Is digital game distribution taking over buying traditional hard copies?

Downloading is easy. I can open iTunes and download a movie, install a game from Steam, or buy the Halo 4 soundtrack (I still prefer Martin O’Donnell, but Neil Davidge did a fantastic job with Halo 4’s soundtrack), all without moving more than my arms, let alone leaving my chair. Is this what buying a game has finally come to? Are the days gone when one has to actually move to buy a new game? With the next generation of consoles just over the horizon, more than ever that definitely seems like a possibility.

Digital Distribution

‘Digital distribution’ is a convenient and increasingly popular method of supplying video games to the public. Companies like Valve and EA both famously use Steam and Origin, respectively, to provide gamers access to a (ever-expanding) plethora of titles right at their fingertips. Whether one is better than the other is irrelevant for the moment, because they’re both fantastic examples of mainstream digital distribution. The hook behind such a method is that potential customers need only connect their account to a credit card or PayPal and they’re all set to buy pretty much anything they see (within financial reason of course). Personally I use Steam, and I – as well as any other Steam user – can vouch that it has an incredible range of titles to choose from, as well as tantalizingly tempting sales boasting low prices.

One of the more famous examples of exclusively digital and word-of-mouth distribution is Minecraft (now available across multiple platforms and in physical form)

One of the more famous examples of exclusively digital and word-of-mouth distribution is Minecraft (now available across multiple platforms and in physical form)

Digital distribution isn’t just limited to PC, however: Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and the Wii Shop all distribute games digitally. The fact that both Sony and Microsoft also revealed their respective next-gen console’s Cloud storage prospects is big news for the digital front. Then again, is this necessarily a bad thing?

My digital copies of PC games include titles such as Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, Star Wars the Old Republic, Ace of Spades, Minecraft, I Am Alive, ARMA 2, DayZ, Counter Strike: Source (and Global Offensive), ending up at a total of around 38. My collection on my computer definitely beats my number of hard copies, of which I only have 6. Some of these games – such as Galactic Battlegrounds – I can’t find a hard copy for, so digital was the way to go. On PC I buy games digitally because A) they’re easy to find or purchase, and B) hard copies aren’t always available. The latter of these is also true of Xbox 360, even if I do have more physical copies for it.

I have 82 Xbox 360 games sitting on my shelf: case, manual and all. Contrary to my PC collection, I only have 12 digital copies of Xbox Live Arcade titles. These include games such as Minecraft, Trials HD, Trials Evolution, Terraria, and Wrecked: Revenge Revisited. As you can tell, my 360 collection is far more physically-based than my PC, primarily because of one key difference: not all hard copies are available on XBLA. Microsoft is working on this, slowly bringing out full games for purchase and download via the marketplace, but it isn’t as fast as buying the game due to the download time and the delay between a game’s release and its availability on Live. Because of this, I buy my full titles at a retail store and my smaller, generally physically-unavailable titles on the Arcade.

There really is no denying that Steam, XBLA, PSN, and the Wii Store, as examples of digital distribution, are incredibly convenient and easy to access/use, and the fact that they all contain games that don’t come out on disc is a massive bonus. This brings us to physical distribution.

Physical distribution

Physical distribution of games, as a whole, has been around far longer than its digital counterpart. Retail stores exist around the world to supply physical copies of games to those sticking to the more traditional method of sale. PC games used to take up a fair chunk of space around my local Electronics Botique, but in recent years that space has subsided, giving way to shared portions of wall with Xbox 360 and PS3 titles.

My favorite, and probably the most cliche, reason for visiting retail stores is for the experience. Honestly, walking into a store to browse for a while, talk with the cashier, and pick your way through dozens of games on multiple platforms is one that you can’t really beat. At retail stores you can talk face-to-face with the staff about their favorite games, or even their opinions on new games or consoles. Sometimes I walk into the Electronics Boutique near my house and just browse, more often than not leaving with nothing.

Not only that, but I have a fantastic time going through the manuals and other such items that come with buying a physical copy. Manuals – when done right, of course – do nothing but add to the game itself, often providing rich back story, tips, and character profiles. The collectibles that come with Limited and Collector’s Editions of games also lend to this experience. When I first opened up my Limited Edition of Halo 4 I actually put off playing the game so I could read through the multiple journals and booklets inside the case. These additions don’t necessarily enhance the game, but they enhance my personal experience.

I'm honestly not sure how accurate this graph is, or what kind of data it's based on, but this gives you an idea on just how the industry is shifting

I’m honestly not sure how accurate this graph is, or what kind of data it’s based on, but this gives you an idea on just how the industry is shifting

Aside from the customer experience of buying a physical copy, CDs have a couple of advantages over digital copies. One of these is (mainly for consoles due to PCs usually requiring game installation) the ability to play without install or download times. Frankly, I felt much more successful when I was able to play Spec Ops: The Line straight after having purchased it, whereas I still have a number of titles I haven’t installed on Steam yet because it requires time I don’t usually have. This is usually an easy fix and a relatively small difference, but after I buy my game I would usually rather play it straight away.

Another point for physical copies is that if your computer files corrupt (or your console is stolen – been there, done that), you still have the disc as a surefire backup. Sure for PC there are still install times and such, or re-installing through Steam or other sources, but when I replaced my stolen Xbox 360, it was far easier to play the games I had sitting on the shelf than it was to prove I had previously bought a particular set of games or passes online (Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Pass, I’m looking at you).

What the next generation means for physical retail

The last few months has seen incredible speculation on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s interaction with physical game discs. For starters, Sony announced that all PS4 games will have digital copies as well as physical copies, and the Xbox One is rumored to require game installation for all its physical games. The PlayStation 4 – more so than the Xbox One – has the potential to create a dint in the physical games market because some people may soon prefer buying their games over the PlayStation Network, especially seeing as they will have the ability to play said full-length games while they download.

After bringing up rumors, it’s also worth mentioning that if the Xbox One does indeed have a fee or ‘strings’ attached to used games, then the market for said used games will drop dramatically, leading to a decline in sales at retail stores. At many different EB’s and JB Hi-Fi’s around the area I live in there are always massive sales for used games – what if no one wants these used games anymore? Any publicity isn’t always good publicity, as Microsoft’s used-game debacle will testify.

Then again, maybe the world is overreacting, and if there is a used game fee – which Microsoft stated there won’t, but the internet is less-than-hopeful – it may only be an extra dollar or two on top of the sale price. The point of this section of the discussion is that there are plenty of aspects about the next-gen consoles that just don’t gel with physical copies of games.

There will always be a great divide between digital and physical games, but this gap is widening now more than ever. It’s evident that both methods definitely have there positives and negatives – I love the accessibility of digital copies but relish the experience of buying my game in person or enjoying the perks that it comes with – and there will never truly be one side that is greater than the other. But where would we be today without physical retail? How would we benefit from Collector’s Editions, or where would those working in the industry end up? Further, what if Steam or the Xbox Live Arcade didn’t exist? To thrive, each method needs the other, and if we were to tip the scales favorably in one direction, than the other method would be sorely missed – perhaps in both our hearts and our pockets. What if EA charged you for every digital receipt you want? Let’s hope it doesn’t get all the way to that.

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digital, distribution, game, PC, physical, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Network, retail, used games, Wii, Wii Store, Xbox 360, Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox One

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