The shift of the game-playing population to internet-based games is analogous to the growth of the American supermarket, according to EA's Ben Cousins.
In a talk at the Game Developers Conference, Cousins (Battlefield Heroes) explained how studying the history of the American retail experience solidifies his somewhat controversial theory that quick, convenient, internet-based gaming will overtake traditional retail-based products completely.
According to cousins, the retail dynamic at the turn of the 20th century was a high-quality, boutique experience - consumers would interact directly with an expert behind the counter, who would suggest and personally package up products. It was expensive, inconvenient, and slow.
With the rapid adoption of automobiles and growth of paved roads, what we call "supermarkets" became the norm, and consumers gravitated toward the convenience, speed and lower prices they offered.
Cousins argued that traditional packaged retail games are going the way of the old-fashioned market, pointing as many GDC speakers have this year to FarmVille as his primary example. FarmVille's 80 million users make it the most popular game in the history of the Western world, despite the experience not being as high quality as a traditional, high definition retail game. Consumers, he said, are willing to look past a game's quality if the game is free, quick, and easy to access.
"Online distribution cost is falling almost at the same rate as Moore's Law is increasing computational power," said Cousins. "As it drops, at some point someone is going to do your game for free."
Cousins demonstrated that quality increases don't necessarily generate more revenue by showing a revenue graph of Battlefield Heroes. The graph showed three spikes. The first revenue spike happened when the game became more accessible, and no longer required a code to play. The second, significantly larger spike occurred when EA started selling in-game weapons and introduced new ways to pay.
"The game actually got worse during this spike for some gamers," said Cousins, saying that the availability of purchasable upgrades changed the quality of the game.
The third spike, which was minimal and very short-lived, was when EA improved the game by adding a new map, new abilities, and gameplay balances. According to Cousins, this demonstrated that a quality improvement did not necessarily generate more revenue.
"As developers we can't afford to be arrogant and ignore the online game world," said Cousins. "I think as developers working in the packaged games business we need to understand this shift to a world of convenience. Let's work on making online game more convenient and cheaper."