As their markets and libraries continue to grow, how are digital stores adapting?

Platform holders used to pad out the tail end of a hardware generation with price cuts or slight shifts in focus to target different markets. In the seven years since Microsoft kicked off the current console generation with the 360’s release, though, much has changed. Consoles now do much more than play games, and PCs are no longer confined to the desk or our laps, but are often found under the TV as well. The explosion in mobile gaming has also meant we can download and play games in the brief window we spend waiting for a bus.

What unites the modern console, PC and mobile gaming device is commerce. Retail may be struggling, but digital sales are thriving, from cheap App Store downloads to weekly console releases and wallet-busting Steam sales. 360’s frontend has been through several iterations during its seven years on shelves, but Sony’s PlayStation Store had remained fixed until a long-rumoured (and overdue) redesign launched in October. Apple, now happily settled into the groove of annual hardware iteration, also redesigned the App Store when iOS 6 launched. And on the PC front, Valve has made a play for the living room with the launch of Steam’s Big Picture mode (still in beta at the time of writing). This offers a redesigned store layout for a bigger screen, and greater viewing distances. All these changes serve specific corporate and strategic purposes, but what problems remain? Is there still room for improvement, or have we now hit a ceiling imposed by the limitations of ageing hardware?

Sony’s service was the one most in need of an overhaul, its design and functionality having remained broadly static since its launch in 2007. The company had been rumoured to be redesigning the store frontend for some time, and those rumours, it turns out, had weight. As game store development manager Elliott Dumville tells us, the recent PlayStation Store relaunch was the result of several years’ work behind the scenes, with Sony conducting extensive user testing in a bid to solve what is, in fairness, a relatively new issue.

The App Store’s redesign for iOS 6 has added more gloss and a few tools to aid discoverability, but places an even heavier burden on images to sell apps to the consumer.

“Everyone in the e-commerce space is trying to solve a set of very similar problems,” says Dumville. “The execution and direction of that is, obviously, very specific to the technology, the platform and the channel. Ours is a particular challenge in that we’re doing commerce on television using a controller.”

Using that input device and display can make searching a chore – something Dumville and his team were told needed work time and again during user testing. And little wonder, given that the store contains over 1,000 games, 8,000 add-ons and 20,000 smaller DLC items. To this end, the old virtual keyboard has been replaced by a vertically scrolling alphabet; each time a letter is selected, the list of characters to choose from shrinks, only offering up a selection that matches the store’s contents. Start a search with the letter ‘A’, for example, and it’ll disappear – until Bug-Byte’s Commodore 64 game Aardvark gets the HD remake treatment, at least.

Dumville promises search will improve further over time, pushing frequently searched-for items higher up the results. Iteration is a recurring theme. “This is the beginning of a journey,” he says. “This is day one, and every month or couple of months we’re going to drop in new features, enhancements and changes in a way we’ve not been able to before.”

Of all the redesigns, Microsoft’s was the most ambitious. The console’s October dashboard update was one of several steps made by the company as it turns Xbox what interactive entertainment division CMO Yusuf Mehdi terms “the premium entertainment service for Microsoft. Whether on your PC, tablet, TV or phone, Xbox will be a gateway to the best in music and video, your favourite games and instant access to your friends.” In addition to a smattering of little tweaks – such as the renaming of Zune Video Marketplace to Xbox Video, and QuickPlay to Recent – there’s also Spotify-esque subscription service Xbox Music, the bafflingly belated arrival of a browser in Internet Explorer, and support for the cross-platform second-screen technology SmartGlass.

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