This week marks arguably the biggest entertainment launch of all time with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. With this tremendous launch comes a new wave of contention over the business of distributing games -- and, ultimately, other digital media -- through the Internet. The online retail marketplace for video games was shaken by the fact that the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 comes included with Steamworks -- proprietary technology owned by third-party developer and publisher, Valve, which also happens to include a virtual storefront. As a result, several other online retailers, including GamersGate, have decided not to carry the downloadable version of the game to avoid propagating their competitor's technology (to be clear this is not a "boycott" of MW2 specifically, just the supporting technology).
This creates an interesting situation for online distributors, publishers, and developers because, while Steamworks gives Infinity Ward the ability to update Modern Warefare 2 directly, it also indirectly limits the customer base for the PC version of the game. Steamworks helps save Infinity Ward time and resources, but it also makes the downloadable version of Modern Warfare 2 seem like a secondary priority. Regrettably, PC gamers who planned on purchasing a downloadable version of Modern Warefare 2 are being forced to wait an extra day to access their copy through Steam. It's clear that for one reason or another Infinity Ward reduced their focus on a digital distribution strategy, and as we've seen in the past that could end up backfiring on them.
We've seen companies, such as Gamestop most notably, find themselves upstream without a paddle by not being proactive about a digital distribution strategy. Although Gamestop and Infinity Ward are entirely different entities, with other major developers like Capcom and Ubisoft stating their intent to focus on digital distribution, it's strange that Infinity Ward didn't have a more creative strategy here. It's not clear whether Infinity Ward anticipated the boycott of Steamworks, but considering the game is on pace to shatter opening day and opening week sales records it would not be a surprise if Infinity Ward chose to snub the online retailers in the margins. Letting the digital distribution cards fall where they may shows that Infinity Ward still considers the space as an extension of brick-and-mortar retail, and as we've seen in the past that approach can backfire.