Communications giant Virgin Media has warned that increased reliance on digital distribution could leave the UK's broadband networks creaking and punters twiddling their thumbs for far longer than they expect.
The new console generation has officially begun, with Sony and Microsoft launching their respective PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles alongside Nintendo's Wii U. This time around, however, they are to face increased competition from the PC market with Valve looking to license a range of compact, low-cost gaming rigs running its Linux-based SteamOS - the first of which, teased by iBuyPower ahead of its CES unveiling early next year, doesn't include an optical drive.
Even ignoring devices like iBuyPower's Steam Machine which would rely entirely on digital distribution through Valve's Steam platform, there's no denying the direction gaming is moving. Both the PS4 and the Xbox One make a point of being able to buy games for download as well as on Blu-ray discs, even going so far as to allow gamers to begin playback before the whole game is fully downloaded.
Virgin Media, however, has concerns that customer expectations aren't being managed. In a study carried out on the company's behalf by OnePoll, covering 2,000 UK adults, the company's broadband arm found that around 78 per cent of respondents expected games to download in five hours or less - while almost half, at 42 per cent, believed the download would have finished in under two hours. Sadly, that's unlikely to be the case.
Quoting Ofcom's official average broadband speed for the UK of 14.7Mb/s, Virgin Media correctly calculates that a top-end 50GB title - not an impossible figure, given this generation's increasing focus on graphical fidelity - would take around nine hours to complete. While some portions of the game may be available sooner, that's still a significant time to wait - and far more than the two hours for which many buyers had hoped.
With consoles, the problem isn't too severe: those on slower connections can simply opt to buy the games on disc instead, although day-one patches are increasingly common and can measure a fistful of gigabytes themselves while both Microsoft and Sony offer downloadable games as part of their paid subscription services. For devices like iBuyPower's Steam Machine, however, which have no optical drives, digital distribution is the only way - and will likely require a considerable upgrade to the nation's internet infrastructure before the process becomes as painless as inserting a disc.
'Before we know it, big game launches won’t be measured by queues outside stores at midnight,' predicted Virgin Media's broadband and home phone director Joe Lathan, 'but by whether or not we see a surge in downloads across our network!'