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Physical vs Digital Games: Are We Headed to a Digital-Only Future?

physical media games collection
Image: GameSpew

How do you buy your games? Do you like the seamless click, pay, download and play approach of digital games? Or do you prefer something more tangible; that feeling of going to GAME, peeling off the factory wrapping (or security sticker) then slipping the disc into your console as you marvel at the cover art?

However you pick your gaming poison, the physical vs digital debate constantly rages on. Only now with digital-only consoles and digital-only titles, things look like they could be shifting towards a disc-less future. But is it a good idea? And how likely is it to happen?

At a glance: Pros and cons of digital vs physical media

PhysicalYou own it!
You can hold it!
Resale value
Share it with your mates
Discs can get damaged
Stock reliant 
Have to queue
DigitalInstant access
Zero clutter
Often the cheaper option
Really easy to buy/manage
Never out of stock
You own a licence which could be taken away
No resale value
Much harder to lend to your mates
More reliant on your internet connection

The big advantage that digital games have over physical is convenience. But for a lot of people, it isn’t just about convenience, it’s the joy of collecting and building a library of games.

It isn’t a case of a growing majority, it’s already an overwhelming one — in the UK 90% of game sales were digital in 2022. Does that mean the collecting minority should be pushed aside for it? That will come down to profitability. And while it’s true that physical sales have been decreasing year on year, they still managed to rake in £500 million in the UK last year. That’s still rather lucrative.

The future is bleak?

So, what kind of Skynet dystopian future do we have ahead of us?

Microsoft pulling physical game spaces from shops sets a bit of a worrying precedent. If it pulls all of its physical media and solely sells digital, it puts itself in a position where it can monopolise the market.

If Microsoft decides to sell only through its own online store, you may think that’s fair enough because it’s well within its right to maximise its profits. But in making itself the only place to buy its media, there’s nothing to stop it raising its prices. With many games already sitting at a whopping £70 these days, and Take-Two’s Strauss Zelnick’s controversial views on the value for money in games, a digital-only future could end up being an expensive one for the average gamer.

Take a look at the streaming service market. What started out with Netflix being an easy, convenient alternative to satellite and cable television, has now grown into a leviathan of rival platforms, rocketing prices and adverts. To quote Obi-Wan, streaming has become the very thing it swore to destroy.

With the Cloud, we can stream games too, and the idea of a console-less generation isn’t that far-fetched. Perhaps we’ll sign up for PlayStation or Xbox just like we do Netflix or Apple TV+. But would it be viable? Would gamers really be comfortable with having their entire capacity for playing at the mercy of their internet provider? It just seems like too much of a stretch, especially given the continuing disdain for ‘always online’ games.

Physical will endure

With the rise of digital, the magic of special editions, game manuals, and midnight launches has fallen away over the last decade. Eroded by the evolution of bandwidth and technology, the industry has lost a bit of its charm. Queuing up with random strangers in the dead of a frosty winter night was part of the buzz of anticipation. Arguably, big launch events started to wither away when the likes of Amazon and online outlets could deliver your games on the day of release (or sometimes before depending on the site).

Is this something to be worried about? Is the landscape undergoing irreversible change? Absolutely not.

Even with some titles like 2023’s Alan Wake II going digital-only for development time and to save production costs, physical media will likely endure. Even with vastly reduced numbers, it always pays for the consumer to have options. People like choosing, and even if you only alienate 10% of your audience by going fully digital, that’s still too big of a chunk of cash to miss out on. DVDs are still around and I haven’t bought one of those since 2012 (The Dark Knight Rises, if you must know).  If enough people aren’t happy with something, they’ll shout loudly on Twitter and if need be, vote with their wallets. If the fandom can change Sonic’s appearance, they can do anything.

The only possibility of fans accepting a digital-only future is if the laws around digital media are changed. As they stand now, people purchase a licence to watch/play (those things we just click ‘accept’ on) which can be taken away at any time by the provider.

Sony and Crunchyroll have upset a lot of people by doing such things, which is only going to make more people cautious of going fully digital. Couple that with the growing prices of streaming services, and there’s a good possibility that people will simply be priced out of digital and go back to physical media.

But should there be a change where consumers actually own their digital media, we could well see a California Gold Rush on the digital frontier.

What can we do?

Digital and physical don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There’s still plenty of room in the industry for them to both exist. The physical vs digital debate has been around for many years already, and it’ll continue for years to come. But that doesn’t mean physical media is going anywhere: as long as you’re still buying the odd game on a disc, there’s not much to worry about.

And maybe we’re just gaming boomers, but you really can’t beat that new game smell.

Danny grew up on a diet of Resident Evil, Half-Life and Halo. Nowadays, in between life as a freelance writer, author, parent and dog owner, he’ll try anything, but has a penchant for all things FromSoftware – and won’t hesitate to tell anyone about how Sekiro is the greatest game he’s ever played.