Digital distribution is the the future for gaming. Ten years from now, players won't go to a store to buy their games, they will just download them. The process will be simple, clean, and help to cut the rising cost of games.
Unfortunately, if the Call of Duty 4 launch via Steam is any indication, digital distribution has a long ways to go. The Steam launch has been littered with show-stopping bugs and regional pricing differences, not to mention being launched nearly a week after the box versions hit store shelves. All of this for a game that has Game of the Year written all over it, and that is saying a lot in a period seeing the launch of a ton of AAA games.
The first issue with the Steam launch, as mentioned, was the fact that it was released a week later than the box version. While this is fine for players like myself, who had no plans to jump in at launch, it is a sore spot for many players that have become fond of Steam and other digital distribution solutions.
Tagged onto the week delay, the actual decryption files didn't get released on Steam until midday on Nov 12th (the release date). Most Steam users had expected a 12:01 AM launch, but it was not to be, and many angry gamers spent several hours waiting for the game to be released. Is it a bit much to expect midnight launches via Steam? Maybe, but Valve has shown the ability to do it with their major titles, and I see no reason why that can't carry it over for third-party titles.
The next issue with the launch made me glad to be an American, because the game only cost me $49.95 + tax. Unfortunately, Europeans were stuck with a $69.95 price tag, which did not include VAT. In total, Call of Duty 4 costs almost $80 for Europeans. Again, for a game that has been in stores for $49.95 and that they were getting a week late. There has been no explanation from Activision, the game's publisher, as to the price hike for Europeans using Steam.
NOTE: Prices on Steam are set by the publisher, not Valve.
Thirdly, once the game did become available, a plethora of bugs infested the launch. Pre-loading, the process of downloading the digital game files prior to launch, ended up short for a ton of players. Personally, my download finished 320 Mb short. So, instead of launching right into the game, many players were forced to validate their installation files and download a large portion of the game.
On top of this, there have been many other ugly bugs that have reared their head since the 12th. I will write up a more in-depth post later with details on how I fixed several of them, along with links to appropriate support articles. Needless to say, there are a lot of issues. Issues, that were not present in the boxed version.
With all of this said, the game in question is still probably one of the best games to launch this year. The single-player is short, but no one will be arguing that it isn't the most intense six hours of your gaming life. Yes, it is that damn good. On top of the wonderful single-player, the multi-player is set to challenge Halo 3, if not destroy it in terms of player minutes per month. On Xfire, CoD4 single-player and multi-player combined, are already challenging World of Warcraft as the most played game. Of course, that figure is not counting the players playing via Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. Call of Duty 4 is huge, but it missed the boat in regards to digital distribution.