Digital Game Ownership – Is The Future Of Gaming Disk-less?

On June 11, gamers were finally treated to some concrete details as to what we can expect from the upcoming PlayStation 5 . All the usual suspects are here for a next gen console announcement  – claims of better graphics, faster load times, a sleek design – and of course – a port of  Grand Theft Auto V. But one reveal that probably wasn’t on your E3 bingo card this year is the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition.

This version of the PS5 is the cheaper version, estimated to cut $50 off the price compared to the main model. Why’s this? It’s because, hence the name, the PS5 Digital Edition doesn’t come with a disk drive, meaning you’ll buy all your games from the PlayStation Store.

It’s no secret that games companies would prefer us to buy our games digitally, and why wouldn’t they? It’s much cheaper than selling through a third-party. Ever since Valve struck gold with Steam, almost every big player in the gaming industry has tried their hand at a storefront or a launcher to ensure they’re not splitting their profits. In aide of this, players are incentivized into going digital, through methods such as allowing those with non-physical pre-orders to pre-download their game days before release, so it’s all ready to go on launch day. These players will be playing the game hours, maybe even a full day, before those suckers queuing outside GameStop at midnight.

However, the key aspect to everything I just mentioned is that these are actions taken by the industry to encourage our spending habits. They aren’t responding to consumer trends – they’re creating consumer trends.

meta chart
Digital game sales vastly overtake physical (source: Entertainment Retailers Association)

Again, this is nothing new. In recent years, many AAA companies have tried to convince us that “single player games are dead,” so that we’ll drop our love for $60 games you buy once and play for hundreds of hours. No, they want us playing more live services like Fortnite or Apex Legends, where the money never stops pouring in. In turn, many companies known for single-player hits, such as Bethesda and BioWare, jumped on the bandwagon…to mixed success.

And while the money is indeed pouring in, gamers are not buying into the idea that narrative driven single player experiences are a thing of the past, at least looking at the best sellers lists.

But then we get to digital gaming. Now, first thing’s first, what does this mean? Well, it can take different forms. For example, if you bought Animal Crossing: New Horizons through the Nintendo eStore, rather than trek out to Best Buy, then the game is still yours, even if you don’t have the physical cartridge. On the other hand, there’s the rise in digital games we don’t actually own, such as anything on Google Stadia, or the titles you download from PlayStation Plus every month.

While these have a clear difference, they both share a common issue: game preservation. And it is due to this that I made the perhaps naive assumption that this was a trend gamers wouldn’t buy in to; we have been burned before by it. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game and the much mourned P.T. are noteworthy examples of games that only had digital releases, only to then be removed from the storefront, making them impossible to buy legitimately (unless you buy an entire console that had the game downloaded).

Coupled with the lackluster performance of the Stadia, I assumed, at least for console gamers, that we weren’t going to see games go digital anytime soon. Sony, obviously begs to differ. When the news of the new console dropped, I did a quick twitter poll to see if gamers could really see themselves mostly ditching the disks – and to my shock, 65 percent said yes. Maybe Sony is on to something, then?

Survey result 1
40 percent of gamers surveyed believe that physical games will be a thing of the past by the time of the PlayStation 6

Let’s be honest, we like to go for the cheapest options. One of the many appeals of Steam and PC gaming as a whole is how ridiculously cheap titles can be, and that’s not even to mention the summer sales. It isn’t unheard of for PC gamers to have a Steam library full of hundreds of games, maybe even one thousand. Yet with the $60 price tag, it would be impressive to have the same collection on Xbox One. This is why the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition could genuinely change the face of gaming forever – if it’s the cheaper version, why wouldn’t gamers flock to it?

Take the Switch Lite, for example. This is an even more restrictive console than the PS5 Digital Edition, and yet last year it made almost half of the sales of the original Switch, despite taking away so many ways to play. That $100 deduction worked wonders for Nintendo, so it stands to reason we could see the same level of success with the digital PS5, especially during a time where the market isn’t likely to have a great deal of disposable income.

