Virgin to launch ‘rent’ distribution system
Virgin Games is set to see the launch of a proprietary digital distribution service next year, delivering a range of titles from FPS and RTS to casual. No mention is made of the service becoming a full platform akin to Steam or offering anything other than downloads, but those downloads will have an interesting twist: they will be completely streamed. In the words of VG’s chairman Simon Burridge, “consumers [will] never have the full game downloaded”.
VG’s ephemeral model follows the same concept as the original design for Steam’s Distributed File System. Rather than keeping the entire game on the hard drive, only the content in use, and either in a set buffer zone or that doesn’t make the cache exceed its maximum size, is available locally. The idea was dropped from Steam when file sizes, rates of game production and connection speeds made it inefficient: it must therefore be asked how Virgin intend to distribute today’s hefty games through such a system without infuriating its users, and what sort of limits they will have to enforce to avoid bottlenecks.
That said, it is notable that the age range of the games the system aims for is not mentioned, and the very fact that the streaming system is ephemeral suggests that its developers are expecting a high turnover rate among games.
Technical hurdles aside, Virgin Games intend to use their system to deliver the first major DD service using a rental model. They believe that by ensuring that users never have an entire game on their systems the security issues with rent systems on PC that have held the process back can be circumvented, though again, it is unclear exactly how the system will help the situation. There is a sweet spot to be found between preventable casual piracy and the gormless and untiring number robots of cracking rings, and from what we know today trying to get files that are on a user’s computer off at a later time does not seem to hit it.
Nevertheless, if Virgin can pull the system off, more power to them. If successful it will act as a testing ground for subscription-based purchasing of AAA titles, and could well propel similar systems on Steam and other services forward, or forewarn them of the consumer backlash against the idea – or even both. A healthy dose of scepticism is recommended from this quarter however, as the system, due in the second quarter of 2007, is still in its infancy.