The obscure and grim side of digital distribution

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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?

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