Let’s say this prediction is true, that the future of gaming really is disk-less (or cartridge-less, in Nintendo’s case). While it could save us a lot of money, I can’t help but worry about this on many fronts. Firstly, there’s the aforementioned problem of game preservation. Remember when Telltale went bust? Amidst the hundreds of issues this brought about, one of them was the fact that their massive library of licensed games disappeared from digital storefronts. If it hadn’t been for physical releases, hits such as Tales From the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us would have disappeared – just like P.T. and Scott Pilgrim before them.

Then, there’s the pricing. Sure, digital gaming is cheaper now, but what happens when we have to get all our games from the console’s own storefront? The dreaded console wars would be the only thing keeping prices competitive, and when that consists of just three companies (four, I suppose, if we make a generous assumption of the Google Stadia’s future), that’s less than ideal. Why have competitive prices, when there’s no competition?

Lastly, this would effectively kill the second-hand market. Speaking from personal experience, buying a preowned copy of a game can be a lifeline to poorer gamers. Back when I was 14 and wanted to give Mass Effect a gomy options were £15 ($19) on Xbox Marketplace…or £2 ($3) from second-hand store, CEX. With a digital-only future, this wouldn’t happen. Thousands of gamers would miss out on gaming experiences and stories which move them, help them keep in touch with friends, inspire their careers – and this would be a great loss.

I am not alone in this belief. After the quick twitter poll, I decided to look at this more thoroughly. I asked gamers for their views, and the most common concerns were over the inability to resell, the lack of storage space and not having a strong enough WiFi connection to play/download titles. Overall, even if many find this cheaper method of gaming appealing (most respondents are already playing more digital than physical), there is a complete distrust of the industry to carry it out in a way that won’t end up draining their wallet. And even moving away from the more technical aspects, many gamers I spoke to say they just don’t feel like they “own” a game when it’s digital. Human interaction came up a lot too: many enjoy wrapping games up for Christmas, or lending a game to a friend when they’re done with it. The value appears to be sentimental just as much as it is monetary.

Survey result 3
While we may buy more digital games than physical, we still don’t like the idea of that being the only option.

So are trips to GameStop a thing of the past? Well, if we take both industry trends and our own opinions into account, it could be a reluctant “yes.” We won’t like it. That is clear from the discussion around the subject. We don’t like that games can be taken away from us. We don’t like that we’ll need faster internet speeds and have to buy bigger hard drives. And we’re certainly going to miss trading in our games we don’t play anymore, even if we like to joke at how little the store gives us for them. But the consumer data speaks for itself – we’re already buying most of our games digitally. And while more of us would prefer a disk-filled future, the gaming industry has proven itself able time and time again to make things we don’t like more appealing – DLC, microtransactions, pre-order bonuses, the list goes on.

Almost a quarter of us are interested in the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, and I think we can expect that to double by the time of the PlayStation 6 (if we’re even given a choice). It’s a worrying future, but it needn’t all be doom and gloom. If the Fallout 76 saga taught the industry anything, it’s that gamers won’t lie back and accept anti-consumer practices – when Bethesda tried to refuse refunds, it found itself dealing with a class-action lawsuit.

And as for game preservation, we’ve seen decades of hard working gamers dedicate their spare time to emulating, modding and translating titles, so as many people as possible get to play. Konami may not ever put P.T. back on the PlayStation Store, but thanks to the work of modders, it lives on through a fan-made recreation. Nintendo may squander its extensive library of GameCube and Wii hits, but childhood classics such as Super Smash Bros. Melee and Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire can be emulated online. It isn’t perfect, but thanks to the community, games don’t need to die.

The passion of the community can’t fix everything (the death of the second hand market, for example), but maybe, just maybe, it will be enough to delay the inevitable, and force the industry to make the digital transition as consumer-friendly as possible.

That’s right – the future of gaming may actually rely on gamers “rising up.”

Do you want a disk-less future, or are you sticking to your physical copies? Let us know in the comments below!

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