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Digital games are the future, that is what gamers have been told for years, and in fairness, it is mostly true. Over the last decade, we’ve seen mediums like films and music move to a primarily digital space because why clog your house with a bunch of DVDs when you can just buy and download mp4 files directly from a server to the comfort of your computer or phone.
For many, it was only a matter of time before digital came to video games as well with 2020 being the first year where overall digital sales have outnumbered physical sales, and this very year, it was revealed that 71% of PlayStation 4 and 5 software sales were digital for the first quarter of 2021. This was in part sped up by the covid-19 pandemic. With retailers closed, people more readily began to just pick up games from Steam or the Playstation store. This shift to digital is even reflected in the next-gen consoles with the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S offering a digital-only model with no disc drive for a cheaper price.
The Convenience of Digital
There is a definite convenience in digital games both for consumers and publishers. Consumers are able to download the game straight away without a trip to a store that might not even have copies in stock.
In the case of publishers and developers, a digital game means not having to pay to manufacture discs and cases as well as shipping the game out, making the selling process far simpler. This in particular can help indie developers as it means that they focus on developing the game itself without the extra-budgetary concerns that arise with physical media.
There is also the factor of digital store sales. For a flash of a few days, a bunch of digital games can go for dirt cheap prices, incentivizing players to purchase them in the heat of the moment. It’s an easy way to sell a lot of products for publishers and benefits the consumer with lower prices.
That being said this doesn’t necessarily spell the end of physical media. Going to recent reports, while digital media now makes up the majority of sales, physical media still brings in respectable profits. Analyst Daniel Ahmad posted on Twitter last year that while digital media has rapidly grown, it hasn’t completely come at the expense of physical media, which is roughly doing as well it has before in addition to the growth of digital. It should be noted that collectors/limited edition versions of games tend to be only physical releases and have become a large part of a games’ marketing in themselves.
There are also regional and consumer benefits to physical games. Most notably that buying a digital game does not mean that you actually own a game, just the license to play it. This means if an all-digital game is pulled from stores, it is gone forever unless resorting to ROMs and piracy. This is the case for games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World The Game or more recently, the large amount of Nintendo titles that will be digitally unavailable with the shutting down of the 3DS and Wii U Eshop.
Once these games are pulled from these digital stores, there will be no legal way to access these games. Scott Pilgrim was unavailable for years after it was pulled from online stores and only in 2021 did it return to modern consoles thanks to fan demand.
There is also a regional issue with online stores. As of this article, Nintendo has not launched an official Switch E-Shop for many Southeast Asian countries making it impossible for digital-only games to be purchased at their appropriate regional price.
To get around this, companies have been releasing digital games as physical cartridges in the region. Examples of this include Square Enix’s releases of Final Fantasy VII-X, Arc System Work’s River City Girls, and Koei Tecmo’s Fatal Frame Maiden of Black Water. If game publishers wish for an all-digital future, better regional stores will have to be properly implemented or they will risk losing large regional markets.
There’s also the fact that the rise of digital gaming means that gaming could become more expensive. Despite the occasional sale, digital games tend to be more expensive than physical games and take longer to drop in price. This is because retailers tend to drop the price of games as time goes on to incentivize customers to buy them so that they can make more shelf space for newer games.
With digital releases, this is not an issue so there is no real reason for publishers to lower the price of games. This generation has further seen that certain games are rising to be $70 (290 MYR) and a lack of physical media also means that old games cannot be sold or bought second-hand for cheaper. This means that a digital dominant age could involve paying more for each game and that the ‘wait for the price to go down’ approach may involve a lot more waiting.
Analysts such as Kantan Games’ CEO Dr. Serkan Toto believe that digital will be the dominant way of purchasing video games by the end of the decade, after the PS5 and Xbox Series X. If that is the case, it could mean several advantages but also issues caused by physical media potentially not being as widespread as it once was. It is of course possible that platform holders will attempt to rectify these issues however that remains to be seen.