Dabe Alan

Fighting against the death of the physical game collection: Ben and Andrew argue it out

Fighting against the death of the physical game collection: Ben and Andrew argue it out

My wife is pregnant as hell, and we’re both going through a crazy nesting phase. That seems to include cleaning out the basement, and that means finding bins of video games and accessories from my days of collecting the rare and obscure bits of gaming ephemera from my youth. I found a nice place to put the collection back together, and did so. It looks pretty good, and my older kids are interested in playing a number of the classic games.

It did get me thinking, however. My children will likely never have a physical collection like this. They’re already used to downloading games on their iPods, or watching movies through Netflix and other streaming services, and they find physical CDs and vinyl to be amusing artifacts, not a serious way to buy or listen to music.

We can argue about the great aspects of holding and “owning” our content, but that emotional reaction is due to growing up in the last years where such a thing is possible. Those who are growing up now, or are now toddlers, will grow up not knowing or caring what they’re missing. Physical media is already an anachronism for many things, even if Microsoft’s attempts to drag video games into the purely digital realm were shot down by an angry public.

So here’s my question, is this something we care about? There was something comfortably permanent about seeing the games I had forgotten I owned, I’ll admit. Look, there’s my copy of La Pucelle Tactics! Hey, I remember finding this copy of Frequency in a used game store! I adore my boxed SNES collection, even if it’s more to look at than play these days. I haven’t hooked up an SNES in years, although I have fantasies about buying a CRT TV and playing some classic games in my office, the way God intended.

This is the best part of physical media, and the collection of such. As long as I have a working system, I can play any of these games. No DRM will get in my way, as the vast majority don’t require online servers to work, although my copy of Chromehounds is now kind of depressing. At any point I can take these games out, find a working system, and play them with my kids. I have no such assurances that I’ll be able to do the same thing with purely digital products being released today.

So Andrew, what do you think? Do you care about your physical games? Do you lean towards digital, or do you like the disc?

Andrew's happiness artifacts

I've been wrestling with this same issue recently, but for different reasons. I just got a 3DS XL last weekend, and while my instinct is always to rush out and buy the physical version of a handheld game, I'm starting to realize how pointless that might be given the simplicity of the eShop store.

But at the same time, I am somehow drawn to the idea of a physical game. There's something old fashioned in me that feels as though that version has more “value” than the ephemeral digital game. I'm youthful enough to know that I'm wrong about that gut feeling, but crotchety enough to go with my gut anyway.

I do tend to lean toward the disc, and it's because I really enjoy having games in my home. I like to have a couple scattered on my coffee table, and I keep a bookshelf full of my meager games collection next to my work desk. The sight of them inspires me, and helps me stay aware of what it is that I love about games. Once in a while, it even helps me notice trends I'd never noticed in the games I like. When I put together my collection for display in a book case, for instance, I noticed that I own a huge number of games in Ubisoft's Tom Clancy series of military shooters. Who knew?

So you've mentioned the reasons why you do like having a games collection around the house, and why a younger member of society might not care about having one. But are there any reasons why you personally might want to discontinue the collection?

Ben's collection

Well, I travel a good amount of time during the year, and I have a roomy SD card on my 3DS. It's much easier to just have all the games installed and move from title to title while in a cramped plane than it is to swap carts out when you want to play something new. Same with my Vita, although Sony's decision to go with proprietary storage was asinine.

Also, with four kids and another on the way, it's really easy to lose cartridges, scratch discs, have the wrong games in the wrong cases… Yes, people are going to argue that's a parenting challenging more than it's a media challenge, but things are going to happen no matter how careful you are. Digital games are relatively safe, at least for that console generation. My games will always be ready to go on my PS4 and Xbox One; I don't plan on buying discs for either of those systems, and it's likely review copies will be sent as download codes as well.

This could be the first generation where I don't buy or own a single physical game for a console. It seems weird, and I know I'm not a representative case here, but I know I also won't be alone. A ton of people like the convenience of digital products, especially at launch when the prices will likely be the same as buying it in the store.

On the other hand, what's Christmas going to look like when few people buy physical games? GameStop does a brisk business in selling digital merchandise as gift cards, but do people want to unwrap download codes printed on cardboard? It feels like downloads and updates are going to take up most Christmas mornings this year, and the years moving forward. Welcome to the brave new world of digital.

Here's a question for you: Aren't we already most of the way there? Free-to-play is a big deal, and it's not like that boxed copy of World of WarCraft that may be on your shelf is worth anything.

Andrew's brain problems

I love my collection of physical games, but you're totally right that I'd never even think about the fact that StarCraft 2, a game I've played for thousands of hours, isn't in there. Or League of Legends. Or World of Warcraft. Or Super Street Fighter IV. Or basically any of the games I've spent the most time with and loved the most dearly over the past five years.

Something deep in my brain doesn't care about online games having a physical box. It recognizes that as pointless, but it doesn't recognize physical single-player games as being pointless. Perhaps it's because online-only games, regardless of whether there's a physical disc, are already beholden to the life of the servers. For instance, when I look at my collection I scoff a little bit at my Xbox copy of Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow. It's a great game, but it doesn't exist anymore online.

So I think the variation in the way I think about it boils down to whether the game has a single-player, offline component. There's some logic there. The disc actually matters when there's a lasting product on it. LoL will eventually die regardless of whether it's stored on any discs.

It's always going to be a little bit different with PC games anyway simply because PC game packaging was so mindblowingly horrible for so many years. They made it all but impossible to keep the packaging of those games. I think part of the reason digital distribution and storage of PC games was so widely accepted is because it was an improvement for many people. In console games that's not necessarily the case.

I think that in the end I'm going to start forcing myself to switch to digital. I'd rather we stopped using so much plastic to package games anyway, so it appeals to me for a number of reasons.

You've mentioned that you're already on board with this, and that it's only a matter of time before the rest of the industry comes along for the ride as well. My final question to you is: how long do you think all of that will take? Just look at the music business. Ten years after iTunes essentially took over the business we still have large CD sections in big box retailers.

Ben's crystal ball

Well, first off, you're insane. The older, giant boxes that PC games used to come in were incredible. Do you remember the box for Spectre? How did retailers even stock that shit? There was something neat about how crazy some publishers got with their packaging. I miss that stuff.

To answer your question, we're a long way from 100 percent digital. The percentage of players who don't buy physical games is going to leap up during the next generation, but reliable Internet without caps simply isn't available everywhere, and when the size of these games isn't going to get much smaller. For many people, buying the game is going to be a faster, more economical solution for some time.

For the entire industry to go digital you'd have to have ubiquitous, fast, inexpensive Internet over the world, and that's not going to happen for a long time, if ever. There may always be a market for games sold on physical media, even if that market shrinks year after year. There's also the cost of storage; the games have to live somewhere, and if you buy a ton of games you're going to fill up even the most generous hard drive at some point.

So you need vastly improved Internet coverage, storage that's so cheap that it's basically free, and players who don't mind not having a product to hold. We're not close, but we're inching towards the eventuality. My collection of games, and the shelves it takes up, will be a story my kids tell their kids, and it's going to sound as antiquated as rotary telephones or card catalogs.