Sega Rally hands-on preview: A new age for digitally distributed games?

The concept of selling games via the online services like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network is nothing new. The trend has been gaining steam in recent months, but primarily it remains the realm of the indie developers, as well as the developers looking to repackage older titles for a new system. You go online, scan the library, drop some cash and after a short download you are playing the game you chose. Typically, those games have relied on clever gameplay to make up for what many have perceived as a lack of sophistication. Online distributed games have never seen the budgets that major releases on physical media can muster, so it makes sense.

That trend may be changing, if developers like Sega have anything to say about it.

Although GDC has not officially opened to the public yet, several groups are looking to promote their new titles before the official event begins. Sega joins the early risers with Sega Rally, an online-distributed game that offers a handful of cars and tracks that you can play through a campaign, with a friend via split-screen, or with up to 22 others online.

The game itself doesn’t offer the customization that the DiRT or Gran Tourismo franchises can offer, but Sega Rally doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is — a fun racing game. The controls are simple but responsive, and the racing is straightforward and moves well. The physics feel well tuned, and there is a logic to the way the cars move.

Overall, Sega Rally is a fun game, but with a twist — it looks great. It isn’t that developers couldn’t create top-notch graphics for a game that was only available for digital distribution, they can, it has just been a matter of resources. But games like Sega Rally — and a handful of others you will be hearing about later this year — show that developers have caught up with the mainstream in a way.

You probably won’t see games with a $100 million budget as online-only titles anytime soon, but if games like Sega Rally can be offered for a moderate price, and still be fun to play, there could be a shift in the coming years, or more likely months. Mid-level titles may disappear from the stores and re-appear as online only titles, with a smaller price tag and a wider potential audience base. The libraries available on XBL and PSN both continue to grow, and the next evolution seems to be heading towards games that would once have been released in stores instead heading online at lower prices.

Don’t expect Bethesda or Rockstar to abandon their current business model, but publishers like Tecmo Koei, and Namco Bandai, neither of which have the reach in America that they do in Japan, may forgo the typical release model of charging $60 for titles that are not geared for American audiences.

But that is all potential and possibility. For now though, keep an eye out for Sega Rally. No price has been announced, but it should be available later this spring on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.

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