Data vs Hardcopy: Paradigm shifts in the digital gaming age

Last Updated July 5th, 2021

According to the ESA, digital video game sales overtook physical sales for the first time in 2014. Trends have continued to push toward digital, with smaller games seeing digital-only releases, and the bulk of game profits being made from digital purchases and DLC. If things continue as they are now, we may see the physical game go the way of the dinosaur in another generation or so.

But we may be losing more than cartridges, DVDs, and collector’s edition steelbox cases. Changing the way we purchase video games also changes how we interact with them. Now that we have finally reached the tipping point in the “digital revolution,” it’s worth it to examine the differences between physical and digital games to get an idea of how the market and the community will change with it.

Practicality

From a practical standpoint, there really isn’t much of a reason to buy hardcopy games anymore. That disc that you are purchasing isn’t really doing much – modern-day consoles need to install games on their internal hard drive in order to run them. Only the Wii U can run games directly off the disc.

In essence, your physical copy is exactly the same as a digital copy, except it has an extra layer of DRM that requires you to put the game disc into your console in order to play it. That layer exists merely to simulate the game swapping experience of older consoles. In reality, placing a disk into your system is more like installing a PC game than putting a cartridge into an SNES, and PCs did away with disc-based DRM back in the 90s.

In a way, physical games are just digital games that are harder to get and more difficult to play.

So from a practicality standpoint, there’s no real reason for their existence. But is there more to it than that? 

Ownership

The most common argument for physical copies is the desire for “ownership.” People want to be able to see and feel the game they purchased, not just assume that it exists on a server somewhere.

While “ownership” in this context is usually used in reference to collecting or displaying games, there is a deeper and more important type of ownership that we may lose along with physical media: ownership rights.

When you own a physical copy of a game it is, for all intents and purposes, yours. The case is yours. The disc is yours. The data on the disc is yours.

This type of ownership comes with a certain degree of freedom. You can resell a physical copy of a game. You can trade it. You can give it away. If you wanted to, you could melt it down and make Legos out of it and no one would stop you.

Digital games are obviously different since they have no physical component. You can’t resell them, trade them, or give them away – short of selling your whole console and PSN/Xbox Gold account.

In a sense, you don’t really “own” them. You own the right to play them. How, when, and where you play them is decided by whatever digital service you downloaded them from.

This is one of the major paradigm shifts that the rise in digital distribution has caused. When buying a physical game, you are buying an object. When buying a digital game, you are buying a right.

Preservation

The ability for digital services and publishers to moderate how you play digital games has caused quite a problem for gaming historians out there. It is much harder to preserve something that doesn’t have a physical component.

The retro gaming scene exists because retro games have this physical component. Your copy of Little Samson for the NES has the same circuits and wires as any other, and placing it into a NES will allow you to play the game now in 2016 just as easily as you did in 1992.

But digital games are more easily wiped from the face of history. Look at P.T., the playable teaser for the failed Silent Hills project. Many consider it to be an incredible horror experience, even though it was just a demo. When the project failed, Konami attempted to erase its existence, taking it down from the PSN. Users wouldn’t even be able to re-download it if they already had it in their game library.

It makes sense for Konami to do this. They aren’t in the business of preserving game history. They are in the business of making money off video games. Since their split with Hideo Kojima was doing an incredible amount of damage to their public image, it was in their best interest to restrict access to former products that were linked to that split.

But what’s best for Konami is not what’s best for the gaming community at large. Whether or not the project was a success, it was an important part of gaming history and should be available to be played and referenced in order to get an idea of what was happening between Konami and Kojima at the time. Luckily, gaming historians are clever and have figured out ways to re-download the game through proxy servers and rip the data to eternal storage devices. This is totally against Sony’s terms of service, however. To accurately chronicle this slice of gaming history, historians have to work against the wishes of Sony and Konami. To accurately chronicle an old NES game, all you have to do is make sure it doesn’t get too dusty.

And you might be thinking that P.T. is a fringe case, but we see similar problems with digital games all the time. How do you let someone play an old shooter or MMO when the servers aren’t up anymore? Nothing lasts forever. How will players access their digital games when digital distribution services go offline? What is a Steam game when Steam no longer exists? These are questions we haven’t had to answer yet, but are nevertheless important; especially as more digital distribution services enter the market and digital competition increases.

On the other hand, while preserving digital games in the long term may be problematic, in the short term they are far easier to preserve than physical games. Digital games don’t degrade. They can’t be scratched. They can’t corrode. They can’t stop working because you didn’t store them correctly. All digital copies are essentially perfect copies of whatever game you are playing. Even if your hard-drive somehow degrades you can replace it or even your entire console and still have a working copy of your game ready as long as you have an internet connection.

This is also part of the aforementioned paradigm shift from physical object to gaming right. Purchasing a digital copy gives you pseudo infinite copies of the game you purchased. Purchasing a physical copy only gives you one.

Access

I should amend my previous statement. Purchasing a digital copy gives you pseudo infinite copies of a game…that only you can play. Purchasing a physical copy gives you one that anyone can play.

