New limited physical release announcements set a worrying precedent

,

Last night Devolver Digital announced that it’s going to publish a physical-only Switch game.

Demon Throttle by Doinksoft is a fun-looking, NES-themed action game that will only be available via the limited edition game store Special Reserve Games.

Players can order a physical version between June 12 – October 13, and after that there will be no way to ever buy a new copy again without resorting to the reseller market.

This doesn’t seem likely to change. Devolver is adamant that Demon Throttle will never be released digitally, meaning this 4-month pre-order window is the only way players will be able to buy the game before it’s actually released in 2022.

While this move may be designed to make the game feel more special in some way, it does also set a worrying precedent that we’re already starting to see happening elsewhere in the industry.

DISCLAIMER: Since this article was published, Super Rare Games has now U-turned on its decision to sell physical-only Switch games, stating on Twitter that “the criticism is 100% right”. Its Super Rare Shorts titles will now be released on itch.io six months after their physical release. The article below remains unchanged, partly for transparency and partly because the arguments are still valid for Devolver’s plans, which remain unchanged.

A couple of days ago, Super Rare Games confirmed that it too was starting a new series of physical-only Switch releases on a new label called Super Rare Shorts.

According to the company: “Shorts are a line-up of video games available exclusively as physical editions for the Nintendo Switch.

“That’s right – no Steam release, no release on another platform and not even a Nintendo Switch digital release – these games will only ever be available in this format.”

The Super Rare Shorts situation is even more concerning than Devolver’s because potential customers will only have a 30-day window to pre-order each Short before it’ll be pulled from sale.

I have a few concerns about this. The first is obvious: with limited pre-order windows – four months in Devolver’s case and only 30 days in Super Rare’s – players are essentially being asked to make these purchases entirely in good faith, without any idea of what they’re actually buying.

What’s more, there’s no scope for due diligence. If you’re the type who prefers to wait for reviews, forget it. By the time these games are produced and arrive in players’ hands, the pre-order window will be long gone.

As such, if any of these games turn out to be mini masterpieces, there will be no way for players to spread the word and tell others to check the game out, because there would no longer be any way to purchase it.

“With limited pre-order windows, players are essentially being asked to make these purchases entirely in good faith, without any idea of what they’re actually buying.”

Of course, cynics would suggest that this is all part of the plan, and that once this happens once or twice players will just buy each new release as soon as it’s announced in order to avoid the dreaded FOMO situation.

My other concern is that of value. Switch cartridges famously aren’t cheap to manufacture, meaning these games aren’t going to be cheap either (at least in the general sense of what indie games tend to cost on the likes of Steam and the Switch eShop).

The cheapest version of Demon Throttle – which, I’ll remind you, is designed to look like an NES game – is $29.99 plus shipping. And that’s if you live in the US.

Demon Throttle looks entertaining, but being on cart makes it relatively expensive

One of the other benefits of digital distribution is that games can be affordable in all countries because their prices can be adjusted for each market. Here in the UK, with Special Reserve as the only outlet for me to buy the game, it costs me $47.99 (around £35) to get a game that surely wouldn’t cost that much on the eShop.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand that some people like to buy special physical editions of games, because it gives them a more premium, collectible feel.

I can relate because I’m guilty of the same thing in other entertainment mediums. The movie distributor Arrow Films specialises in Blu-ray re-releases of older, cult movies and I happily snap them up on a regular basis because I like owning a physical version of them.

But Arrow also makes its films available for cheaper on the iTunes store, if customers simply want to watch the films. It also has a channel on Amazon Prime Video and its own subscription service, if people want to watch their content through a Netflix-style payment system.

We now live in an era where customer choice is important. Not everyone can commit (or, crucially, afford) to pay anywhere between $30-$50 to take a gamble on an indie title they may not even like, whereas they may have been perfectly willing to take such a risk on it for $5, $10 or maybe even $15 on the eShop.

Arrow Films releases premium disc versions of movies, but also makes its new remasters available digitally for those who just want to watch them

Super Rare Games claims that its Shorts label will allow developers to create games that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible through the funding it provides.

While this may be true, I would imagine that most developers would also want their games to be played by as many people as possible, and I don’t understand why there can’t be some sort of timed exclusivity deal.

Why can’t Super Rare release a game physically for a six-month exclusivity period before the game is then released via the Nintendo eShop, once both publisher and developer have received all the money they can from the physical edition?

