The Digital Divide: Game Downloads VS Physical Games
If there’s one undeniable fact in the modern video games industry, it’s that big named publishers are trying to focus their efforts on digital game releases. As someone who plays a lot of games, this also means I buy a lot of games. Like, a lot. Sometimes digital, mostly physical. In fact, pretty much always physical. I’d even go to the extent of importing a video game across countries in order to have a physical copy. Yeah sure, the Mega Man Legacy Collection won’t break the bank digitally, but nothing beats the feeling of taking that cellophane off and breathing in those expensive factory fumes. So, what’s so great about physical game releases, and equally, what’s the deal with this digital divide?
Let me take you back to the 80s and 90s. Video games came with manuals – always. Nowadays you see a manual in a box and it’s a rarity, a fossil, a relic. Take Shovel Knight for example, Yacht Club gave us the game on a disc, with a manual and a soundtrack. If you ask me, that’s how all physical copies should come. Physical manuals should come with physical releases, and vice versa. We all loved that childhood gimmick of flicking through a manual on the car ride home to play a new game. I get it, you’re here to play a game, not read a book, but you can’t say it wasn’t a cool little addition. Also, it’s 2016, every game takes at least half an hour to install, so give us something to fill the painful void of time with (especially if you’re an Xbox One user).
On the topic of nostalgia, remember Christmas morning as a kid, opening various box shapes hoping for that particular game to be inside. Now think about that if that market moved to total digital distribution; imagine ripping open codes on receipt paper and hoping to not lose them in the midst of all the packaging rubbish (“Dad, where’s the code for Destiny?”, “Probably in the bin with the wrapping paper son”). Also, people who still go outdoors and visit actual real life shops really don’t like to buy digital when physical is available. Why would you when you can get a box and a disc for the exact same price? Although, saying that, digital game releases do really have your back sometimes. Sure it’s great to hold a physical box, but that disc snapping could set you back another wad of money, whereas digitally you won’t need to put up any extra storage shelves or worry about breakages. It’s all down to personal preference, I just don’t like having a £50 product handed to me as a code. Also what beats that new game smell, and being able to hold your physical copy of Doom like a new born child.
Another glimpse into your childhood well could be swapping games with little Jimmy down the road. Remember trading your Simpsons Hit and Run for his Tony Hawk’s Underground, just for the week so you could share games. Yeah sure we’ve got SharePlay, and I guess to some extent you could share your account with someone if you trusted them enough. But where’s the magic of borrowing your pal’s disc, to find out it’s been left around by someone and stepped on. Sorry, Jimmy. On the topic of freedom with your discs, remember E3 when everybody lost their marbles over the PS4 supporting used games, allowing players to swap, share and trade in? Well, the harsh reality of buying digital is it’s so hard to trade, get a refund or just swap games. We’ve all been there, £50 worse off because a game you looked forward to didn’t meet the mark and it’s been purchased digitally, so there’s no trade in value or anything like that. Gutted.
My only real grumble with digital game releases is if you want to move username or change account entirely, you run the risk of losing all of your games too. Especially with PSN accounts, if you grow out of ‘g0ldeneye4everXx’, you can also kiss goodbye to your precious purchases and trophies linked to that account. On the topic of losing all of your data and purchases, if you’re a bit of a trouble maker online, and have your account blocked then, well, oops. I’m sure nowhere is cruel enough to take all of your purchases away from you, but it honestly is always a possibility to be considered.
With the topic of not physically owning a game, comes banned video games. Back in the good old days, when a game was pressed to disc, produced and purchased there would be no way to regain every copy of the game back, whereas now a simple console update or refund credited back to your account could technically mean loss of your video games. It’s a scary thought that nothing necessarily stops a game being pulled from you for ‘x’ number of reasons. Remember ‘Manhunt’ on the PS2? When that got initially banned, there was no way of stopping people playing it, because guess what… No updates!
Although, having said all of the above, I really don’t always have too much of a gripe with digital. Imagine how indie developers would cope without the digital market (they wouldn’t, probably). Titles such as Octodad, Entwined, Hotline Miami and many others might not have seen the light of day. Having said that though, incredible companies such as Limited Run Games do produce physical copies of the best indie games. Take Oddworld for example, it really does say something when physical copies are on eBay for £100+ – showing physical might just be what the consumer really wants.
There is an exceptional amount of choice when it comes to digital downloads too – the library seems practically endless and is forever growing. Easy publication of indie games or niche releases isn’t always such a great thing though. Sure, a lot of smaller developers can get their games out and noticed, but with that there is also a lot of terrible things put on the market. I feel like it doesn’t take much to get your game out in the digital market nowadays – we even see iPhone games ported to consoles digitally. Since there is so much choice in comparison to physical releases, the digital market can often seem over saturated by the sheer amount of options, which in turn can lead to a lot of poor games available for purchase.
Something that really does meet the mark for me about digital games though, is the accessibility. I’m still blown away by the fact I can purchase a game on the PlayStation Store while I’m out of the house via an app, and have it downloaded onto my console by the time I’m home. Digital really does have a good thing going when it brings apps and technology to it’s systems. With that, comes digital discounts on smaller titles. On occasion, you can get top digital only releases at impressively low prices. Especially with flash sales and Humble Bundles available digitally.
However, it does make me think where and when will it all end? The certainty of it is, it won’t. Developers will still take advantage of digital to put out season passes, additional DLC, and micro transactions. The digital market is growing at a rapid pace, with other large corporations pushing it more so than others. I mean, we even see Nintendo releasing the majority of their Wii U catalogue as almost a limited run on physical formats. Copies of games less than a year old can even be a task to find at times – whereas they’re always readily available digitally.
In all honestly, I have a hunch that in the next generation of video game consoles, we could potentially see a disposal of physical releases almost entirely. I mean, even big titles such as Hitman haven’t received a physical copy yet – even the collectors edition came with a code. Statues and art books would likely still be readily available in retail, just with a code for the game instead. Purchasing digital games makes it a lot easier to buy things, a few clicks of a button and you could have spent more than you intended; Steam sales being an absolute curse with their incredible deals. The market seems to be going full steam ahead with digital game releases, and I’ll still be on the sinking ship that is physical releases. So, as a good captain goes down with his ship, I’ll still wait the extra year to get that lovely disc for Hitman.