“Access” has been a hot topic in the physical versus digital debate. Since publishers and distributors can control how you interact with your digital copies of games, they can also control who can interact with your digital copies of games.

When you’re purchasing a game for yourself this isn’t a big deal. In fact, there are many ways in which digital copies are better than physical copies. The ability to access your entire video game collection from any electronic device capable of playing them is a revolution in the way we “collect” games. You no longer have to store tons and tons of jewel cases up in your attic. Heck, you don’t even have to get up off your couch to swap discs. Buy a high capacity hard-drive and your entire gaming collection can fit in your pocket. Heck, every video game that has ever been made from the beginning of time to the end of the 16 bit era can fit on a single SD card. It’s hard to argue with the convenience of a digital library… for yourself.

When sharing with others, this becomes a bigger problem. You can just hand a physical copy to a friend and let them play it on their console, but sharing digital copies requires jumping through all sorts of hoops. You have to sign into their console, download your game, make sure you aren’t signed in on your console at the same time, and even then you can only do this on a certain amount of consoles before you are locked out. Even Steam Family Sharing, largely considered the gold standard for digital game sharing, will randomly lock you out of shared libraries for no good reason!

This can be argued to be the second biggest paradigm shift. When we purchased games as physical copies, we purchased them as a social event. These were games for us, our siblings, our friends, and eventually some other young kid who buys it used down the line. They were games purchased and played by everyone. Digital games, however, are purchased for one, and only one, person. It is your game, and it will only ever be your game.

This shift falls in line with recent changes to gaming habits. People rarely venture out to play video games anymore. The arcade scene is dead. LAN cafés basically don’t exist in America anymore. We are much more likely to play with our friends over the internet than to invite them over to play next to us on the couch. Why? Because it’s convenient.

Value

From a sheer cost perspective, digital games are better for everyone. They cost practically nothing to produce. I covered this in greater depth in my “Death of the 60 Dollar Game” article but, in short, there are essentially no manufacturing costs, no distribution costs, and no costs paid to retail outlets like Best Buy or Gamestop. This has made games cheaper to purchase, which makes it’s easier for consumers to save money while at the same time opening up more opportunities for the indie developer. This is why we are able to purchase 10 games for a dollar in Humble Bundles.

But with this decrease in cost comes a decrease in perceived value. Video games just aren’t as important to us in digital form as they are in physical form.

Some may say that the internet tends to throw itself into a fit, with people crying the doom days of the end of gaming – but it’s true. Look at your Steam library. Mine has over 300 games, and I certainly haven’t played them all. Unplayed Steam games are so common they’ve become a meme. Now think back to your old physical game collection. Can you name even one physical game you own that you haven’t played at least once? I can’t.

When games are easier to come by, each individual game means less. But it’s not just cost that factors into this reduction in value, it’s convenience. When you want a physical copy on day one you have to drive to the store, place your pre-order, wait for the call, rush to the store hoping you manage to pick up a copy in the first shipment, grab it, put it in a bag, take it home, and sniff it for a big whiff of that new game smell. Then you open the plastic, read the manual, pop the disc out, and start playing. It was practically a ritual.

When you pre-order a copy in the digital world, it’s already on your console by the time it releases. All you do is power on your console and press play, just like any other day. There is no ritual. There is nothing very “special” about it.

This value is the collectability that supporters of physical media love so much. Physical games are almost like trophies, badges that show that you’ve been there, played that, had that childhood experience. Digital games aren’t trophies. Digital trophies are barely trophies. They are just gateways to gaming experiences, which leads me to the final huge paradigm shift.

Games Now VS. Then – Object vs. Experience

When I started this article, I said that changing how we acquire games changes how we interact with them, and this is how:

Physical games are a thing. A real, physical object. That object itself has worth. Money and effort was put into making and obtaining it. You can purchase it and never play it and it will still have worth on your bookshelf.

But digital games aren’t things. They are experiences. You can’t hold them. You can’t gift them. They don’t exist in any way other than to let you play them. That’s the catch here. Digital games don’t have their worth until you play them, unlike physical games.

That’s the key paradigm shift. The digital revolution has been all about reducing the barriers to gameplay. Digital games assume that the worth a game has is in the experience. This makes digital games more like going to the movies or a theme park than, say, collecting action figures.

And for most gamers this is true. Most gamers buy games to play them. You may note that all the advantages of digital copies are for the singular consumer, the consumer that has one thing on their mind: “play the game.” Trading, re-selling, showcasing, and even historically chronicling games all come secondary to play. We are, effectively, making playing games much easier at the expense of doing anything else with them.

As we shift more and more toward a digital-only market, we have to ask ourselves a question that keeps coming back – “what is gaming?” Is it just gameplay? Or is it everything that comes along with it? Is it talking about the game with friends? Is it reading the manual? Is it going to the store and buying a shrink wrapped DVD case? Where does the gaming experience start and end, and are we giving up some of that experience by giving up the physical component of it?

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