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May I have the envelope please?

August 9, 1998
by Zac Belado

There is the Wired magazine type of cutting-edge and then there are the people that are really pushing the envelope. I don't mean to bash Wired (or maybe I do...) but Wired seems to be fixated on technologies that are either old hat (video on demand) or haven't even been released from their labs yet (Jini). They seem to shy away from actual real-world uses of technology (a habit not shared at all by the fine folks at Webmonkey who go very far to redeem the Wired name).

I was recently browsing through the website for the latest Wing Commander game, Secret Ops. The game is going to be given away free, in seven installments. Each Thursday (starting last Thursday Aug 27th) eager gamers will be able to download a new section of the game. And it's going to be available only (at least initially) through the website. Electronic Arts has announced plans to include the game with a "Gold" version of Wing Commander: Prophecy (the last title in the series) but, for the moment, it is only available over the Net.

Electronic Arts (the parent company of Origin the game's developer) says that this is a small "thank you" for the fans that have made Wing Commander such a successful series. This is certainly true but it's also more of a serious attempt to see how successful direct, web-based, game marketing and sales will be. I say "serious" because EA is actually giving an entire game away in order to make this test as realistic as possible. Forget gathering marketing data, forget measuring patch and upgrade downloads, EA is making an entire game and shipping it out in weekly installments just to get an accurate measure of the market and what it wants.

What Electronic Arts ultimately wants is to see if they can cut the middleman out of their sales equation, at least for those titles that aren't marketed to a more casual game audience. Frankly I can't see what is going to stop this experiment from being a success.

There are several factors that point to the eventual success of this experiment, but the most important is that even if EA is only able to realise a percentage of the sales they would through regular channels, they'll probably still make the same amount of money as they would with a "traditional" release. Each customer that downloads the game from the website saves EA the cost of media production, box production, sales costs (including buying shelf space in some of the trendier software stores) and shipping.

And all those small factors add up quickly. Not even taking into account the percentage of the costs that are generated by the distributors and sales outlets. EA could probably sell only 30% of their regular sales figures and still generate the same net revenue.

And this doesn't take into account the other spinoffs that EA could generate with all the traffic that this web-site will generate; ad sales, supplemental customer redirection and marketing information gathering (none of which, I must add, EA is actually doing with the Secrets Ops web-site). In fact, if you know your clients are going to be spending a few hours downloading a game then why not give them something to read or view while they are waiting? Why make the download process passive? EA has a perfect opportunity to test this out.

One to one marketing has been an unrealised mantra of many in the business community (including Wired which has had several articles about it) but EA is one of the few game developers to make a serious stab at it. This form of marketing saw its birth in the shareware distribution method of companies like Apogee (and also in the demo movement that was/is popular in Europe).

The rising requirements of game development put a brake to that distribution and sales method, but EA is obviously looking at the past success of companies like ID and wondering how they can duplicate that success. A level of success that was, mind you, done without the Internet. Most people downloaded Doom from BBS systems and not FTP sites. Today's faster connections and more wide spread access to delivery points (individual sites) makes this form of middle-free distribution even easier.

Mark that date (Aug 27th 1998) on your calendar because it's the exact day that the basic fabric of software distribution changed. Certainly there have been small scale operations that have had web-based sales and distribution, but this is, to my mind, the first time that a major software producers has made a product available only via the web.

What makes the site even more interesting (and worth a view even if you don't play games, own a PC or like Wing Commander) is the extensive use of Flash that the site uses. The interface, art, promos and even the movie "trailer" are all done in Flash. And you probably wouldn't even know it because the site avoids all the Flash design cliches that plague most Flash work (even my own).

This is the type of site that I would think the least likely to make use of Flash. The client base, while certainly early hardware adopters, don't strike me as rapid adopters of new protocols or software. Gamers seem positively "retro" with the high popularity of text only systems like IRC and ICQ, but I guess that compared to a 100+ MB initial download, the Flash plugin is probably not noticeable.

Or maybe Flash has just become ubiquitous?

Either way, the designers at Origin have put together a very impressive site...just don't try to view it on a 28.8 connection. The main Flash UI is actually 370K. Thank goodness for streaming.

As of this writing the second installment of Secret Ops has been made available and the third will be coming in just a few days. Compared to the gargantuan size of the initial download this second installment is a mere 580K. I'm assuming that the other 5 episodes will be similarly sized.

I'm currently stuck on scenario 2 of the second episode so if anyone has a hint...

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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