GAME OVER: IS THIS THE END OF THE GAMING DVD?

Gamers worldwide have been following stories of Game UK’s demise with increasing curiosity.  A lot of Indian gamers were disappointed to see the store go into administration.  Admittedly, most of us based our best wishes for The Game Group based on our experiences (and cheap prices) with their website.  Those closer to the erstwhile retail giant’s physical stores felt otherwise.  For instance, here is a comment from a reader from the Guardian’s coverage  of the event that sums up a lot of what customers in the UK are feeling:

“Ask any gamer why they don’t shop at Game anymore. Price. Range. Poor Customer Service.”

The Game UK Website wore a "down for maintenance" notice as well.

Those are probably the three most important things that drive any business — it doesn’t matter whether the business is a brick and mortar store or an online site.  While our assessment of the coverage shows that Game’s outcome was driven by a series of incorrect business decisions, it does belie the question: what about the gaming market?  Will all stores eventually close?  We have seen how the music industry has been taken over by online (legal and illegal) downloads and no-one ever buys CDs anymore — is that what will happen to gaming as well? Considering how we are investing our lives savings into the GamesINC franchise, you can imagine how important this was for us.

But like what any business should do before they launch, this is one of the considerations we took into account early on.  And it is being supported by those in the industry sharing their opinions in the wake of Game’s demise.

Our take is that we are still between five and ten years away from going completely digital (more infrastructurally advanced countries may see the change in five years and we expect India to make the shift in 7-10 years).  So here is our no-numbers (well almost) quick assessment of the future (we can’t share all our IP on our blog now, can we?):

Software Requirements

Video graphics have come a long way in the last decade.

The top reasons why we love the console — the graphics, sounds, and features — eventually translate into massive software storage requirements.  An XBOX game can take up to 8GB in storage whereas a PS3 game can go beyond 15GB.  A digital download that size is still a nascent possibility in the UK and U.S., and a near impossibility in “fair” usage policy afflicted India.  Even without fup, I’d feel a tinge of guilt spending all my bandwidth on games — sort of like the guilt you feel when you print out a hundred pages on your work printer.  With time, the size of games will only increase, not decrease.  That said, there is a distinct possibility that — if the XBOX720(?) and the PS4(?) allow — the market moves to SD cards as an alternative to DVDs.  That will possibly be a step in the right direction and will enhance the lives of our consoles significantly.  In either case, there will be no impact on online and physical retail stores who will still have something to sell.

Internet Infrastructure

The biggest bane of online downloads is not fup, but overall infrastructure support in the country.  Downloading a 8GB game is hardly the same as downloading a 100MB music album.  Chances are high that even before games are delivered online-only, movies will take the plunge.  If a large proportion of the customer base moves to streaming videos, DVD and BluRay downloads, and game downloads, free bandwidth will become scarce.  Our Airtels, BSNLs, and Reliances will hardly be able to keep pace with the upgrades required. Of course, not all of these scenarios will come to pass all at the same time, so I am admittedly being more catastrophic than the situation demands.  However, if you look at how our ISPs have taken a reactive, almost regressive, stand toward business and have focused on acquiring customers that they know they won’t be able to sustainably serve with the current infrastructure, we see a lot of pain in the coming days — with or without massive digital downloads.

Compare your speed to those around the world and you can see that we are not nearly ready. Source: http://bit.ly/GYWiAs

Business Sense

The most important factor that will determine whether the gaming world goes digital is the amount of business sense it makes.  When Microsoft launched the XBOX, it was estimated to be losing $125 per box just on cost of goods.  It takes a lot of time, effort, and R&D money to design a new console — 10 years is a completely legitimate timeframe for such companies to ride the tide.  Companies will still make money through online sales of passes, DLCs, and (some) games.  It was only about 4 years ago that Microsoft started to make money off its console business and followed it up with about $1Billion in profit in early 2011 thanks to the Kinect.   It is too early to try to change the entire gaming environment by moving to digital downloads.  Remember the first XBOX and the red ring of death?  If Microsoft tries to change its hardware in a way that goes beyond extracting more performance, then it might well run into another couple of years of technical nightmares.  Its not that they can’t build a great system, but that it is unreasonable to expect that the first attempt will be perfect.

Beyond the technical aspects, there is also an entire logistical and delivery system associated with ensuring that a game DVD reaches the end-user.  A new delivery channel — technical and server upgrades for every publisher wishing to offer digital downloads, for instance — will need to be built. That does not come overnight.  We can speculate all we want on what the new XBOX720(?) or the PS4(?) will bring, but one thing that new consoles will not bring is automated upgrades for all service providers in the value chain.  It is still possible, but this will not be the revolution everyone expects — it will in fact push back innovation by a couple of years while we transition to the next infrastructure and game publishers themselves understand the new platform.

