Launched in November 2013, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One presented a shift in gaming. For the first time, every retail game released on each console would also be available as a digital download from day one. It was a promise of a future that’s been embraced by some, but resisted by many, largely thanks to numerous drawbacks accompanying the benefits.
The benefits are clear: get games without having to leave the comfort of your home, get them faster, have easy access to everything in your collection, and stop clogging up your shelves and life.
I’m not denying the pretty serious drawbacks to going digital, though. The time honored tradition of beating a game and trading it in or selling it is no more (not a factor for me in most cases). High speed internet isn’t equal across the country. Some locations only offer speeds that could take hours or even days to download full games. Many people have data caps that make downloading many games a challenge. For some, the act of owning a physical product and displaying it is still too much of a change to accept.
And that’s fine. I’m not saying console manufacturers should eliminate physical copies of games. But I am saying that digital downloads should be available with all (or at least most) of the same benefits as their physical releases.
Let’s be real for a second. There are plenty of people not affected by these problems. I’m never going to live far from from a major city. Hell, I currently live in the second biggest city in the United States. I have no attachment to having a physical product to show my ownership of a game. Yet I’m still buying physical copies of games. Why?
Sony tried to embrace the digital future with the launch of the PlayStation Vita in 2012. Digital games (at least those published by Sony) were available at a discount compared to their physical versions. Rumor has it that didn’t go over well with retailers, and resistance from those retailers has kept Sony and Microsoft from really pushing digital as THE way to buy games on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It continues to do so.
Best Buy took that resistance to another level, though, with their Gamers Club Unlocked program. For a (now) nominal charge, anybody can get two years of 20% discounts on new physical video games. At its original price of $120, it was ridiculous. At its current $30, though, it’s a tough program to resist for anyone who buys more than two new games a year. It’s become less appealing in the years since it launched—sale prices are still included for the discount, save those during Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend—but it’s still hard to turn down.
Amazon matched the program (to an extent) for its Prime customers. Included within their existing Prime membership, customers could get 20% off the list price of new video games before release and for the first two weeks after release.
Both programs have a pretty clear message behind them: keep buying physical media, and keep buying it from us. And for people like me, it’s worked. I’d love to stop going to stores and stop taking up space with unnecessary plastic. But it’s hard to do when it would actually end up costing me more to buy the digital version of a game.
Sure, it’s not always a direct dollar to dollar comparison. Take Horizon Zero Dawn for example. Even after Los Angeles sales tax (currently 8.75%), buying the game at Best Buy cost just under $53. The digital download would have cost $59.99. BUT it would have been available about 14 hours earlier then I was able to play it after driving to and from the store and installing the game. And I wouldn’t have had to use up the gas to get to the store or deal with the always bad Los Angeles traffic. It was a close one, but physical still won out.
This may have been the last time, though.
It’s understandable that console manufacturers wouldn’t want to alienate their retail partners. They have to sell their consoles somewhere, right? But that should be a non-issue. Retail stores, online and brick and mortar, already sell digital codes for video games. Would it really be so hard to make a competitive market out of selling those digital codes, just as we’ve grown accustomed to with physical media? PlayStation’s monthly flash sales and weekly deals are putting a dent into this issue, but it’s tough to go all-in on it when Best Buy matches the same sale price then has their GCU discount applied on top of it.
I’m not an expert on whatever’s going on behind the scenes, but I know I’m ready to fully embrace gaming’s digital future. Now I just need embracing that future to be a little easier. At the very least, I’d love to see PlayStation and Xbox invalidate retailers’ stranglehold on gamers like myself by competitively pricing newly released digital games.
Even if they don’t, it might be time to go digital. Whatever it takes, whether it’s action by console manufacturers, retailers, or consumers forcing the market to adapt, I can only hope the real change isn’t too far away. If recent developments at PlayStation and Xbox are any indication, it’s not.
This is just part of a much larger picture I’ll touch on later. I’ve completely stopped caring about ‘owning’ things, and I’m going to do what I can to declutter and clean up my living room and my life. What are your thoughts and feelings on going digital? For? Against? Somewhere in the middle? Let me know in the comments.