The New “Direct Market”

Note: This entry has been cross-posted to Shouting Loudly, where I tend to put most of my policy-oriented writing.

The Register notes that while Manhunt 2 may have been effectively banned from distribution in UK stores by the British Board of Film Classification’s refusal to assign a rating (again), the game could still sell online, via direct download (link via Game Politics).

Sound familiar? If you’re familiar with the regulatory history of the comic book, another medium stereotyped as juvenile, it should. The <a href=" Code Authority similarly banned certain comic books from newsstand distribution by refusing to grant approval, which killed entire genres of crime and horror comics for years. The medium only began to see adult work widely distributed again through a direct market of fan shops (which was partially built on a network of converted head shops that had been selling underground comix). This is, as the previous Wikipedia link notes, the “dominant” channel of distribution for comics today. It’s also notoriously unstable and frequently resistant to reach beyond an aging group of superhero fans, rather than appealing to new readers. Comic stores also have a reputation (sometimes deserved) for being inhospitable to newcomers.

Would the “direct market” of digital distribution for games be more open and accessible than the direct market of comics? I’m not sure it would be, at least not at first. It certainly hasn’t pulled comics out of its own network of specialty stores. Despite proclamations that webcomics would be the future of comics distribution, able to reach whole new audiences, they are still overwhelmed by content aimed at geeky niche audiences. (And while I’m not sure that things will stay that way, it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been much of a move to suggest otherwise just yet.) While online distribution does get around the physical problems associated with specialty stores (such as infrequency or occasionally surly staff), it does still require a certain degree of technical aptitude. It makes retail locations destination stores, where hardcore fans could find what they want but newcomers and gift-buyers would be unlikely to tread. Moreover, digital distribution limits the kind of technologies one can use to consume content: Webcomics generally can’t be held in the hand and flipped through until converted to print, and downloaded games over a certain size would need to be on PCs, despite that consoles are the platform of choice for many.

Of course, we’re only talking about one game still—Manhunt 2—which hasn’t even been announced as being distributed digitally. The whole issue could be moot. I’m just very wary about announcing that direct downloading will be the savior of game distribution in the wake of overly restrictive industry self-regulation.