So Microsoft’s “Ultimate Game Sale” is now underway, comprising over 250 deals and offering some pretty impressive discounts (up to 75%) from those stubbornly-high list prices. When taken with the recent Steam sale and the various promotions running on PlayStation, there’s probably never been a cheaper time to build up that digital games library. But while downloads absolutely dominate the PC landscape and have done so for years, the stats and the comment sections suggest that console gamers are still a resolutely, err, physical bunch.
Next time out, I’ll explore some of the reasons for that reluctance and share some ideas on what needs to done. However, as someone whose collection is now probably 90% digital, today I’m going to start off with the positives.
Part 1: Making the case for digital
Just as with music (and increasingly, movies), I believe the sheer convenience of going digital will be the thing to wins people over. Even the largest digital collection takes up virtually no space, freeing up your shelves and improving domestic harmony at a stroke. It can also moves with you seamlessly, from room to room via streaming, from console to console and (on Xbox at least) from generation to generation. You can download a game without leaving the coach and even start playing it soon after, if your broadband is up to it all of course. No need to pre-order, no more stock shortages, no more swapping discs. No hassle.
While there’s still some way to go, flexibility is another area where games feel like they are now catching up with other digital media. Game streaming might not be for everyone but it’s a god-send for those of us whose console is hooked up to the family TV. Sure, it technically works with disc copies too but it is basically made for digital. While not having to change a disk may be a relatively small benefit if you’re sat near your console, try game-streaming and you come to appreciate it pretty quickly. Similarly, while backwards compatibility is not exclusive to digital, the fact that downloaded titles show up automatically is a huge advantage – in my case even highlighting two games I didn’t even remember owning. Ok, so it’s still quite some way from a music collection you can play anywhere or even using something like Netflix across multiple devices but it’s a step in the right direction for sure.
As someone with pretty broad gaming tastes, digital is sometimes not just a preferred option but the only choice available. For many indie games, a digital launch without production or distribution costs (and the associated risks these bring) is the only way they even make it to market. Games like Rocket League, Life is Strange and Limbo might never have been made without digital distribution and gaming, for me, would be a less interesting place. Based on the reaction to each month’s Games with Gold or PS+ titles, I can see not everyone out there feels like I do, but I’m certainly grateful for the variety and risk-taking that digital games have brought with them.
Ok, ok, I understand we’re getting a little more esoteric here but hear me out. I appreciate that “potential” won’t come in to some gamer’s thinking for what they buy today but, for me, this is actually a big deal. As I said above, flexibility has improved, but it also still trails behind music and movie streaming. However, neither music nor movie streaming got to their current state overnight. Initiatives like Xbox’s imminent “Play Anywhere” show the potential to take things on another level and I would rather encourage and be part of that thinking.
If “Play Anywhere” gets adopted by third parties and proves popular (and profitable of course), who’s to say there won’t be a time when you can buy a digital licence to, say, a new Battlefield title and play it on whatever platform or platforms you own. Could this even happen retrospectively? A stretch perhaps, but just as Apple (who are not exactly known for their love of open formats) made it possible to “unlock” your old DRM infested music, what if you could one day do the same with games?
Hey, how about “game sharing” or digital trade-ins? Currently sitting somewhere between clever workaround and dodgy exploit, game sharing has the potential to slash effective prices and bring something like lending into the digital market. Digital trade-ins would also be welcome and rumours (and the occasional survey leak) suggest they might be coming. Hey, if only someone had thought of these ideas already (and not needed to backtrack as part of a more general 180) right?
And coming back to something more tangible and certain? Having seen how well backwards compatibility for digital titles works on Xbox One, it just feels like good sense to line myself up ready for the next generation.
If I lost you at “potential”, I don’t fancy my chances with this one. However, the truth is that at some point going digital won’t be a choice but a requirement. Discs are already little more than unlock codes and it’s in the interests of the developers, publishers and platform holders to cut those ties.
But what about gamers? That’s up for debate. What’s for sure is that a few key questions, and the many doubters, will need to be answered first.
To be continued…
More thoughts and ideas on those questions shortly. But, in the meantime, what do you think? Let us know in the comments.