Saturday, March 31, 2012

Digital Distribution: Exchanging Control For Convenience

Digital distribution can be a good thing, eliminating shipping, packaging, printing, storage, etc. and allowing instantaneous order fulfillment. Unfortunately, it has its downside, especially when digital products are tied to "walled gardens." The possibility always exists that the product you purchased, for all intents and purposes, never really belongs to you. We've seen it previously with Amazon's decision to suddenly remove purchased e-books from customers' e-readers.

Stuart Campbell at Wings over Sealand has another example of this unfortunate byproduct of digital distribution: the fact that you don't own what you've purchased. This means that at any time, for nearly any reason, the product you paid for can be rendered completely worthless.

In the case of iTunes, customers are not entitled to refunds on purchases, with the product in question being treated much in the same fashion as opened software, DVDs, etc. in brick-and-mortar stores. Once you've opened (installed) the product, it's yours forever, no matter how terrible it is.
"According to the iTunes Store Terms of Sale, all purchases made on the iTunes Store are ineligible for refund. This policy matches Apple's refund policies and provides protection for copyrighted materials."
In Campbell's case, the product in question isn't actually a bad piece of software, unlike the many clones and scamware inhabiting app markets. By his own account, he purchased and enjoyed the game (Touch Racing Nitro). After he purchased it, the developer (Bravo) went through a series of price adjustments, trying to find a sweet spot, ranging from £1.19 - £4.99. When this failed to make the impact on sales, Bravo offered a few free trial periods before marking it all the way down to 69p, which moved it back into the top 10 for a short time.

It's at this point that things get ugly.
Last October the game went free again, and stayed that way for four months. Then the sting came along. About a week ago (at time of writing), the game received an "update", which came with just four words of description - "Now Touch Racing Free!" As the game was already free, users could have been forgiven for thinking this wasn't much of a change. But in fact, the app thousands of them had paid up to £5 for had effectively just been stolen.

Two of the game's three racing modes were now locked away behind IAP paywalls, and the entire game was disfigured with ruinous in-game advertising, which required yet another payment to remove.
Campbell's paid-for software suddenly became indistinguishable from the free version, despite his having anted up for the game months ago. He fired off an email to Bravo, asking the developers to explain their reasoning for removing previously paid for content and asking these same paying customers to pay up again in order to return the game to its previous state.

He received a reply a day later from Ana Hidalgo, Bravo's "Social Media Manager":

Thanks for contacting us.

I'm really sorry about that. I knew that this could happen. The team had no option but to do that.

We're not trying to make money from people who have already bought the game like you did. It is not an excuse, but only 4% of the 2MM downloads have been paid ones. Unfortunately, Apple doesn't provide with any methods to know when an user has paid or not for an app. We just want to monetize the game from that 96% who are enjoying the game for free. Our goal is to monetize them via advertisement. We understand that this is annoying for the players that have paid for it.

Yes, maybe we could have released a LITE version, but if we release a new free version, we couldn't monetize near 2 MM free downloads we already have. And why we have 96% free downloads? A very bad old decision.. We've begun a new phase at Bravo Games and we definitely need some revenues from those downloads.

At the moment all our efforts are focused in new projects. When we finish those projects, we'll evaluate the possibility of adding new content to previous games like Touch Racing Nitro.

I regret to hear that you never buy another of our apps."
For all the supposed "entitlement" game fans have attributed to them constantly, nothing quite matches the entitlement "radiating from Sra. Hildalgo." For starters, if a developer feels that making an app free was a "mistake," it only compounds its errors when it starts taking it out on paying customers, especially when those customers number in the thousands.
If 96% of those were free downloads, that means that a whopping 80,000 people who paid money for Touch Racing have just been screwed. If we assume an arbitrary but reasonable average price of £1.19 (the second-lowest App Store price tier at the time most of the sales were made, though the app has cost at least twice that much for most of its life), that's just short of £100,000 that Bravo have extracted from consumers for what is in effect a "Lite" demo version of the game.

Imagine if the rest of the world worked this way. Imagine you went to Tesco and bought three boxes of Corn Flakes on a "three-for-two" offer, only for a Tesco employee to turn up at your house one day a month later and confiscate not only the "free" box but also the second one that you'd actually paid for. There'd be riots, or at the very least a long court backlog of assault cases and battered workers. Yet apparently, for videogames it's the dynamic economic model of the future.
Campbell is, unfortunately, right. Digital distribution puts control of purchased products completely in the hands of the developers and the distribution service. There are some game developers who would love nothing more than to go to 100% straight digital distribution, not only for the previously mentioned savings, but to allow them to retain complete control of their products. A fully digital distribution disguises DRM as a facet of the service (constant online connection, some or most content inaccessible offline) and helps eliminate the used game market which seems to rank very slightly below straight-up piracy in their minds.

Whatever pluses there are for the consumer are greatly negated by these factors. Any dispute between the distributor and the developers puts purchased products in the firing line. Should a developer suddenly pull out of the walled garden, customers may find themselves without support or updates for their purchased products, or worse yet, find themselves without functioning products.

Campbell has adjusted his tactics accordingly:
WoSland is a pretty wily consumer, and currently has eight apps sitting in its iPhone's "update" queue which are never going to get those updates, because the "update" in question is in fact a downgrade, removing functionality and/or adding ads. We've deleted many others altogether for the same reason.
Of course, this is far from convenient. Once you run into this situation, you're left with the choice of allowing all updates (even those that downgrade your software) or tediously updating all of your apps one at a time after verifying that said update won't remove functionality. Hardly ideal.

As he points out, console owners aren't so lucky. Most updates are forced, giving you the "choice" of updating or not playing your purchased game. And it's not just games and apps. As referenced above, e-books readers have been victims of distributor meddling in the past. Users of "services" like Ultraviolet and the "drive your DVD to the retailer to rip it to the cloud" may find their copies bricked if these services are shut down or (more likely) get caught in the middle of a contractual dispute.

If it's all about "control" with gatekeepers and walled gardens, digital distribution is playing right into their hands, turning what should be an advantageous situation for everyone involved into little more than a mixed curse.


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