An All-Digital Future Is Bad News for Console Gamers, Here’s Why

A Sony Dualshock 4 controller in front of a TV showing the PlayStation store.
Vantage_DS/Shutterstock.com

Most consoles ship with a disc drive, and you can buy physical games, but digital games are becoming the norm. This could spell trouble for console gamer’s wallets, but there may be a few ways to avoid that future.

But PCs Have Gone All Digital. What’s the Problem?

Before getting to the console side of things, a common argument in the gaming community is that PC gaming has gone fully-digital years ago and has mostly been perfectly fine. It’s true that you can’t really buy games on disc for PC anymore, and virtually no computer comes with an optical drive as standard.

However, the crucial difference is that PC games are sold on an open market. PC gamers have a choice of several digital gaming platforms. Game developers can sell their games directly without using any third-party storefront. For example, Blizzard sells their games using its own launcher and store.

Price competition is maintained on PC because no one has complete control over video game pricing. If any one vendor inflates their prices, another will undercut them. That’s a very different context than the “walled garden” video game market model that consoles use.

All-Digital Shrinks the Walled Garden of Console Gaming

When you buy a console that can only play digital games, you hand 100% of the pricing control to the console platform owner. Unlike a PC, you can’t buy your digital console games from anyone but the big three console brands Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft.

These companies still sell digital game codes and account vouchers to retailers. These retailers have some wiggle room to cut prices using their own margin, but once physical games no longer exist for future consoles, there’s no reason companies can’t stop selling digital codes to third-party stores. In fact, Sony already stopped selling digital game codes to physical retailers in 2019.

If the only place you can buy video games for your console is through its digital storefront, then prices can be pushed to the absolute limit of what gamers will tolerate. Your only legal options would be to either pay the price or not play the game at all.

Does Physical Media Have a Future?

Video game sizes are growing, although the advent of SSDs in consoles has allowed for smaller installation footprints thanks to SSD deduplication. This poses a problem since the largest optical discs used in consoles currently are 100GB Blu-rays .

Of course, Blu-ray discs themselves are rather cheap to produce, so simply having a game on multiple discs is a reasonable medium-term solution. We may also see solid-state memory prices fall enough to make large-capacity cartridges viable. Solid-state game media may even be preferable to requiring full game installations to a local drive. Both digital downloads and Blu-ray games currently take up space on console SSDs, but if the game’s media was fast enough, that wouldn’t be necessary.

Optical media hasn’t reached a dead end either since there are optical discs that offer many times the capacity of a Blu-ray. That doesn’t mean these discs (which are meant for archival) will ever have a commercial release, but it does mean that 100GB Blu-Ray discs are not the end of the line technologically.

Losing Your Digital Games

Apart from current and future digital game pricing, another aspect of an all-digital console future is losing access to games. In July of 2022, Ubisoft appeared to remove access to Assassin’s Creed Liberation from people who had previously bought the game. Now, having digital games delisted isn’t unprecedented. It usually happens as a result of content licensing deals for music or footage ending, preventing new copies from being sold.

What made the Ubisoft affair noteworthy is that it seemed that even existing owners would lose access. Ubisoft later re-listed the game, and it’s not clear if the initial reports were the result of a misunderstanding, but it served as a reminder to modern gamers that their purchases may not be as safe as they thought. News has also come out that the 3DS and PlayStation 3 stores would be closing. That is, until Sony decided to keep the PS3 store open, for now.

It may feel like a long time, but we’ve only had digital gaming on consoles since the PS3 and Xbox 360 era, and it’s only now that console gamers have to face up to the inevitable fact that the servers must eventually be switched off.

What Can We Do About All-Digital Gaming?

Digital gaming is undoubtedly the most convenient form of gaming today, and we’re not arguing that anyone should stop using digital games in favor of physical titles instead. All-digital gaming on consoles is bad for game preservation, but preservation is not the thrust of the argument here. Keeping your options open as an individual consumer is more relevant in the here and now.

Let’s take the PlayStation 5 as an example. For about a $100 price difference, you can buy a PS5 with no disc drive. It may seem tempting to save 20% on the price of a new console, but the number of doors it closes is worth far more than a single Benjamin. By forfeiting that drive, you close off access to retail games and used games. Used games alone would recoup $100 in a single visit to a Gamestop or other similar used game vendor.

To illustrate, let’s look at the price difference between a new and used copy of the same game.

Demon’s Souls Remake is a popular PlayStation 5 exclusive game, and the standard price for a new PS5 game is $69.99, which is indeed what GameStop is selling a new copy for at the time of writing.

Demon's Souls Product Page New GameStop
GameStop

A used copy of the same game retails for $39.99. That’s a $30 difference, which means you’d only need to buy 4 used copies to recoup the cost of the disc drive in a PS5 and have an additional $30 in your pocket.

Demon's Souls Used Product Page GameStop
GameStop

So, one thing that gaming consumers can do is to buy consoles with physical drives when given the option. This is a market signal that consumers value physical media. The second is to make a point of doing a price comparison between the physical and digital copy of a game before buying. Not only will you end up saving money in many cases, you also have the option to resell games that you have no intention of playing again. The downside is that you may have to wait a few days for your game to be delivered, but if you can practice patience, it can pay dividends.

Buying consoles with disc drives and buying physical games when it benefits you are only stopgap measures. At some point, global broadband access will reach the point where an all-digital console generation makes sense financially. It’s therefore inevitable that digital gaming will become the norm at some point in the future.

When that time comes, console gamers aren’t completely powerless. For one thing, gamers can choose to support whichever of the console makers either continue to offer physical games as an option or who change their digital game practices to allow personal backups, third-party code sales, and a fairly-priced market. While all-digital consoles won’t be competing with third-party storefronts, they will still be in competition with one another, which means that your wallet can still speak loudly in favor of fair game pricing on consoles.

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