In the 25-plus years I’ve covered games, I can’t recall writing an article that inspired more negative reactions than my all-digital game downloads opinion piece last weekend. Quick summary if you missed it: I’m excited about an all-digital future for consoles, and as predicted, some console gamers — particularly collectors — are not.
Though the total number of responses wasn’t huge, many were worth exploring in greater detail. So we’re going to continue the discussion today. I’ve sorted the responses into nine categories, quoting the most thoughtful ones so you can hear both sides of the all-digital versus physical game debate.
Some people think cartridges are the answer
I won’t claim to fully understand the logic here, but a couple of readers suggested that the problem with physical games isn’t the concept of physical media, but some specific issue with discs. J.D. Hurst wrote, “We don’t need discs. There are better forms of physical media. But to get rid of it … no!” Bruce Leeroy X had a solution: “No, they need to embrace the new cartridges like Nintendo Switch.”
Hold up, guys! Have you actually seen what’s going on with cartridges right now? Once you rule out digital downloads and discs, cartridges are the only alternative, and … well, they’re not doing a great job these days. In fact, Switch cartridges demonstrate exactly why going all-digital makes sense.
Part of the issue is capacity. Over the past year, third-party developers have struggled to fit Switch games on cartridges, so if you buy a physical Switch game like Wolfenstein II, you’ll have to download the rest, and probably store it on a self-provided memory card. That’s crazy!
The other part is the post-release update. Nintendo’s own ARMS added a third of its characters (and tons of tweaks) via 13 downloads since its June 16 launch. Now the game is a full gigabyte larger than it started, and it doesn’t fit its original cartridge. Post-release patches impact PS4 and Xbox One games, too.
My perspective is simple: Regardless of whether a system uses cartridges or discs, what you get in physical form is only part of the game. Virtually every game these days winds up with patches, and you need to download these somehow and store them somewhere, or else you only have part of your game. Which version would you want to play 10 years from now — the up-to-date digital version, or the unpatched physical one?
It’s really about game prices
My sense is that many people opposed to going all-digital are concerned about the financial impact of that choice. Put another way, if money wasn’t a factor, almost all of the complaints about digital games would disappear.
Without providing details, a reader named Mick Wagener expressed the issue broadly: “The pricing of digital products is ridiculous!” From where I stand, the pricing of some digital products is ridiculous, but if you’re not a day-one game buyer and don’t get sucked in by microtransactions, digital pricing becomes better than physical game pricing pretty quickly. Every week, Sony’s and Microsoft’s digital stores offer nice discounts and coupons that — apart from Black Friday sales — most traditional shops can’t match.
Nintendo is another story, and I get the sense that many people who dislike digital downloads are reeling from Nintendo’s messy online initiatives. A reader named David said, “The problem is how Nintendo handles your account, tying it to one console … I was thinking about how some households having multiple Switches as an example of the benefit of sharing physical games. However, the Steam approach to your library (can be installed on multiple devices, just not played at the same time) would solve this issue.”
I think David’s correct on this. Nintendo’s problem is Nintendo’s problem — it’s way behind Sony, Microsoft, and Valve’s Steam PC gaming platform in everything from digital game pricing to user rights. Once you buy a game, you should be able to use it on all the consoles in a house, period. And you shouldn’t have to buy the same Nintendo game again and again every generation of consoles.
No, it’s really all about resale prices
No topic generated as much consternation as whether the secondary market for games was a good or bad thing. David described pricing as “a head game,” suggesting that “people will see the new prices as 100 percent, and that’s still a turnoff.” The implication is that no one wants to pay full price for a game, even if that price starts out really low — which I disagree with. He also said that “the buying and selling opportunities of the secondhand market” were a factor I hadn’t addressed with a firm solution.
I have mixed feelings on this topic. On one hand, I think the game industry’s best solution for consumers would be to cut game prices in half and get rid of resale rights. Let console consumers pay a much lower up front price for digital games and keep them, just like Android and iOS apps and games. Economic supply and demand curves suggest that at half the price, publishers could sell around three times as many copies, and retailers would still get paid.
