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The collectors

Ownership is a basic human desire - one which digital distribution advocates ignore at their peril.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

What does the concept of "ownership" mean to consumers? On the surface, that's a fairly abstract, philosophical kind of question - but it's also a question which strikes to the heart of the ongoing debate about the future of games distribution.

Our most common system is, by and large, ownership based. Consumers pay a flat fee to buy a game - the product is the physical media itself, and as with any other physical product, owning it brings certain rights. Consumers can sell it on, or lend it to friends. They can play the game whenever they want, at no extra cost. They can actually display the product on their shelves, an often overlooked factor which is extremely important to many consumers, especially the over 30 age group.

There are essentially three systems which are being proposed as replacements. The subscription model, as used by most MMOs, can happily tie in with the concept of owning physical products, but removes the ability to sell the game. You can sell the physical media, but the purchaser can't use it to create an account in the game.

The digital distribution model eliminates physical media and resale rights entirely, but retains the concept of ownership in the broad sense - you purchase, not rent, the license to the game. Finally, the live streaming system proposed by (arguably technically questionable) projects like OnLive basically removes the concept of ownership entirely.

More than any technical challenges - or any particular desires on the part of games publishers - it's this fundamental difference in the approach to ownership which will, I believe, determine the eventual roles of each of these new forms of distribution.

Different market segments have different approaches to ownership. I don't think it's going to be possible to wean the planet's self-identifying "gamer" demographic - which could encompass up to 200 million people - off the desire for ownership. It will be equally difficult to wrest ownership from the hands of people with collecting, hoarding mentalities - which accounts for a pretty significant chunk of the entire human race.

For other groups, however, it's far more natural for entertainment to be transient and streamed, rather than being permanent and owned. People who watch TV or listen to radio in preference to buying DVD box sets or albums, or people who rent rather than buying their videos, are an obvious market for less ownership-focused approaches.

In a simple world, then, a publisher would choose the right kind of distribution and revenue model for each product based on its demographic appeal. To some extent, this already happens - one could argue that the distinction between web games, which are inherently a streamed service, and boxed games, which are an owned product, reflects exactly that balance.

We do not, however, live in a simple world. The reality is that no consumer sits exactly in one demographic group or another. Even today, media consumers all demonstrate a bewildering variety of purchasing behaviour.