The change from physical media to online digital downloads cannot be avoided and will happen, whether some of us want it or not.  Companies, suppliers, and retailers will have to innovate or die.  But it is still a few years out in the future.  In the meantime though, it is not business as usual.  In India, we have a lot of work to do.  Unlike most other ventures — online and offline — the gaming market itself is nascent here.  We can’t sit back, look at those burgeoning numbers that consultants share with us, and expect the money to keep flowing in.  India is still not taken seriously as a gaming market.  We retailers, developers, and gamers have to build the market together.  But that is a story for another time.

How far out do you think the digital media revolution is?  Do you think Indian infrastructure and gaming market is ready for it?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Research and articles sourced from:

BUILDING YOUR OWN RIG FOR UNENDING HOURS OF GAMING FUN

Since it is Christmas season and many of you will be looking to make big-ticket purchases to pamper yourself, we figured it might be the right time to start talking about building your own rig.  Imagine your room complete with that drool-worthy console, perfect display monitor, and the right sound system. Exciting?  If that brings a smile to your face, read on:

1.  THE DROOL-WORTHY CONSOLE

Wow, this one is a biggie, isn’t it?  Luckily, our guest blogger Anish Kataria, put together some good pointers that I can direct you to right away.  So, go ahead and read that article at your leisure (remember to open it on another tab, so you don’t actually stop reading this post):  Console Wars: Sony Playstation 3 or XBOX360.

2a. THE PERFECT DISPLAY MONITOR

For gaming, you just absolutely need a generously large TV that allows you to notice all the subtle messages new-gen games use (if you have tried to shoot an enemy soldier behind a wall a 100m away without a sniper rifle, waiting for his head to pop out just a little bit — you know what I mean).  Unfortunately, a good TV in the Indian market costs a lot more than what it does anywhere else.  It has always been a bit difficult to digest how something can be shipped from China all the way to the U.S. and still cost less than half of what it costs here — but that is a story for another blog post.  With that in mind, lets choose a price you are willing to spend and go with it.  Assuming you are decently loaded (or have saved every penny excruciatingly over the last year), let’s go with 40,000INR.  We chose that because it is roughly what you would pay for a decent laptop (you do have a laptop, right?).

Now, the key thing you have to choose is the kind of panel you need — a Plasma, LCD, or LED?  Now this isn’t a tech review by any means, and we aren’t going into specifics — except the ones that matter.  Now, Plasma is a technology that dates back a little but, is by no means outdated.  LCDs and LEDs are sort of like cousins, usually with only the backlights being different (not exceedingly advanced).

The Plasma TV is our preferred beast for gaming.  The reasons are simple.  First, I am sure you have heard a lot of burn-in issues with plasma TVs, but unless you are buying a used 6-yr old TV, put your mind at ease.  Those are issues of the past that you are unlikely to experience anymore.  In our opinion, it is just a tact used by inexperienced and uninformed salesmen to push the more expensive LCD/LEDs to you.  But hey, you are a gamer and you can’t be easily fooled (right?).  Second, refresh rates are better on the plasma.  This means that the panel will flash the same picture more number of times per second compared to an LCD or an LED.  This matters to you when you play fast-paced games like Need for Speed or Call of Duty, and don’t want those rapid moves to get blurred.  Third, plasmas manage to render near-perfect blacks that LCDs just can’t.  Most plasma TVs these days also sport a Game Mode that bypasses all the fancy-shancy filtering it typically does and lets your console take over the screen completely.  This means better blacks and better response for your Crysis 2 by letting the XBOX/PS3 do what it does best.

Plasma TVs tend to render black tones better

Now there are two valid downsides to plasma TVs though: First, the panels are reflective, not matt.  So you have to be very conscious about lighting in the room.  Make sure that there isn’t any strong light falling on the screen and you should be fine.  Second, plasma TVs usually come in sizes of 42″ and above.  This means if you don’t have a room that can give you about a 4-6 feet distance from the screen, you will be at a bit of a disadvantage.  We still recommend the Plasma TV for gaming mainly because we are looking at a sub-40,000INR expense.  Now if you have double that money to spare, choose the LED.  LEDs are slimmer (making it easier to hang on a wall), render good blacks, and consume less energy than plasma TVs.

Next, keep in mind which resolution you want for your gaming needs.  All flat screen TVs these days are at least HD-ready, if not full-HD.  The difference? — HR-ready gives a native resolution of 720p  where as full-HD provides you will a resolution of 1080p.  Now, some HD-ready screens will let you upscale to 1080i (not 1080p) which really doesn’t make that much of a difference.  Both of them are “technically” HD, but 1080i (where i is for interlaced) scans 1080 horizontal lines on your TV alternately whereas 1080p (where p is for progressive) scans the same number of lines simultaneously.  That is just technical mumbo-jumbo for “1080p is better”.  That said, if you choose the XBOX for your console, then you don’t really need 1080p (full-HD) because the maximum resolution that the 360 can do is 720p.  If you choose the PS3 and would like to watch some HD Blu Ray movies, then 1080p may be the best bet for you.

