I am generally a person who appreciates physical media. I collect vinyl records, buy printed books, and enjoy watching 4K Blu-ray movies. But for various reasons, I switched exclusively to buying digital games on each platform as soon as the option became available. Now that Sony and Microsoft have fully unveiled their next-generation consoles, many more people may choose to do the same.
To sum up, Sony yesterday announced the pricing for its upcoming PlayStation 5 – both the regular model and the discless Digital Edition. The standard PS5 is $ 499.99, and the otherwise identical Digital Edition is $ 399.99, saving you as much as $ 1
Microsoft, meanwhile, has gone even further to encourage the purchase of digital games and Game Pass subscriptions. Series X will go head-to-head with standard PS5, with both consoles offering disk drives and 4K output for $ 499. Series S will play games in lower resolutions and does not have a disk drive, but it is much smaller and is priced at a impressively low $ 299.
The message is clear: physical games are now an advanced, optional part of the console’s gaming experience. A luxury. And both Sony and Microsoft are willing to subsidize the transition to digital. There’s no way the disk drive alone explains the $ 100 price delta between the two PS5 variants, for example – but Sony will be your only retailer and it expects to make money back through Digital Edition customers buying games directly. Microsoft, meanwhile, is certainly selling the Series S for well below cost, but stands to benefit from boosted Game Pass revenue and digital game sales.
If you feel strong about sticking to physical games, that’s not good news. People living in areas with poor broadband service or data caps face the prospect of paying for a more expensive console, as do gamers who often offset the cost of a pricey hobby by buying and selling used games. This market is also likely to be under significant pressure as more people move to digital consoles only, which will not be good for retailers like GameStop – although they have the ability to be more flexible in terms of prices than platform owners. Digital games are also often more expensive than their retail equivalents when they are not for sale, but you should expect next-generation games to be expensive no matter where you buy them in the near future.
Despite the potential problems, this shift has felt inevitable for a long time. With the PS4 and Xbox One, games don’t even run the discs they were printed on – you have to fully install them on the consoles’ hard drives because Blu-ray access speeds are so much slower. It removed a key benefit of physical gaming on consoles like the Xbox 360, where storage space was a premium for many users. Even before that, the PS3’s transition to Blu-ray discs often meant mandatory sub-installations to reduce load times. It was really controversial when Devil May Cry 4 forced you to install 5 GB of data on the hard drive, believe it or not.
As that generation played out and larger hard drives became more common, Sony and Microsoft began pushing full-game downloads as an alternative to traditional retail. Sony had already started making PSP games available digitally as standard with the 2009 PSP Go, a smaller digital-only PSP with a sleek design and a higher price point than the regular model. That same year, Microsoft announced its Xbox Games on Demand service, which marked the first time you could download Xbox 360 games in full detail, even though initially only older titles were available. Sony then launched a program in 2012 called PSN Day 1 Digital, where new games came to PlayStation Store day and date.
As the PS4 and Xbox One came around, both companies sold all new games digitally as well as in retail. Microsoft even tried to make digital ownership a core element of its platform, with the ability to share and resell downloaded games that come at the expense of offline gaming and used gaming support. Of course, the company eventually turned its course after a huge setback. But eventually we saw a disc-free Xbox One S hit the market last year, and I wonder how Microsoft’s original vision for the Xbox One would be received today.
Maybe not much better – physical games obviously do not disappear completely. But things are moving in that direction. Even Nintendo announced yesterday that more than 50 percent of Switch game sales were digital in the first half of this year, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The figure was 74 percent in the April-June quarter for Sony, which was already at 53 percent a year ago. These numbers will drop when customers return to brick stores, but as people get used to digital games, they may be more willing to come on board with the experience.
The key advantage of digital from a user perspective is convenience. You do not have to mess around with pushing out and inserting discs. Your games do not take up shelf space, and these days they do not take up more space on your hard drive either. You can shop in stores from several regions, and everything is displayed in the same library. Once you get used to it, it feels archaic to handle rotating disks.
EA said 52% of the console’s full sales of gaming devices in the last 12 months were via digital download
As a reference, Take Two says its ratio was 55% for FY2020
Sony said 51% of all games sold on PS4 in FY2020 were digital
In other words. We are entering the next generation with digital> 50%
– Daniel Ahmad (@ZhugeEX) July 30, 2020
Some people will still have physical games for the ability to resell them or for the opposite reason: to maintain a tangible collection. Preservation is not as much of a factor as it once was in this age of live servers and day-to-day patches – many PS4 discs will be pretty useless in the coming decades. That does not mean, however, that there is no appeal to building a collection, and companies like Limited Run Games are playing in this market with special editions of physical releases for titles that would not otherwise receive one.
But it’s very much a niche – the vinyl of video games, if you will. (And yes, Limited Run also sells video game vinyl.) What has changed is that both Sony and Microsoft are betting that there are now enough people out there who are willing to stop buying physical games altogether. Both companies also make sure that their only digital buyers will feel like they have already built a collection from the start. There’s of course the Xbox Game Pass, which does a great job of integrating into your own library, and Sony just announced a PlayStation Plus collection for the PS5 with many of the PS4’s best titles.
Buying digital is worth it if you appreciate the experience, and it’s also very much in Microsoft and Sony’s interests that you do. That makes a product like the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition an obvious win-win for people already used to digital – a better experience at a lower price. (And a more attractive design.) The key question is how many people who buy physically today will be willing to weigh the next generation.