Is The Future Of Gaming Physical?

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Mike Tomlinson looks at the changing landscape of how we buy our games today. Long gone are the days of buying cartridges and discs – but are we better off without them or not?

The gaming landscape of modern-day seems to be in a state of total streamlined development, but at the same time in an unprecedentedly unpredictable time for the future.

When I mention streamlined development, I’m talking about the two traditional forms in which games are played; Consoles and PC gaming.


When it comes to the games themselves there is no denying that digital sales have skyrocketed past the consumption of physical media. In fact, during 2018 83% of all computer and video games were bought via a digital store rather than physically, meaning that physical game sales could soon be a thing of the past.

This disparaging sales figure has led to games stores across the world closing their doors, and now the American staple GameStop seems to be on the brink of collapse as well – and who knows what the Coronavirus will do to their overall operations at this time.

One question lots of people have based around the sale of physical media versus digitalis ‘what’s the allure of digital sales over physical releases?’

And it’s a good question to ask.

By and large, digital games are marked up at higher prices than consumers might find within a brick and mortar store, often with price drops being saved until long after the games actual release – or a seasonal sale.

Plus, there are some digital stores that are notorious for keeping their prices high. Take Nintendo for example – a launch title game for the Switch will still cost $50 or so even years after its initial release, whereas in stores the price might have dropped quicker than online. Nintendo is well known for this, and the ‘Nintendo Tax’ is often discussed in forums online when it comes to the pricing of games.

So, what is the draw of a digital store? A big factor is convenience. We live in a world where our shopping habits are now catered to in an almost instantaneous fashion, we can order clothes online, watch movies on demand and (in some circumstances) order our shopping online and have it with us on the same day – so why should games be any different?

Look at the Steam store. Over the years, Steam has proven via PC gamers that ready access to games doesn’t only draw buyers, but also reduces piracy as people would much rather pay for convenience than struggle for free. And that is the crux of the digital appeal, gamers can have their games easily stored in an online library, ready to download easily and at any time of day.

Compare that to the traditional brick and mortar store, and you are going to find it hard to beat that level of service. Not only do you have to travel to the store itself, but you also have to contend with stock issues – which for popular new releases could mean that you never even buy the game you set out to buy.

Realistically, more people are going to be interested in buying their physical games online, ordering from a storefront like Amazon to get the game the next working day. The thing is we now live in a\ world where spoilers can be everywhere even before a major release, and that time you spend not playing the game could be the time in which you get that long-awaited title completely spoiled by a random person on Reddit who decides to mass private message devastating spoilers for the fun of it (it happened to me, I’m not bitter).

So really, the appeal of the physical game as a consumer now lies in what it provides over a digital copy. Let’s face it, developers are always going to be happier to publish their games digitally as it will drastically save on cost – so a higher price point on a physical release will always draw in smiles from the business side of things, and if paired with the right merchandise, smiles from the consumer too.

We are all familiar with collectors editions of games – the game itself being bundled up with a shirt, or a mug or a statue that you can’t buy anywhere else. And, if we are talking about a franchise that has a long history in beloved fandoms, then really there is no problem – there are always going to be those looking to buy the latest Zelda game bundled with a statue, or the newest Assassins Creed with a replica hidden blade – or whatever might be on offer for the big franchises.

The issue comes with new titles, new franchises. Sure, Horizon Zero Dawn was a hit, but I can safely bet that Sony and Guerrilla Games are going to make a lot more money with Horizon Zero Dawn 2 merchandise when that launch date rolls around compared to the first. And that’s because people buy what they know and love, and are more reserved when it comes to investing in something new to them.

It’s the same reason that indie games enjoy such a vibrant life on digital stores and rarely see physical releases – because the consumers need time to get used to the IP before they invest further.

What I’m trying to say is that there is always going to be a physical version of games themselves. Whether that be limited to only the triple AAA games getting published as part of a $300 collectors edition, or if it means that an artbook is included with a download code – there is always going to be a physical version of a games sale.

What might draw more crowds away from traditional releases though, is if it were possible to subscribe to a Netflix like service for gaming. And it seems that’s where we are headed…

Games As A Subscription Service

I’ve talked about the physical and digital releases of games, but there is one frontier of game releases that is becoming more popular and drawing people away from the actual purchase of games, and that’s the rise in subscription services.