2b.  THE RIGHT CABLE

Assuming you chose a plasma TV (or still went with an LCD, or could afford an LED), chances are about 99.98% that it has an HDMI connection (if it doesn’t and it is new, go return it right now… no, stop reading — go return it!).  The first thing you need to do once you get your TV is to ditch the component cable that comes with your console and get yourself an HDMI cable.  Due to the lack of information people have on cables in general, the HDMI market has become a huge scam for manufacturers and retailers.  Do remind yourself this before you go out shopping for an HDMI cable — expensive does not mean better!  There are a lot of HDMI cables out there from as low as 500INR to as high as 4,000INR, so don’t fall for it.  There are two things you should look out for:

Step 1: Ditch this!

– High Speed vs. Standard.  Some HDMI cables claim to be high-speed.  If it is a reputed company, such as Belkin, it probably is.  High speed cables transmit more digital data without lag to your screen.  We recommend this if you are on a PS3 and are playing Blu Rays.

– Length.  Yes, this seems like a no brainer, but we can still ignore the most obvious things (ever zoom past a red light, anyone?).  HDMI cables come from a short length of 3 feet all the way up to 6 feet (maybe more too, but we didn’t go about checking every HDMI packaging we could lay our hands on).  Just make sure you have enough.

If a standard HDMI works for you, we suggest a Belkin.  A 3 feet one should cost you around 700INR.

3.  THE RIGHT SOUND SYSTEM

Now if you are an audiophile, you already know which 5.1 Dolby Digital you want to get.  If not, we still suggest that you do get a surround sound system to hear those bullets whiz past you as you duck for cover.  If you have a budget of about 10,000INR, we suggest not going for an entry-level 5.1 system: instead invest in a Bose headgear.  Bose’s On-Ear Headphones have a nice cushioning pad that sits tight on your ears and provides a very high degree of clarity. That said, they may not be the best option for extended hours of gaming.  Your ears may start sweating and your head could start to feel heavy with all the booming bass.  In such cases, we suggest Bose’s AE2.  They are more comfortable on the ear and never really sit on your ear, relieving some of the pressure.  You may, however, lose a bit of bass on this model.  Now a limitation of using traditional headphones for gaming is that you will probably need to plug this into your TV — not the best solution for a gaming headset.  In case you don’t want to be bogged down by this, we suggest also checking out brands such as Razer, Steel Series, Logitech (especially if you can get this one), and Astro Gaming (especially this one rated highly by the folks at IGN).

Bose On Ear Headphones, great for gaming too!

If you have a budget of about 30,000INR or so, we suggest walking over to your nearest Harman Kardon/JBL and Onkyo stores.  Why only those two?  Because we say so.  Well, actually, there are just too many options and too many specific models out there to go by online research.  This is one buy you just have to drag your behinds to the retail store and let the sound decide.  Very often, the base model comes around the 25,000INR to 30,000INR range, but the next model is available for only a few thousands more — with a world of difference in the sound.  Now this is not common across all brands, so you do still have to listen to them.  When you go to the showroom, carry a 5.1 channel DVD of music that you listen to the most, preferably one that has many instruments playing simultaneously (we suggest Dream Theater’s Home).  Sit at a distance of about 6 feet away from the base, set the volume really low, make sure the output and input are both set to 5.1 channels, take a deep breath, and let it play.  Now let it play for a while so you can make out all the different instruments playing at different pitches.  Try to buy the best one you can afford that also separates out all the different instruments individually.  Do not raise the volume too much while testing because every sound system manages to trash out all the instruments when loud, it is really the lows that matter.  Speaking of lows, double-check the bass performance of the woofer by setting the crossover value in the receiver to 80Hz (even go down to 60Hz if you can still hear the bass).  If you get heart-pounding bass by reducing the crossover frequency while increasing the volume just a tiny bit, you are good! Crossover is the frequency below which the receiver sends all sound signals to the woofer.

Some receivers also have HDMI switching, which basically means you can hook up your console to the receiver and the receiver sends the output to the TV through another HDMI cable.  This maximizes your convenience by connecting all your other gizmos into one receiver and allowing you to switch between them through your remote.

Now, having read all that and hopefully having done some online review, please head over to the retail outlets for some hands on experience.  I can’t stress this enough, you just have to experience the sound first hand before you decide.

So there you have it, folks.  Very soon, you will have your own gaming rig set up and ready to go!  Let us know what you eventually buy (on the comments below or on our Facebook page) and why!