The question of whether to buy games physically or digitally has been a heated debate for 15 years. There are undoubtedly plenty of arguments for and against both. On the positive side for physical we find the fact that you actually own your games and can do what you want with them, including reselling them, and that they are usually much cheaper. The advantages of digital include superior convenience (both in purchase and use), that it doesn’t come with a disc that can be lost or broken, and that it is significantly more environmentally friendly than all the transportation, materials, packaging and middlemen.
On the negative side for physical we find, among other things, that a disc can actually disappear or break and then your game is gone, that it’s harder to use than just having everything installed, that you can’t buy a cheaper all-digital console, and that some titles just don’t exist physically. When it comes to digital, games are much more expensive and you don’t own them. So you can never sell a game that you’ve finished or don’t like.
The latter is a fact that was highlighted when Discovery and Sony recently announced that they would be removing video content that people had actually purchased from the PlayStation Store. Granted, the number of users affected was quite small, but the deals are designed so that your games can be taken away from you at any time without your intervention.
This was the case, for example, in the recent collapse of Stadia. Everyone who had a large collection of games lost everything. Google handled it nicely with refunds, but what would happen if Steam shut down? All your purchased games and saved files would be gone. As far as I know, only GOG is currently a major service where you actually own and access your games, even without the company’s launcher and being online
This scares many gamers. Being able to play their titles even in the future is a major concern, although it is not at all certain that HDMI connectors are something that will work for eternity. It’s already becoming difficult to use a Super Nintendo on a flat-screen TV with an RGB cable, and who’s to say that the TV of the future will even have outlets for cables in these wireless times? But there’s still something particularly abrasive about the idea of buying games for thousands of dollars, only to find out one morning that you’ve been banned from a service on dubious grounds, or that an agreement has expired so that the title you bought yesterday suddenly no longer works. It’s really the big companies against the little guy, and you know that when that happens, you’ve already clicked away your terms by accepting many agreements you didn’t read when you started your console and games.
Furthermore, a title that you bought for full price can be updated at any time in a way that you really hate, meaning that the developers are basically destroying something you paid for. Can you think of another scenario in which we would accept this? Buying an armchair that is modified three months after purchase to make it uncomfortable to sit in, your expensive frying pan that suddenly can’t be used for meat, or your Star Wars movie box set with the original trilogy in its original form being overwritten with George Lucas’ worthless new editions. Our rights when it comes to games are very limited and there is not much we can do about it, we have approved all that before we even start playing.
So you have to buy physical? Not necessarily. Because the problem here is that physical these days often has discs that are more like tokens than anything that actually contains a playable product. Not infrequently I see that the new disk I slide into my console to install a game is not used, but all the data is downloaded online anyway. I very much believe that those who will try to play something from a disk 20 years from now after the servers have closed will be deeply disappointed because in many cases it will not work at all. The same goes for those who have downloaded games. Because even though they often work offline, they still need to be verified in between. And without servers that can verify, there will be no gaming. It is mainly Switch owners who avoid these disappointments, but even there it is increasingly common that all or part of the game data is not included if you buy a physical copy of the game, and I have to assume that Switch 2 (rumored to be released this year) will be more digitally friendly.
Incidentally, Ubisoft recently commented on this physical or digital thing, saying nonchalantly that we gamers need to get used to not owning our games. And to a large extent we are already there, but I think the parallels he draws with movies are flawed. Because even though I no longer own VHS, DVD or Blu-ray, it is not difficult to legally get virtually any movie I want (although there are some exceptions) at a very low price. In the case of games, however, we are talking about special hardware that usually only works with a particular console. The best in terms of backwards compatibility is Microsoft, as the Xbox Series S/X allows you to play titles from Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. But this is far from complete, and there are several titles that are no longer available for a console at all and cannot be purchased digitally, as in the case of the Nintendo DSi, which means that the downloaded copies people have are the last ones that exist. On the other hand, looking at the talented and beautiful Anita Ekberg in the 1960 movie The Sweet Life is no art, that movie works just as well no matter what movie medium you use.
So games are a very special case, but the idea that game companies would run servers forever to be nice to the indescribably small number of gamers who really want to download old titles is, of course, unrealistic. Digital games may be ridiculously expensive, but they don’t justify lifetime server support.
I think the price tag is the biggest disadvantage of digital games. The fact that it should cost $70 to buy a new game is not that surprising (it is equivalent to a 90-minute tennis session and a visit to the movie theater for two people) and in terms of how much entertainment you get, video games are and always will be cheap. However, $70 is complete madness when it costs about $50 on disc, as some electronics chains have a campaign at premieres and lower their prices soon after.
The idea that a game should always be the cheapest online is not realistic, but the difference today is too great and is only made possible by the fact that we like to pay for convenience and that competing online stores do not exist. Apple fought hard against Epic to be the only one selling things for iOS, and similarly, there is no alternative on the Xbox Series S/X if you don’t want to pay what Tekken 8 costs digitally at launch. Sony has even been sued, accusing them of overpricing their PlayStation store. You can’t check what another store charges for the same digital game because there are no options, but you can when it comes to physical formats. And if you finish the game within a few weeks (mostly single player titles and games you don’t like), you sell them on eBay or Facebook and get a few dollars back. This difference is so great that even I, who absolutely prefer digital, often buy physical instead during promotions, and most of my digital games have been bought during sales.
So where am I going with this? Well, that there are several advantages with both physical and digital, but also some really heavy disadvantages, largely due to the fact that we don’t really own our games the same way anymore. The retro wave now washing over us with exorbitant prices on old titles is something I don’t think the current 25-year-old generation will live to see the day PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X retro. Indeed, I’m not sure any game in this format will be at all playable 20 years from now – but by then I’ll be retired and drinking lemonade on the porch in a hopefully more peaceful world that has realized that cooperation produces better results for people and animals than war. And I’ll hopefully have some old video games worth at least some money.
Unlike many of us who own old music CDs, maybe vinyl, comic books, movies and retro games, a generation is now growing up that has none of these. They have access to everything through subscriptions, but they own very, very few popular culture things compared to slightly older generations. Is this a problem? Maybe, maybe not, but it is clear that at least it will be very different.