The reveal of the PlayStation 5’s dual release of a very symmetrical digital-only version and a lumpy disc system has prompted more debates over whether digital media is the future. Even today, digital games are becoming the dominant method for people to purchase games. This has been the standard for PC for years. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of the road for physical game versions.
Nintendo in particular has kept the fight going with physical games in part due to their lack of will to produce a quality online experience. They’ve been running digital platforms for many years now, but none have ever been in line with their competition. As digital storefronts shut down on old consoles, the only way to play some of these games is to track down a physical copy or be lucky enough to have it installed. Even here though, Nintendo seems to be slowly embracing the world of digital games in their tiny onboard storage. They even have their digital-dedicated monthly videos with “The Download.”
It’s not all up to Nintendo though. When the time comes and they are comfortable that DRM will allow them to take the reins of all game sales, we’ll have a digital-only Nintendo console. Then it will be up to companies like Limited Run Games, Super Rare Games, Strictly Limited, and First Press Games to carry the torch. They can’t create discs and cartridges for consoles that don’t have them, but one of the reasons physical copies still exist is collectability.
Collector’s editions have become increasingly common across numerous genres and even for indie games. The rise of the game-free collector’s edition has even become increasingly popular. Most collector’s editions for PC games these days, even those including the game, don’t come with any sort of game media. They include a case with a slip of paper printed with a key to unlock it. Yet they’re still sold by the thousands because games have become a larger part of the culture than simply light coming from a screen.
The idea of a future where all new games are digital seems bleak. While Gamestop certainly hasn’t made many friends in recent years, they would have a hard time persisting in such a world. My local stores have already transitioned to nearly half of the store being game-related merchandise. Items ranging from simple cheap stickers and notebooks to memorabilia and statues that cost hundreds of dollars. I’m sure the margins on these products are nowhere near what they’ve generated from their “buy-low sell-high” used game market, but it might keep them from disappearing.
Most retailers of all varieties have come to realize that the future is in online sales. All of the previously mentioned physical retailers have prominent or exclusive online functionality. Even as we transition from physical games, the remaining sales still come mostly from purchases via a digital medium. I’ve spent most of my life going into stores and looking high and low for new games. That experience is one I rarely bother with anymore though. Besides, half of the games I play (of the indie variety) would have never made it there, to begin with.
Regardless of where the next five years take us, and the console generation that follows this one, gaming itself isn’t going anywhere. Every year the market grows even as digital games overtake the physical medium. With that, new fans are born with demands for more ways to associate with their games. They’ll want the t-shirts, figures, stickers, posters, statues, and every other conceivable reference they can find. Companies will pop up every day finding new and exciting ways to deliver these keeping the physical part of our digital games alive. Even if it means we’ll just be typing in-game keys in the process.