Last-Gen Heroes: Pre-Loading and Other Benefits of Digital Gaming

As a gamer in the last few years, I've more or less converted to digital media content in my life. Digital music, digital movies/tv, and finally digital games through Steam. Outside of still loving printed books because of eyestrain reasons, video games were the last kind of media content to convert me. Reasons for me to adopt a new technology, come down to it offering new features and/or improving on old ones to make my life better and more convenient.

Digital music has done so through pricing, letting me buy separate songs, and streaming services like Spotify. Digital movies/tv have done so through services like Hulu and Netflix, that charge small subscription fees for tons of immediate streaming content. Until about 2009, I wasn't seeing enough benefits from digital to really grab my attention over retail for most of my purchases.

Steam however started to grab me around then when it was really getting into the groove of price reduction on its titles, where I could get games at discounted prices all the way down to a few dollars. The only times I would see that for retail games was in bargain bins, usually for mediocre titles, or I'd have to get something used when it had been out far longer.

None of those options granted companies a video of their boss seen as a christ figure though:

However, one underrated feature that I've grown to love in Steam was the concept of pre-loading content. It was a feature that didn't just provide convenience in pricing, but convenience of delivery compared to even retail. No longer did I need to waste gas and time going to the store, but I also no longer had to waste part of the release day downloading the product. In the background while I was doing something else, part of my bandwidth could go to downloading the game, and I'd have it ready to play the morning it releases.

Last-Gen Heroes: Pre-Loading and Other Benefits of Digital Gaming

The feature has even improved in some cases, where I could play the pre-loaded games at midnight, or hours before. With this feature, the actual distribution of digital distribution, proved itself fundamentally better than retail, because I could play my content earlier. Really the only "Last-Gen Zero" part of this feature, is that it's not a bloody standard by now.

Last-Gen Heroes: Pre-Loading and Other Benefits of Digital Gaming

There are other handy digital features held back by not being universal yet (see above), such as Blizzard's pioneering efforts in partial game installs and partial patch downloading. Partial game installs essentially let you partially install content from the disc or digitally downloaded, and when it reaches the "playable" percentage, you can start delving into the early content, as the rest finishes. Partial patch downloading did the same thing with large patches, and in similar fashion some patches you could pre-load as well when new multiplayer functionality was later made live.

I've always thought of PC gaming as the crystal ball for consoles, where consoles down the line will mimic features of PC gaming. Their are benefits to both sides, as consoles often try to streamline the features, and sometimes add additional functionality:

Last-Gen Heroes: Pre-Loading and Other Benefits of Digital Gaming

Right now what you're seeing is Sony's kinda hokey PS4 commercial show the guy do the console version of "alt-tab" to access the PSN store, buy a game, download it, and go back into Knack while the Killzone: Shadowfall download keeps going in the background. In Steam I've essentially been able to do this for a while, except when I launch a game with another downloading...the download automatically stops. I have to alt-tab to then manually re-enable it, and then I can continue playing with barely if any performance hit. The console version streamlines that process with a chip specifically to handle background downloading, and even segments Killzone into multi-player and single-player downloads.

Without PC gaming existing, and all it has done for digital distribution, I question Sony coming up with this on their own. However, I think Valve (maybe EA too?) will see this more streamlined functionality, allowing me to just re-enable the download in the Steam Overlay, and have games with sectioned downloads for single-player and multiplayer. Both Sony and Microsoft have already discussed equivalent partial install features, and I suspect this will push more devs to design their games for convenience. It's a beautiful cycle of technology sharing and innovation, driven by competition...and for all the platform wars, something we can ALL get behind.

Later this month, I'm planning to build my new mini-itx (almost console size) PC, and for fun share the building of process with readers on TAY. One feature that I'll be taking advantage of, that has subtly been happening with PC motherboards for the last 1-2 years (maybe longer?), is remote-play like functionality. The creator of my soon to be motherboard, ASRock, calls it Home Cloud.

Last-Gen Heroes: Pre-Loading and Other Benefits of Digital Gaming

Just like the text reads, this feature allows you to remotely boot your computer on/off, and take control of its features using a computer or smartphone/tablet app. Within the motherboard is an Intel LAN chip, able to power on/off your computer when connected to a router. Say a new game comes out, or a game I've wanted to play goes on sale. I can boot my home computer and control it with Splashtop's remote desktop software, either on my work PC or with my smartphone/tablet. Then all I need to do is open Steam, buy the game, and start downloading. Either I just leave the computer on the whole day to download, or with my internet bandwidth, just turn it off in an half-hour to two hours.

Going a step forward, Splashtop's software can stream media from a home computer, which supposedly works without delay using music and videos. Steaming video games over the internet instead of your local network still produces a 1-2 second delay, making only turn-based games like Civ V viable...but one day I see internet infrastructure and software enhancements improving on this. I'm sure Sony will be doing this as well with their remote-play feature using the Vita, and Microsoft through smart-glass.

Despite some bad uses of Digital Distribution by devs and platform holders, I have already seen too much good come from it. Pre-loading and other features driven by digital distribution are a hero of this gen, and likely to be a defining part of the next.