It was 11:30pm, and I was standing in a parking lot. The sky was oddly clear for the Pacific Northwest, but the temperature had dropped below 50 degrees, and you could see mist rising from each person as they spoke. Most of us wore branded sweatshirts which weren't really designed to keep you warm, but we were caught up in the energy of the night.
In 30 minutes Bill Gates was going to hand out the first copies of Halo 3 to a group of about 100 eager fans. This same scene, with less fanfare and less Gates, was playing out in hundreds of other locations across the world. Back in the old days of 2007, not even a giant game like Halo 3 was available for download. If you wanted to be among the first to play, you had to stand in line. And then you had to clear the cash register and hightail it home before you'd get a chance to experience the game. If you couldn't stand in line, you preordered well ahead of time, to make sure there was a copy waiting for you when you made it back from a painfully long day of school or work.
So much has changed in so few years. Every major release of 2015 has been available as a digital download on day 1. The vibe of game launches is shifting, and we can all feel it.
Preorder incentives are still a key part of the marketing mix, and retailers depend on them to drive player traffic to their stores, in hopes they'll snatch up some peripherals along the way. Physical game sales still make up more than half of all console game sales.
Still, the direction is clear. Console games will eventually be where PC and mobile are now; MOSTLY digital. The crossover date isn't clear yet. Some predict 2017. After that, it's tough to know when brick and mortar game sales will go the way of big box comic book sales (remember when they carried comic book multi-packs at Walmart?)
The question for us all is: how will we maintain the excitement of the wait, without the hassle? Waiting 6 hours for your game to download is a lot less fun, and a lot less exciting than standing in line with your fellow fan. But playing on day 1, minute 1, is hard to beat.