I don’t see why Super Rare can’t be the developer’s digital publisher too and arrange a deal where both parties receive a cut of eShop sales. Other than, of course, that doing this would no longer make these games ‘super rare’.

“Why can’t Super Rare release a game physically for a six-month exclusivity period before the game is then released via the Nintendo eShop, once both publisher and developer have received all the money they can from the physical edition?”

Ultimately, this is the main issue here. The aforementioned FOMO effect is being used by more and more companies now to ensure that people feel that if they don’t fork over their hard-earned cash right away, they may forever miss out on being part of a shared experience.

These situations are rarely designed to benefit the artist, no matter what we’re told. If you were to tell a filmmaker that you’ll fund a DVD release for their film, but only on the condition that it can never end up on Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes or even Vimeo, I’m sure many of them would turn that offer down.

That’s not to say this doesn’t happen in other industries, of course. The regular Record Store Day and Free Comic Book Day events see one-off vinyls and comics created which can only be obtained on a certain day.

At least there’s a greater purpose to those, however, in that they’re created to encourage people to visit their local record and comic stores and keep those businesses going. Maybe if these titles could be made readily (and regularly) available to purchase new at independent video game shops, some good could come out of it (although judging by the way people act with Pokemon cards just now, I doubt it).

Man Alive Schemes like Record Store Day also lead to rare physical-only releases, but their main purpose is to help businesses like record stores stay busy

As it is, they’re probably still going to end up in these stores, but only as ‘used’ copies traded in by people looking to make a quick buck.

Kelsey Lewin, who’s both the co-director of the non-profit Video Game History Foundation and also a co-owner of Pink Gorilla, the longest-running independent video game store in Seattle, is similarly concerned about Super Rare Shorts, and she has first-hand experience to back her concerns up.

“Wow, this sucks,” she tweeted. “There’s enough artificial scarcity/FOMO driving the entire physical game market as-is.

“The marketing tactic works, but only serves to ensure that almost no one will ever play these games, as copies will be purchased by their market – collectors – to keep sealed.

“To add some credibility to my claim that no one will play these, we get a lot of Limited Run Games / Super Rare / etc titles traded in at the store and I am not kidding when I say that to my memory I have never been sold a used Super Rare game. They are always traded in still sealed.”

Of course, the unfortunate reality is that there will be one other way in the future for people to play these games – via piracy.

The truth of the matter is that the most ardent gaming preservationists are those who ‘rip’ physical media and upload it to ensure there’s a permanent digital archive of every game.

That’s for the distant future, and there are debates to be had about that. In the here and now, though, the reality is that someone will buy these games and put them online so that people with modded hardware will simply download and play them for free.

“Of course, the unfortunate reality is that there will be one other way in the future for people to play these games – via piracy.”

There’s naturally the (perfectly valid) argument that not all these people would have bought these games on the eShop instead, and that’s absolutely true – not all of them would have. But some of them could have, and the point is that deals like this leave them without the legal option to obtain these games.

I seriously hope this doesn’t become a trend, and that it’s simply a fad that will die out.

I don’t want a situation a few years down the line where there are a decent number of Switch games that can only be found by going on eBay and paying exorbitant rates from people who only ever bought them so they could make a small fortune out of them in the future.

The negativity towards Super Rare’s announcement was fairly large, and I understand the team are meeting early next week to discuss the situation. I hope the reaction causes them to think twice and revise their plans, because as it stands right now I don’t like the idea of indie games being reserved solely for players who have copious amounts of both cash and trust.

Feature

Hands-on: Nier Replicant is an uneven remaster, but it’s full of Taro personality

, For players who first discovered Nier through PlatinumGames’ 2017 outing, its 2010 predecessor may seem like it’s from another time and place. The post-apocalyptic future depicted in Nier Replicant (or to give the remaster its full title, Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…) appears less sci-fi based but a world of ruins where humans still try to […]

Read More
Feature

The 8 PlayStation exclusives you should buy before the PS3, PSP and Vita Stores close

, Sony has officially confirmed that it plans to close the PlayStation Store on PS3, PSP and PS Vita this summer. Although users will still be able to redownload their previous purchases for the foreseeable future, from July 2 it will no longer be possible to buy games on the PS3 or PSP online marketplaces, […]

Read More
Feature

I was a lead on Dinosaur Planet and this week’s leak brought back great memories

, This week I was as surprised as anyone to see a build of Rare’s cancelled N64 game Dinosaur Planet – the project I was art lead for 20 years ago – appear on the internet. Seeing it up and running again brings back terrific memories of working on the game, at a time when […]

Read More