Actually, for things like this there's voting with your wallet, but the second you suggest anything like boycotting something, everyone tells you you're overreacting and you should just, "deal with it".

Dealing with it is the first step in accepting this shitty business practice of dancing around the law to leech money from you. I have principles.

EDIT: YOU SAW NOTHING.

Guest said:

@ Julio - You have begun to define a new and useful service. Congratulations!! The service is monitoring digital delivery distributors - comparing these wonderful outfits to each other (with Steam as the current 'gold standard', but keep an eye on Amazon in this space, etc). Possible categories might be:

"account services" - can you sign in from other locations/computers, is it easy to do so, can you have simultaneous connections, are there conditions to your continuing your account, are they onerous

"shopping services" - can you save shopping cart, can you have/maintain wish list, is there a 'please give me' list to send to friends and parents, how easy/difficult is browsing/shopping, is any/all product detail more/or/less complete, are the programs rated, do ratings come from users, do ratings come from known reviewers, are there specials, are specials easy to find/browse

"library services" - can you access all of the programs you have paid for, is there any limit or limitation, can you download and then run programs without maintaining a connection to the distributor, can you upload and store programs you bought elsewhere in your library

"support services" - can you reach them by phone/chat/email, how quickly do they respond, is the response helpful, is there a user forum, is it well thought out and useful (or is it like a big ball of string - and you want the red one buried deep inside)

Oops, long winded.... It is just that I think you have a germ of an idea which really deserves to be nurtured. Good Luck!!

Cycloid Torus (I tried to sign in, but was broken somehow)

Darkshadoe Darkshadoe said:

ramonsterns said:

Scshadow said:

Unfortunately, there is really no way to effectively fight back. These companies have to do something so polarizing that they encounter unanimous reaction. Unfortunately, these companies know that by walking the grey line, they can slowly push the consumer around however they wish. And certainly government has no desire to step in.

Actually, for things like this there's voting with your wallet, but the second you suggest anything like boycotting something, everyone tells you you're overreacting and you should just, "deal with it".

Dealing with it is the first step in accepting this shitty business practice of dancing around the law to leech money from you. I have principles.

EDIT: YOU SAW NOTHING.

You are exactly right. If people would quit thinking they have to buy every new gadget, game, etc. and learn a little patience, then these business' would not be able to get away with this crap. If EA or any other company wants my money, they need to cater to me, not the other way around. I would have gladly paid $60 bucks for Mass Effect 3 but since they want to be greedy asses and force you to use their spyware, then they must not need my money that bad.

Guest said:

I just luv buying a physical steam enabled title and having to download the whole bloody thing.

oh and not being able to sell it on to friends.

digital is just great.

ramonsterns said:

Guest said:

I just luv buying a physical steam enabled title and having to download the whole bloody thing.

oh and not being able to sell it on to friends.

digital is just great.

How do you sell PC games to friends?

MilwaukeeMike said:

So.... there are companies out there who will rip off their customers if they can get away with it. And this is news? Even worthy of talking about?

A couple summers ago here in Wisconsin we had some very big storms and there was flooding. A river near Madison flooded and a house on the river was literally washed away. And it was all caught on video. Farmers Insurance denied the insurance claim because having your home washed down the river wasn't covered by their policy.

Some companies are asshats. Not news. Only mildly interesting. But worth mentioning because it's best way to prevent the behavior in the future.

Guest said:

First thing first. I hate Steam. I hate everything what that company stands for. And now for a bit of rant.

Steam always assume that user is total retard, it always assume that you live in the USA and own 2Pb/s internet connection, it always assume that you are in need of so-called virtual "friends", it always assume that you need $team services on permanent basis if you want to play. It always assume that you are on-line 24/7/365(6). For those of you who never lived under Soviet style government with Steam you can experience things first hand. 1. Can't install software where user want, you always are forced to install where IT want. 2. You can't sell the game if you are not interested in it anymore. 3. You can't gift the game to family member/friend if you are done with any particular title. 4. It always bugging you to go on-line, if you want to play off-line. 5. It always force you to run $team client in the background for trojan/spyware purposes. 6. User is always forced to activate game on-line even if game is strictly single player and off-line and you have DVD (good example with recent addition to X-family, X3:Albion Prelude). 7. Can't run game without Steam client (in fairness there still are/or were??/ few titles which worked fine, but not anymore). 8. Even if you buy CD/DVD with game you are often forced to download all crap from then net and activate game on Steam rendering optical media copy worthless in space of few seconds. 9. Finally, $team rip people off without mercy, pretty much every title there is you can buy cheaper anywhere else. That is Stalinism in purest of forms my Dear Friends. Don't like it GTFO! So I did without regrets.

Used Steam 3 times. 1st time was tricked. Bought game on DVD and discovered that it was Steam-bound - DVD ended in CD shredder 5min after installation. 2nd after long, long pause tried demo - nothing changed during that time, except Steam being even more intrusive. 3rd time got a game for free so tried it for a week. Anyway, any Steam game is bloody dead to me, don't care how much I was waiting for something. Steam (or UbiSoft for that matter) required - BANG! Head shot!

Marnomancer Marnomancer said:

First thing first. I hate Steam. I hate everything what that company stands for. And now for a bit of rant.

Steam always assume that user is total retard, it always assume that you live in the USA and own 2Pb/s internet connection, it always assume that you are in need of so-called virtual "friends", it always assume that you need $team services on permanent basis if you want to play. It always assume that you are on-line 24/7/365(6). For those of you who never lived under Soviet style government with Steam you can experience things first hand. 1. Can't install software where user want, you always are forced to install where IT want. 2. You can't sell the game if you are not interested in it anymore. 3. You can't gift the game to family member/friend if you are done with any particular title. 4. It always bugging you to go on-line, if you want to play off-line. 5. It always force you to run $team client in the background for trojan/spyware purposes. 6. User is always forced to activate game on-line even if game is strictly single player and off-line and you have DVD (good example with recent addition to X-family, X3:Albion Prelude). 7. Can't run game without Steam client (in fairness there still are/or were??/ few titles which worked fine, but not anymore). 8. Even if you buy CD/DVD with game you are often forced to download all crap from then net and activate game on Steam rendering optical media copy worthless in space of few seconds. 9. Finally, $team rip people off without mercy, pretty much every title there is you can buy cheaper anywhere else. That is Stalinism in purest of forms my Dear Friends. Don't like it GTFO! So I did without regrets.

Used Steam 3 times. 1st time was tricked. Bought game on DVD and discovered that it was Steam-bound - DVD ended in CD shredder 5min after installation. 2nd after long, long pause tried demo - nothing changed during that time, except Steam being even more intrusive. 3rd time got a game for free so tried it for a week. Anyway, any Steam game is bloody dead to me, don't care how much I was waiting for something. Steam (or UbiSoft for that matter) required - BANG! Head shot!

Very true.

Personally speaking, I totally hate Steam, and I don't like the prospect of purely digital distribution. It's a real pain in the a*se for those who don't own a credit card. Pure BS started by Valve, Steam, and EA.

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