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Wednesday, November 05, 2003
Downloading games online


As it weighs up DVDs against online distribution, the games industry remains a pioneer in new forms of software distribution.

With users of games consoles such as Xbox now able to download new content directly into their units, the battle is on to see if DVD or electronic distribution will be the next big thing. Games on Xbox Live are played using a peer-to-peer system to minimise delays, and servers act only to authenticate users, but new Xbox content uses existing internet systems.

"The most important part of Live downloads are game patches," Xbox product marketing manager Nick Segger says.

PC games have patches available online, but without a centralised distribution system many players are unable to join game servers running a different version of the program.

"This doesn't happen on Xbox Live," Segger says. Live's download component is a win for gamers and developers.

"Obviously, gamers get extra value for free, while developers have an opportunity to include aspects of their games that in the past would not have got to their audience," he says.

Games have traditionally been at the forefront of software distribution. Before the internet had penetrated the mainstream, many games were distributed electronically via bulletin boards.

They were also a major force in shareware, which allowed test versions of software to be downloaded and extra features unlocked or loaded after paying.

Once games picked up in the 1990s and became a multimillion-dollar industry, publishers were able to make the shift to CD distribution instead of floppy disk.

With 10 times the storage space for a smaller production cost, developers could create even more game content, with the result that many games now come on two, or even four, CDs.

Valve, developer of the hugely popular Half-Life and publisher of one of the world's most popular online games, Counter-Strike, is putting its money on the net.

Its distribution system, Steam, is like Xbox Live in that it provides game updates and new titles, and allows players to exchange content they've created themselves.

The system initially struggled to satisfy large demands on a limited number of Steam servers, but most have since been ironed out, reinforcing Valve's belief that online distribution is the future of software sales.

Meanwhile, one of the most effective software distribution systems ever designed — peer-to-peer file sharing — still struggles under its image as the bogeyman of piracy.


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