Look at Xbox Game Pass. Hailed across the gaming landscape as a landmark achievement in terms of gaming accessibility, the game pass is a way for Microsoft to bring all of its landmark first-party games together into a comprehensive service that allows its users to play its games for unlimited amounts of time, as long as the monthly service charge is paid.

It’s not just streaming either (looking at you PSNow), but players are allowed to download the games on the Xbox Games Pass in their entirety, and play them offline should they choose. What’s more, is that the games on Xbox Game Pass aren’t exclusively made by Xbox. The Witcher 3, an immensely popular title just got announced as joining the service the other week for example.

But, that doesn’t change the fact that first-party Xbox games still become available on Game Pass when they are initially released.

Let’s use an example to help illustrate why this is definitely going to draw people away from traditional video game sales. The new Halo Infinite will be launching with the next-generation Xbox. That Halo game will be appearing on the game pass, which is a massive departure from the Halo’s of the past. Previously, Halo games have been Xbox system sellers, marketed alongside the consoles themselves as a figurehead of the Xbox gaming community.

Halo appearing on the Game Pass service won’t change this. What t will change is the popularity of ‘bundle deals’, where people pay a little more in order to receive an Xbox console with a copy of Halo included.

Realistically, Microsoft is going to lose a portion of these sales to those who decide that Xbox Game Pass is more than enough to draw them into the system and that they can cope with not owning a physical copy of the game. These justifications are easily made – and in the long run, it will be cheaper for a gamer to use Game Pass for say, a year, and then buy a preowned or cheaper new copy of the game then it would be to buy it on launch.

Initially, this seems like it could be damaging for Microsoft and its developers. But really, is it? Let me give you two offers: $500 for the new Xbox and Halo Infinite included (an estimate at the time of writing), or $450 dollars for the new Xbox, and then you can pay $10 to access Halo Infinite as well as a plethora of other games on a Netflix like gaming service? I know which I would pick.

Obviously, Microsoft is always going to be able to sell physical copies of Halo. Halo fans will be queuing up in the streets (potentially. That depends on the coronavirus) to get their hands on special Steelbook editions or collectors editions with models included, that could be twice or thrice the cost of the base game – but what they have done with the Xbox Game Pass is sell Halo alongside a bunch of other games, that could potentially have more pulling power.

Dividing, Collecting, and Conquering the Gaming Audience.

A figure quoted recently showed that gamers who use the Game Pass service tend to explore and play up to 40% more games than they usually would. This figure is even more impressive when you consider that out of all the users of Game Pass, 30% of those players will explore gaming genres that they usually wouldn’t be interested in (all stats according to Decker).

Why am I talking about these figures? Because what Microsoft have done with the Game Pass is open up gaming for a much wider audience of gamers, converting some users into fans of different franchises that may never have experienced this level of exposure before.

Let’s say your 25 years old, and previously, you only bought the biggest yearly releases of the flagship games out there – the yearly COD, the yearly Madden, or the yearly FIFA. Realistically, you aren’t going to be exploring the latest and greatest indie titles, RPGs or puzzle games because either A) you don’t have the money or B) you don’t have the time. With Game Pass, this type of player can enjoy his favorite games AND have access to a library of titles that they never did before – meaning that they are much more likely to stumble into a game they may never have even considered before.

Now you have a fan of both the Halo series, and the indie title Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Do you think that marketing these two intensely different types of games to a singular demographic is easy? Or do you think it’s easier for Microsoft to allow gamers to find it on their own, and use their console as a portal to access all of their favorite titles easily?

Its customer retention expanded to a degree that lots of console developers would be envious of. And it doesn’t stop there. Microsoft is working on bringing their Xbox brand over to the PC, finally growing their sphere of influence from what was once a marketplace dominated by companies other than Microsoft.

But is this a good thing?

For Microsoft, it is, as they now have a way of capturing a market that was previously unreachable by them (let’s face it, games for windows was a catastrophe), and by collecting all of the gaming efforts under the Xbox banner, its much easier to draw a new market into their brand.

