Optical Opt-out? – The Rise of Digital Game Downloads
With downloading and streaming our content so ubiquitous, gaming is at a crossroads over whether physical media still has a place in an increasingly online world.
As consumers, it’s quite staggering how quickly we have warmed to the download. Where once the idea of still paying premium prices for music, software or films we couldn’t physically “own” seemed absurd – it’s rapidly become preferable.
Inevitably this paradigm shift reached gaming too, with platforms like Valve’s Steam on PC and of course the App Store on Mac showing the way. However, on the home console side, the nostalgic cling to keep cartridges and discs has remained more stubborn.
Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have, of course, all had online digital game stores for some time but always alongside physical distribution. With the release of digital-only models of the new Xbox and PlayStation, is this a watershed moment for game downloads?
Well, it certainly could be. Time will tell based on how many of either model sells along with how the games are purchased. But it is foreseeable that the Xbox Series X and the PS5 console generation could be the very last to use discs.
Statista figures for a 2018 study would suggest existing trends are pointing in that direction. In that year they found a record-breaking 83% of all US game sales were made in downloadable form, versus physical versions.
In just a decade previous those tables have flipped completely, due in no small part to the high capacity storage being built into modern systems and of course the proliferation of fiber broadband.
It stands to reason that faster, more reliable internet has been a pivotal driver behind the rise of downloading. The convenience of browsing a virtual store from an armchair, securely paying with a click, and then watching the game download straight to the hardware is not to be sniffed at.
But it also makes sense for the distributors too. Digital game downloads are a real commercial leveler for the biggest and smallest publishers alike while giving rise to an incredibly rich independent or “indie” development scene.
By providing a democratic marketplace for selling titles online, Xbox’s Microsoft Store and Sony’s PlayStation Store have both provided a furtive ground for indie releases. Games that traditionally wouldn’t be backed by the cost of physical distribution have not only seen the light of day but made eye-watering sales that transform bedroom coders into millionaires.
Subscription services such as Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, Sony’s PlayStation Plus, and EA Play are also significant. The perceived value that these online products offer for gamers is another incentive to download and consume games digitally.
For a monthly fee, users don’t only receive access to multiplayer capabilities for leading titles but often get free games or exclusive discounts. And there’s a shift toward a Netflix model; for £7.99 per month, the Microsoft Game Pass offers instant access to a growing library of over 100 games for both Xbox and PC.
This kind of convenient value has naturally become more persuasive during an awkward launch time for the manufacturers. The Covid pandemic in 2020 has had a catastrophic impact on high street retail, so it stands to reason that with shops closed and shoppers isolated, download sales have flourished.
Ownership of content has always been a grey area, no matter the art form. Even the physical purchase of music, film, and software has never represented an entitlement stake to its content.
Digital downloads, especially games, are naturally very tightly controlled by the console manufacturers. Often you aren’t even receiving a permanent license for personal usage, but rather renting or leasing something fairly temporary.
If you lose access to your account or that title is pulled from the online service, you might find that it is game over. Always read the small print in the terms and conditions and realize purchases may not be your property after all.
Another downside to digital is the inability to buy and sell used games. Although apparently in decline, there does still remain a market for secondhand retail game sales. Much to the publisher’s and developers’ chagrin, the resale of used products remains possible while physical media exists.
Fairly obviously, you can’t resale a digital download. The game data is encrypted and linked to an individual user account, making any kind of feasible sell-on value null and void.
If selling on or trading in old software remains important, then it’s unlikely digital-only will work for you.
Money is one thing, but of course, so is performance. Online only gaming relies most heavily on speed, be it in terms of console specification but especially broadband.
Bandwidth determines the pace at which GB-sized game downloads are transferred and how they connect and function. Features are becoming more and more cloud-based, campaigns or worlds made massively multiplayer, and all are demanding rapid two-way data transfer rates. Throw streaming on Twitch into the mix and, well, good luck! For more information, Broadband Genie has a guide to gaming broadband.
A “digital divide” between the broadband haves and have nots, could yet prove most influential and put slower gamers at a download disadvantage.
The complete takeover of digital goods and services in the coming years is inevitable. It has proven to close the gap between price points and has allowed gamers to have access to triple-A titles and to more affordable gaming rigs. With access to better internet services and cheaper hardware, as well as the availability of e-commerce platforms offering digital goods such as OffGamers.com, physical game discs will soon be a thing of the past.