Digital-only releases have become more common over the last few years. As more independent publishers have walked away from the physical side of things, even AAA publishers have begun to push the digital-only narrative. While it’s true that the vast majority of major games still get a physical release, it’s time to start thinking about what an all-digital world would look like – and how it might impact consumers.
An All-Digital Future
If you want to take a look at what an all-digital future looks like, you should probably talk to your friends who game exclusively on PC. While there are still plenty of games that are released physically, the vast majority of what’s available on PC is released solely on platforms like Steam or GOG. These games range from indies to major titles, but far more people buy them online than in physical stores. For PC gamers, the lack of physical games has had its ups and downs. Physical games do have a tangible quality that’s nice and they convey to them a sense of ownership. Digital games, on the other hand, just give a player a license that can be revoked. Losing access to a service like Steam can mean losing thousands of dollars of games at the same time with no recourse. On the other hand, getting games online is easy. One can amass a collection of hundreds of games without giving up any physical space. Repeated sales make it easier than ever to create one’s own library, and games can even be pre-downloaded before their release dates.
What About Sales?
Of course, for some this just comes down to money. Will games really be able to survive without physical releases? This one’s actually easy to answer – digital is actually quite profitable. Cutting out physical releases removes not only the middleman from the gaming equation, but it also removes the cost of DVD pressings, packaging, and shipping. The real problem, at least according to game companies, is piracy. There are enough small publishers that have complained of piracy hurting their sales that this cannot be ignored. Given that the time-honored practice of cracking new games existed long before digital storefronts, though, it’s hard to see this having any kind of industry-destroying impact.
When and If
Gaming certainly looks like it will eschew physical releases in the future. Right now, though, technology is what holds back the possibility. Having digital-only releases will require both better broadband internet across the world as well as more storage space. Game consoles, for example, still only ship with hard drives that aren’t quite big enough for true online-only sales. It will take years for the infrastructure to be put in place for this type of revolution, but it will eventually occur. Physical games aren’t going anywhere soon, but getting games online will continue to grow in popularity. As long as game companies are able to save money by releasing digitally, they’ll continue to push that format.