On the other hand, we could keep digital game prices as-is — wildly fluctuating, like physical game prices — and enable resale. This strategy would enable publishers to keep playing pricing head games, keep more brick-and-mortar resellers in business, and enable games to be traded.
After years of playing the resale game, I think an all-digital system with lower overall pricing is the way to go. I’ve been alive long enough to see new-in-box NES Advantage joysticks fall from $50 down to $1.90 in stores, only to bounce back up to $150 three decades later. Similarly, I’ve seen games start at $60 and fall to under $5 and never recover. Buying and selling games as collectibles is a fun hobby, but I don’t like the idea of holding game prices (or availability) hostage to the whims of middlemen at eBay or GameStop.
The problem is universal Internet access
My prior article noted that Internet bandwidth caps pose problems for international gamers, but two readers pointed out that the U.S. isn’t immune, either. Andrew Trotman wrote that “a huge part of the country has [a] poor internet connection, so this option doesn’t work for them,” and though “huge” might be a strong word, there are definitely areas in the U.S. with poor internet service.
Stephen Batty sent a thoughtful, well-composed email that described his experience. “You seem to be asking the console manufacturers to push through into an age of total digital distribution without any proper infrastructure being in place for everyone to utilize to get these digital only games. … I am a gamer, and though I only live 7 miles outside of town, I experience these issues myself. My only options for internet are a barely able to pick up cellular signal or satellite. … I’m not asking for someone to force landline internet to come to me. I’m not asking for digital downloads to go away. I am only asking that you realize there are people all over the world who are gamers who will lose the ability to continue gaming in a world that goes digital only.”
I totally understand this, though I’m optimistic about the near future, because I also cover next-generation 5G wireless service and VR for VentureBeat. Right now, U.S. cellular providers claim that they’re preparing to end bandwidth caps and will radically expand cellular access to rural and historically underserved areas. If this happens, downloading games over wireless will become easy for virtually anyone with internet access. But this might not happen. So, consider this as an alternative: Console makers could sell cheap core systems without optical drives, continuing to offer discs to people in areas with poor internet service.
What about hard drive space?
Pointing to the vast difference between music and game file sizes — a topic he raised — a reader named Mr EE Man wrote: “The comparison between music downloads is stupid, and hard drive storage of games is limited, not to mention requiring high-speed internet, which not everyone has access to, or can afford. Physical media is the best option.”
I’m not saying that hard drives are cheap, but they’re sure not “limited” these days. You can get an 8TB Seagate external drive for $150 — that’s enough to store the average person’s entire game collection for any given console, four or more times over. For the Switch, a 200GB microSD card is $60-$70, and capable of holding 40-50 typical Switch games. If you weren’t paying for boxes, manuals, and retail markups, the cost to store an entire console’s library on a hard drive would far less than the amount spent on cartridges and discs.
How do you preserve games without boxes?
At least two readers suggested that “physical versions of games preserve them.” A reader named Real Toasty pointed out that the digital-only Xbox Arcade version of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 “lost the license and the game was taken off the marketplace ultimately making it no longer obtainable.” Another reader, Luminance/Chrominance, cited Scott Pilgrim, Afterburner Climax, and everything on WiiWare, asking, “Are these games unworthy of being preserved in history? Do latecomers deserve to be SOL?”
Putting the “unworthy” rhetoric aside — and by the way, I love these games — the actual issues here are short-term licensing deals and short-sighted digital marketplaces. I would argue that if you’re actually looking to preserve WiiWare titles, Afterburner Climax, and other games publishers have self-opted to release only in digital format, doing so on a hard drive is your best solution. Hard drives and digital distribution — not relying on original circuit boards or floppy disks — are the reason we’re still able to play thousands of games from arcades, consoles, and computers that were abandoned years ago.
The lingering question is whether only the original buyers should be entitled to possess that game? My answer is no — ideally, digital games would remain available for purchase indefinitely, giving every interested customer the chance to buy in. But that would depend on publishers, more persistent online stores, and smarter licensing deals.
They’re takin’ GameStop employees’ jobs!
Some readers still find it hard to believe that digital downloads have been successful. A reader named Jason Slam said, “Considering how Steambox and the reception of the mostly digital Xbox One at the start, you are in the minority here. … I also don’t have an interest in watching GameStop go under, and people losing their jobs.”