Plus, thanks to the digital nature of the games on offer combined with the push for cross-platform gameplay and saves, gamers can flit from PC to Xbox easily, playing with friends on whichever platform is easier and transferring their progress from machine to machine seamlessly, making for an overall pleasant gaming experience.

So it looks good from both a developer and a gamer perspective, but this digital-based business model is one that looks to be the new normal for game development. It seems that a major focus shift has taken place within the houses of the major video game platform developers.

In the past, the emphasis was placed in marketing and other efforts to keep gamers on one platform individually, touting either the Nintendo, Xbox, or PlayStation as the definitive platform to experience games on. And, whilst that is still true to an extent, devs are now trying to expand their reach to appear on as many devices as possible via the magic of the cloud to make sure that gamers aren’t just able to enjoy PlayStation on their home television for example, but on their smartphone and computer as well.

Never Ending Gaming?

Google Stadia is the first real name to come up when you talk about a platform dedicated to games as a streaming service. Available to use in 2019, Google has invested a lot into their console-less gaming platform. And to many, it might seem like an enticing way to play games, all you have to do is open a browser for Stadia, login, and away you go. No loading times, no updates, you just play.

That goes for any device too. You can play on your TV, your phone, your tablet, your PC – whatever. The games are run by servers controlled by Google, and streamed directly to your phone. As long as you have a stable internet connection then you can enjoy Stadia’s games.

Seems perfect. But, what if I told you that the games included on Stadia aren’t collected under one banner, and made available to play for a singular fee like they are with Xbox Games Pass. Instead, to play Doom Eternal (for example) you would have to create yourself a Google Stadia account, then purchase that game individually – as you would on any other platform.

Now, with the future of the Stadia still up in the air in terms of longevity, you might understand why a lot of consumers are cautious (to say the least) when it comes to buying Stadia games. If the servers were to shut down in a year (they probably won’t, this is just an example) then the $60 you spent on Doom Eternal is now gone. And you don’t even have a physical game to show for it – or even a save file.

Whilst that mindset can explain the major detractors of digital-only games, it’s easy to see why a digital game bought on Stadia might differ from one bought on a PlayStation. If I buy Doom Eternal on PS4 (which I did, thoroughly recommend it), and want to play it, I have to download it. Now, the game is associated with my account and I have the game’s files on my machine so that even if my internet goes down I can still enjoy it.

If you understand where I am coming from, there is a more defined sense of ownership in the PS4 download than there is in the Stadia streaming. And, until gamers have ready access to the internet everywhere and can rely upon Stadia as a dependable service, then digital games are still going to remain in the realm of downloads, rather than being streamed.

The Future Of Digital Only Games

The thing is though, I have spent so much time talking about games being streamed for a reason – its because that’s is (potentially) the future of gaming – mobile gaming alone for certain.

Imagine if you are subscribed to that same Xbox Games Pass service. Now, wrap your head around the fact that Microsoft is working on a potentially more powerful version of Stadia, that can connect your Xbox account to your phone, browser, PC, TV just like Stadia does. Which subscription model are you going to buy into? The one by Google, that requires you to begin a fresh account and purchase games newly every time that you want to buy one?

Or the Microsoft service, which you have been familiar with for years, have already invested money into and can now enjoy on the go as long as you take your controller (free with the console you bought) out with you? I know what I would go for, and not only for the reasons I’ve stated, but because Xbox understands games, and that I know in the future they are going to be releasing some other incredible titles that I will want to play as soon as possible – something I can’t say for certain about Stadia.

And really, that’s where the future of gaming lies – in the digital realm. There is always going to be a place for hardware, as gaming via a streaming service has its own faults, and a 1:1 input is always going to be desired – so consoles and insane gaming PC setups won’t be going anywhere soon.

And, physical games won’t either. There are always going to be copies of games sold in stores and online that arrive at your door, it just might be that these versions now come with a download code inside a box that contains a tonne of collectors edition merchandise as well.

We’re a culture that’s developed a sense of entitlement when it comes to instantaneous entertainment. With that instantaneous entertainment being possible, then there is no problem with that. Buying habits change, and whilst it might be sad to see some brick and mortar gaming stores close, we can be certain that a digital focus on playing can only lead to differing and more advanced ways to play. Not so scary after all.