Recently, the XboxOne debacle stirred a lot of negative publicity when Microsoft originally refused to allow used games to run on the console. They later backtracked to give game publishers control over that decision, only to pull a full 180 and allow used games entirely last week. While the entire mess was poorly handled from start to finish and represents only one of the many problems the console has, it does raise a very interesting question about the current state of gaming. After all, Steam is a very popular service used for gaming that also doesn’t allow used games or game trading, and everyone seems to get along with our Valve overlords just fine. While the biggest difference between these two situations is pretty obvious (Valve has worked hard to establish positive consumer relations through sales and giveaways, while Microsoft is as trustworthy as a wolf that’s been starving for two weeks in a room filled with plump, fuzzy kittens), it does bring up a question that will shape the future of gaming: what do consumers want from their games? Or, more specifically, what role do physical retail copies have in this digital age?
To download or not to download?
One might think that looking at other areas of media might provide the answers for which we’re looking. And indeed, there does seem to be a trend within other forms of media in the modern age. Books have been fully digitalised thanks to devices like the Kindle. Digital streaming of movies has become widely popular thanks to services like Amazon Video and Netflix. And television’s golden age has only been enhanced by our digital future, as 106 million Americans tuned in to watch television from their computers at some point last year. Clearly, all of this points to the notion that games will be moving onto a computer or computer-like device in the near future…
…except that’s an incredibly silly notion because games already started on the computer. While one can make the valid point that mobile gaming has become far more popular in recent years thanks to the iPhone and Android devices, those changes to gaming aren’t relevant to this conversation, as there are obviously no physical copies of mobile games. What’s left are computers and game consoles, and while the technology has advanced in terms of graphical fidelity, the way in which we digest this media hasn’t really changed.
What has changed is the speed with which we can access these games. In the late 90s and early 00s, there simply weren’t internet speeds quick enough to make downloading a sophisticated computer program worthwhile. It was always faster to take the physical copy and follow the instructions, not to mention there were a lot less variables that could go wrong. But now, the internet plays by far different rules. Downloading games is as easy as pushing a button and dragging an icon, and the growth it’s created for the smaller companies within the video game industry is immeasurable. So if it’s just as quick to use a digital copy and it doesn’t require me to get up, go to my car, drive to the store (all of which takes gas and therefore costs money), and buy it for the same price if not more so (often the case for PC games), then why in the world should physical copies still exist? Why shouldn’t companies like Microsoft go full digital and embrace a model similar to that of Steam or Origin?
Benefits of the real thing
I’m glad you asked. Here are the three best cases for physical copies:
1. They look good on your shelf. Let me set the scene: I’ve invited you over to my house for an epic gaming marathon (and since you read my articles, we’re obviously friends and thus such an invitation is totally not sketchy), and I tell you to come check out my gaming collection. You open the door and see shelves upon shelves filled with Xbox360 and Wii games (about 140 games between the two of them). That’s pretty dang awesome, no? That’s not even me trying to humblebrag; seeing that many games on a shelf just looks cool. It’s the same reason people enjoy looking around at Gamestop; there’s nothing quite like staring at a giant wall of games. In comparison, I don’t care how many Steam games you have; they’re just words on a black window. Yes, that is a long list. No, it’s not as awesome as the wall of games, and it never will be.
2. They never disappear. One day, Steam will shut down. Microsoft will stop supporting the Xbox360 servers, and games like League of Legends will lose their audience. You know what will happens to all of your digital games when that happens? They cease to exist. If no one is supporting the way you access those games, you might as well not HAVE those games. Yes, there are DRM free games that are easily transferrable, but it’s far from the majority, and having to install everything all over again every three years is less than fun. On the other hand, physical copies can always be put in the device and started up without having to rely on anything or anyone else. It’s your copy, and it will never stop being your copy. For anyone who’s a fan of nostalgia, that’s not meaningless.
3. It just feels right. Look, this is going to be the most biased of the three reasons, but I’m the kind of person that will never stop buying hard copies of books because I like the way it feels when I turn a page. In the same way, I’m the kind of person that likes the sound a video game makes when you open it for the first time. I like the way the disc feels when I go over to place it in my console, and I like that I have to take that action because it feels like more of an active choice than just scrolling down a menu and picking whatever shows up. These are feelings that you simply can’t replace with the brutal efficiency of a digital copy.
The digital future makes me sad
Will games ever go fully digital? I sure hope not. PCs are already there, and for good reason: most exclusives have either sold their soul to Steam or other digital distribution services, or they’re indie developers who need to reach as many people as possible for as little cost per copy as possible. But consoles hold a different place in the gaming world, and the physical discs remain an important part of that in my mind. They bring something that no digital game can, and as a technologically obsessed man, I truly hope this is one area the digital world doesn’t completely devour. Gaming would be less without them.