The idea that gaming will become a digital-only medium has circulated amongst the industry for years. There was once a very good argument that brick and mortar stores, along with online retailers like Amazon, supported too much of the industry’s console hardware sales to be wiped out by removing physical games from their shelves. With the recent announcement that for the first time ever digital sales have outdone physical (this does include DLC and microtransactions) there may be solid ground to start digging the grave of the physical medium.
Before we can break ground, let’s look at one of the biggest champions of digital gaming – the PC gaming industry.
PC gaming went purely digital many, many years ago with the launch of Valve’s Steam service. The platform allows for digital distribution of games and is the dominant force for PC gaming. Many companies have tried, and failed, to get a big piece of the Steam pie, but they are unscathed so far. One would be inclined to think that their console cousins would be at the same level that Steamites enjoy, with digital libraries swelling with games purchased for their chosen gaming platform, but there is one very big difference between a PC gamer and a console gamer: hardware.
The one sole reason PC gaming went digital so quickly is it was an open market, and one that Gabe and company managed to corner as they were not shackled by the restrictions a fixed system brings. Sony run the PlayStation store, Xbox run the Xbox Store, and Nintendo… well, Nintendo are Nintendo. There was nothing stopping PC gaming going digital as most serious PC gamers built their own systems. The same cannot be said for the Xbox or PlayStation, there are massive hurdles to overcome to go fully digital.
First, the resell value of a used game. The one attraction to console gaming is that the physical disc is the token with which we play. Remember when Xbox tried to announce that physical game purchases would be tied to accounts? That idea didn’t even make it into launch, so you would need to offer something enticing to get gamers to move away from their physical medium. Games released on digital stores are notoriously more expensive than to buy a copy physically. Not only do you lose the option to trade it in if the game isn’t for you, you also pay an additional twenty percent for something that isn’t even tangible. If you’ve not yet been suckered into thinking a digital purchase is buying something you get to keep, and not a long-term loan of access to something retrievable from a server, then you are helping the physical stores hang around a little bit longer. Personally, I like to have something in my hands, it’s the security of knowing if I don’t like it, I can always sell it on.
Secondly, who’s going to be there to sell your console if you’re no longer producing physical copies of games for them to sell? Pushing a digital-only format for purchasing games might save you millions in production, it’s a little like poisoning your own water supply. The stores need you, and you need the backing of the stores, otherwise you are looking at a scenario where all you are buying from gaming stores are accessories, gift cards, and codes to redeem on whatever service you choose. Most games stores make their money through trade-ins, and whilst unspoken to the console manufacturers (as they receive no profit from a secondhand game) the stores aren’t keen to see that revenue disappear from their balance sheets by not providing the option to be able to trade in.
Does this mean that consoles won’t go fully digital? Of course not. The future is there, it just needs the infrastructure to go with it. If internet provided zero downtime then streaming as a mass market option would seem the more desirable choice. PlayStation Now gets it right and is a damn good service, but this kind of approach would be more of the choice a casual gamer would make. Gamers want to have their games installed on their systems so they can play whenever they want. That’s not to write off streaming as the future of gaming, the next cycle of consoles will be a transition console, introducing us to a new way to game.
PlayStation 5 and Xbox Two when they do arrive will bring a variety of different options to game. Just as the PlayStation 4 offers PlayStation Now, so will the PlayStation 5, but what of the digital sales? With rumours that the new Xbox will not have a disc drive, this would be a massive gamble for Microsoft. Not only are they banking on people having decent internet, they’re also relying on people being happy not being able to trade in their games. Although Xbox Game Pass does offer a fantastic service, not every gamer has interest in playing a full back catalogue of games. But wait there’s more. Just because the console is disc-less, that doesn’t mean everything will become digital-only. A digital console is a great idea if you have a way of delivering the games for those without internet; enter the memory card.
That’s right, the humble memory card, or a version of it, will be the way to go. Switch has seen nothing but success since its introduction, and with flash media being many times faster than CD-based technology, it would be the way to go to offer an alternative to digital-only media. Expect to see these in the next console cycle. Disc drives, whilst useful for playing back blu-rays and storing games are useful, films are no longer watched on disc, they’re streamed. There’s no need to have a disc drive anymore. Then again, there’s no need to have a digital-only console, the happy medium is a console with no disc drive but accepts storage cards holding games. It works for Nintendo, and that’s the real trick here. The future of console design is already here, and Nintendo beat everyone to the game.
Image from: https://www.coroflot.com/dumary/PS5