I can’t say whether or not I’m actually in the minority on liking digital downloads — over a billion downloads-only iOS devices have been sold — but sales of two initially wrong-priced, poorly marketed devices (including one with an optical drive!) have nothing to do with whether people like downloading games. Thanks to Xbox Live and Games With Gold, Microsoft’s digital game store is very popular, and Steam makes billions of dollars a year selling PC games.
To quantify this, I reached out to research firm SuperData, which recently said that digital download rates for triple-A console games are growing: Last month’s sales of Far Cry 5 were up nearly five times (!) over Far Cry Primal only two years ago. According to SuperData’s Marisa Thayer, 30 to 40 percent of any given game’s sales in 2017 were digital, a number that has grown (and is expected to continue to grow) 5 to 10 percent every year. “Quarter 1 of 2018 has already seen some games hitting close to 50% digital mix,” she said, noting that there are lower digital sales of FIFA in countries with weaker Internet, and lower digital sales of franchises where physical copies can be traded into GameStop.
Even though downloads are becoming more popular every year, they don’t have to spell the end for GameStop. There will still be plenty of demand for new devices and accessories, say nothing of decades worth of used devices, accessories, and games. But GameStop — part of a larger company that also owns cellphone, Mac, and ThinkGeek shops — has decided to evolve in a somewhat different direction. Thanks to its corporate decision to devote more floor space to collectibles, its stores are becoming overpacked with everything from stuffed animals to trading cards, with less floor space for new video games. I’d personally sooner see these stores transform into arcades filled with classic games and systems you can buy, but if they want to fill their floor space with toys, that’s their choice.
Real Gamers™ use discs and cartridges
Doyal Raburn wanted me to know that he is a real gamer, and I’m not! “Sorry,” he wrote, “but there are passionate gamers out there who want a physical copy of games, they use it for trade-ins at GameStop, to purchase new games, so just stick with your mobile devices, and let the real gamers have their discs and cartridges.”
Sorry, Doyal! Saying you’re “passionate” about games because you can trade physical copies for new games doesn’t make a lot of sense. Wouldn’t a truly passionate gamer want to keep building a game collection instead of getting rid of games all the time?
I’ve heard gamers brag about their GameStop trade-ins for years: “I just traded my day one Zelda for $30 and got Mario for only $30! #winning” But that’s not really winning — that’s just bad math. You just lost $30 of Zelda’s $60 purchase price as well as losing the game, then had to put in $30 more in cash to buy another game. In total, you spent $90 and wound up with one game.
Compare that with my right-priced digital game scenario, where you spend $30 on a non-resellable digital copy of each game. Here, you’re only spending $60 instead of $90, and get to keep two games rather than one.
“Real gamers” tend to enjoy revisiting their favorite games years later. Sensible digital downloading makes that easier — and more affordable — than constantly selling and trading titles.
Nostalgia and everything else
Reader J.D. Hurst raised the topic of nostalgia in an interesting comment. “Nothing will ever be as special as a physical game,” said Hurst. “You can’t pass on digital games. Selling a hard drive entitled ‘300 games’ is meaningless.”
Speaking as both a dad and a lifelong gamer, I know all about dreams of “passing on” games to a younger generation. Despite liquidating most of my collection, I kept the first computer I ever really used, solely because I wanted to share it with my kids some day. After decades of waiting, that day finally came last year. Like most other parents in the same situation, I realized that my old Atari 800 was full of dust, didn’t connect to any modern TV, and — shock of shocks — my kids were utterly bored by 30-year-old games with primitive art, audio, and controls.
I still have that computer, but when I want to revisit its games with my kids, I turn to a RetroPie that can run all of the Atari games on a modern TV. It took a while, but I realized that passing those old games on to my kids was a lot easier in a digital format than expecting them to care about digging through shelves full of dusty old game boxes.
Physical games are special if you make them special. From my perspective, the joy of games comes from actually playing them, not just displaying them like trophies. But I can appreciate all perspectives on this — gaming is a big enough hobby for there to be more than one type of “passionate” or “real gamer.” The best solution is one that caters to as many types of people as possible.