Opinion: The All-Digital Era Of Gaming Has Already Begun

Times are changing, we’ve known that for a while. The internet is now a fact of life for most people, with the majority of daily devices from games consoles to washing machines to lightbulbs having some degree of online functionality. In the entertainment industry, audience habits have shifted towards streaming, with physical media for music, film and TV slowly falling away, as streaming services like Spotify, Netflix and Disney+ rise.

The gaming industry has been a bit slower with the change. Game streaming services are here, but physical releases are still incredibly popular. The Boxed Charts of the UK or Famitsu charts in Japan show that boxed game releases can sell huge numbers, so it’s easy to think that we’re still safe from that all-digital future. But it’s not that simple. We may not notice it, but the internet is becoming a central part of accessing modern video game releases, and without it, the physical games we’ve purchased are offering considerably less than the physical releases of years prior. I think it’s safe to say that, even if it’s obscured through a plastic box and empty disk, the all-digital era has already begun.

redfall feature
The latest gaming flop, Redfall’s physical release is a wake up call.

One of the most recent of the many gaming disasters of late would be Redfall. Launching with poor gameplay, sloppy visuals and technical issues, it’s a poor showing from the now Xbox-owned Arkane Studios. It also had a full dedicated physical release. Cases are available on shelves with Redfall on a disk, collector’s edition upgrades are available with a collectible steelbook, and there are even console bundles on sale that include a boxed copy of Redfall.

The issue is, Redfall is clearly unfinished. Despite that, it’s still been put in a box with millions of copies shipped out to be purchased from store shelves for years to come. The box even falsely claims the game runs at 60fps, which isn’t available at launch and will be coming at a later date. Despite there still being a physical release, the physical product itself is vastly inferior to what will become of its digital counterpart. Updates will be provided online, but one day, even if it’s in a few decades, there will be a time where the servers aren’t online anymore. All that loyal fans will be left with in an instance like this is an outdated, broken and unfinished game on a disk that was rushed to release.

New York Firm File Lawsuit Against CDPR.
The unplayable last-gen releases of Cyberpunk 2077 are all the disks have to offer on their own.

The explosion of the ‘fix it later’ mentality in the mainstream gaming industry has taken many victims. Another example would be the launch of Cyberpunk 2077, which was plagued with bugs and glitches on its console release. Even after CD Projekt Red’s commendable efforts to fix the game, that initial physical release will always still be around. In years time when fans want to revisit Cyberpunk, those that put the money in to support a company they love at release will have far less to show for it than those that invested late with a discounted and heavily patched digital version.

A final recent example would be Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. Again, a great game that performs inexcusably poorly at launch yet is still pushed out to meet a release deadline. You may be thinking, understandably so, that the future I’m describing where the servers are no more is so far away and unsure that it’s not worth worrying about. That’s exactly why I bring up Pokémon, because Nintendo recently gave us a demonstration of what will happen to our physical game libraries when digital storefronts shut down.

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet Venonat running in a field
Despite their fun gameplay, the latest Pokémon releases struggle on their cartridges.

In March earlier this year, Nintendo shut down the eShop for both the 3DS and the Wii U. No further digital purchases could be made, although players can still redownload purchased titles and game patches for now. Exactly how long this period will last is unknown, and will set the expectation for how digital storefront closures should be approached. Despite this though, downloadable content via codes can already no longer be used. This means any game purchased on a card to redeem is no longer accessible and that card is worthless. This type of game was not exactly popular for the 3DS, but concerningly, it is far more frequent now with the Nintendo Switch.

Nintendo’s latest console is far more popular than any before it, with a huge digital and physical library. The games on cartridge has caused issues for some publishers, who have opted to only put part of the game on a cheaper, lower capacity cartridge, with the rest of the game downloaded with a code. An example of this can be found in the physical releases of Mega Man on Switch. The Mega Man Legacy Collection for example only includes the first volume of rereleases on the cartridge, with the rest being offered via download code. The same can be seen with the Mega Man X Legacy Collection.

The Legacy Collections of both Mega Man and Mega Man X offer codes for half of the experience, which will eventually be unredeemable.

Other Switch games have mandatory downloads to make up for missing data on the cartridge, such as the majority of worlds in the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. Just to really hammer this point home, there also exists physical Switch releases with no cartridges at all, just download codes. The physical copies of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, BioShock: The Collection, Civilization VI and more all offer absolutely no physical media in their physical releases, just a code. Nintendo has proven that these codes will be made inadequate one day, so what is the purpose of these games as physical releases?

Nintendo games aren’t the only ones guilty of offering no physical media as part of their physical bundle. Recent current-generation physical games such as the blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II and Star Wars Jedi: Survivor both have mandatory gargantuan downloads that trigger on inserting the disk. A deeper dive into the Modern Warfare II disk reveals that all it has on it is a simple 70MB installer, that instead just downloads the digital version of the game and ties it to the disk as a means to activate that game. The disk serves no purpose other than a key to unlock the digital game, which stands directly against the intention of owning a game.

Star Wars Jedi Survivor Cal Kestis
The force is too strong for a disk, with Jedi: Survivor requiring a download before playing the physical release.

The purpose of a physical game release is to own it. Whether it’s on a cartridge or a disk, the purchase of a physical game is meant to be a purchase of just that – the game. The files, the code and the experience are all meant to be available to you, as something you exclusively own. Yet, the all-digital era snuck in through patches and updates, with launch quality of blockbuster games slipping over time with the aim of improving them at a later date. What this approach does is reinforce that the digital product is superior, and the physical release is an afterthought. For many big publishers now, the physical release is a means of getting you through the door to access the digital content, where the patches, updates and downloads can be found to repair the mess of the physical launch, or in some cases, deliver you the game you were meant to have already purchased.

At present, it’s not a big deal. It’s true that the vast majority of gamers have internet access, and the big three gaming companies are well aware that restricting access to digital storefronts anytime soon will result in pushback from their audience. That won’t stop them though, as Nintendo demonstrated, it will just delay it. It’s an inevitability that the servers for our favorite consoles won’t be around forever, but our physical copies will be – at least for a considerably longer amount of time than the servers.

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare II.
Some of the biggest gaming releases of this generation have little to offer on their disks but an installer.

Even without considering server access from the end of the console makers, there’s also the issue of Internet access at home. We recently had a massive Internet outage at home where I live, and it was a pretty sudden realization that the games I was playing at the time were all digital. I might have invested a lot in these digital games, but once the Internet was gone I had nothing to show for it. Conversely, any physical editions I had, if I hadn’t already downloaded their updates, would likely have been an inferior experience to the one I could have had digitally, which was now unavailable.

It’s for these reasons that I believe the all-digital era is already here. The physical releases of some major AAA video games are operating right now as scaffolding, for the actual building blocks of the game to be delivered digitally. Whether that’s in the form of a day one patch to fix game breaking issues, or it’s an entire 100GB game download using the disk’s 70MB installer, the digital approach to gaming is already here and it’s only getting more prominent. Is it a big deal? Not yet. Will it become one down the line? It’s possible. I don’t have any solutions to offer right now, and I certainly don’t oppose the convenience and ease of digital gaming, but what gamers deserve with the increasing cost of gaming is to at least receive what they paid for.

What do you think about the digital era of gaming? What do you think the future of the industry will look like? How long should companies support digital games on old platforms? Sound off your opinions in the comments below, and keep your eyes on GameLuster for more gaming news and opinions just like this!

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments