Crytek President Cevat Yerli recently cited piracy on the PC a central reason why his company has chosen to shift development to a multiplatform focus. NPD data infamously showed Crysis' first week sales in the U.S. to be fewer than 87,000 copies, an unremarkable figure any way you slice it. NPD data does not factor in e-tail or international figures, but despite EA claiming that the game ultimately sold over a million copies, Yerli seems convinced that the game did not sell to its full potential primarily because of piracy.
I have a different take on it, though. Crysis almost certainly did fall short of its sales potential, even if it sold over 1 million, and piracy may indeed have taken a significant toll—although it's impossible to know just how much. But it's not because the game is too system-intensive (nVidia sold a lot of 8800GTs based on the idea that it was an inexpensive card that could play Crysis), nor is it because the game isn't any good (it averages 91% on Metacritic); rather, it's because Crytek overlooked one of the key channels for modern PC gaming: digital distribution.
Crysis is, in fact, available digitally, through the EA Online Store. That's where I bought my copy. However, most gamers I've talked to do not even know that the EA Online Store exists, much less that you can purchase digital copies of games there. Right now, there are two major platforms for digital distribution—Valve's Steam service, and IGN's Direct2Drive. Steam alone has over 15 million users. Steam is highly popular with gamers and developers alike because its embedded DRM is both more effective than traditional key-based DRM, but it's also more transparent to the end user. You simply buy your game, go about your business while it installs, then click to play. The game even updates automatically. IGN hasn't released any figures for Direct2Drive, but it's promoted heavily on the numerous sites comprising the IGN network.
Just how big is digital distribution? Last year, Valve reported a remarkable 158% growth year-over-year in its Steam service. The only real disappointment I have with Steam is that more developers haven't opened their eyes to it, although it seems to be catching on. Perhaps the answer to combating piracy is, like Apple has done with iTunes, simply offering a convenient, easy-to-use legal alternative. One thing's for sure: retail space for PC gaming is shrinking, and shrinking fast. One need only to stroll into their local boutique to see the paltry space devoted to PC games. With digital distribution clearly becoming a central platform to PC, EA needs to get with the times and either do a better job promoting their store, or join the chorus of publishers flocking to Steam.
Perhaps the only real obstacle to the widespread use of digital distribution is bandwidth limitations in some countries. Surely this will change over time. But it's clear from the numbers that digital is indeed the way of the future, and it's just a matter of time before our silly attachment to boxed copies seems as superfluous as our attachment to CDs in plastic cases.