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Physical vs Digital Games

Whether you prefer physical or digital games, you get a lot of negative consequences, and traditional game ownership seems to have disappeared....

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The question of whether to buy games physically or digitally has been a heated debate for 15 years. There are undoubtedly plenty of arguments for and against both. On the plus side for physical, we find the fact that you actually own your games and can do whatever you want with them, including reselling them, and that they are usually much cheaper. The pros for digital include such things as superior comfort (both in purchase and use), that it does not include a disc that can be lost or broken, and that it is significantly more environmentally friendly than all the transportation, materials, packaging and intermediaries.

Physical vs Digital Games

On the minus side for physical, we find, among other things, that a disc can actually disappear or break and then your game is gone, that it is fiddlier to use than just having everything installed, that you cannot buy a cheaper all-digital console, and that some titles simply do not exist physically. When it comes to digital, games are much more expensive and you don't own them. So you can never sell a game you've finished or don't like.

The latter is a fact that was highlighted when Discovery and Sony recently announced that they would remove video content people actually bought from the PlayStation Store. Granted, the number of users affected was quite small, but the agreements are designed so that your games can be taken away from you at any time without you being able to do anything about it.

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This was the case, for example, with the recent collapse of Stadia. Anyone who had a large collection of games lost everything. Google handled it nicely with refunds, but what would happen if Steam was shut down? All your purchased games and save files would be gone. As far as I know, only GOG is currently a major service where you actually own your games and can access them even without the company's launcher and being online

Physical vs Digital Games

This scares many gamers. Being able to play their titles even in the future is an important concern, although it is not at all certain that HDMI connectors are something that will work for all eternity. It is already becoming difficult to use a Super Nintendo on a flat screen TV with an RGB cable, and who says that the TV of the future will even have sockets for cables in these wireless times? But there's still something particularly chafing about the idea of buying games for thousands of dollars, only to find out one morning that you've been banned from a service on dubious grounds, or that some agreement has expired that means the title you bought yesterday suddenly no longer works. It's really the big companies against the little guy, and you know that if that happens, you've already clicked away your terms by accepting a lot of agreements you didn't read when you started your console and games.

Furthermore, a title you bought at full price can be updated at any time in a way you really hate, meaning that the developers are basically destroying something you paid for. Can you think of any other scenario where we would accept this? Buying an armchair that three months after purchase is altered to make it uncomfortable to sit in, your expensive frying pan suddenly not being able to be used for meat, or your Star Wars movie box set with the original trilogy in its original form being overwritten with George Lucas's lousy new editions. Our rights when it comes to games are really limited and there's not much we can do about it, we've approved all that before we even start playing.

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Physical vs Digital Games

So you should buy physically? Not necessarily. Because the problem here is that physical today often has discs that are more like tokens than something that actually contains a playable product. Not infrequently I see that the new disc I slide in to my console to install a game is not used, but that all the data is downloaded online anyway. I very much believe that those who in 20 years will try to play something from a disk after the servers have been closed, will be deeply disappointed as it in many cases won't work at all. So will those who have downloaded games. Because even though they often work offline, they still need to be verified in between. And without servers that can verify, there will be no gaming. It is mainly Switch owners who avoid these disappointments, but even there it is becoming increasingly common that all or some of the game data is not included when you buy a physical copy of the game, and I have to assume Switch 2 (rumoured to be released this year) will be more digitally friendly.

By the way, Ubisoft commented on this physical or digital thing recently and said nonchalantly that we gamers have to get used to not owning our games. And to a large extent we're already there, but I think the parallels he draws to movies are flawed. Because even though I don't own any VHS, DVD or Blu-ray anymore, it's not hard to legally get virtually any movie I want (although there are some exceptions) at a very low cost. In the case of games, however, we're talking about dedicated hardware that usually only works with a particular console. The best at backwards compatibility has been Microsoft, as with the Xbox Series S/X you can play titles from Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. But this is far from comprehensive and there are several titles that are no longer available for a console at all and can't be purchased digitally, as in the case of the Nintendo DSi, which means the downloaded copies people have are the last in existence. On the other hand, there is no art to watching the talented and beautiful Anita Ekberg in the 1960 film The Sweet Life, that movie works just as well regardless of which film medium you use.

So games are very special case, but the idea that game companies would have servers running forever to be nice to the indescribably small number of gamers who want to download really old titles is obviously not realistic. Digital games may be ridiculously expensive, but they don't justify lifetime server support.

Physical vs Digital Games

I think the price tag is the biggest disadvantage of digital games. The fact that it should cost $70 to buy a new game is not really that strange (it corresponds to a 90-minute tennis session and a visit to the cinema for two people) and in terms of how much entertainment you get, video games are and remain cheap. However, $70 is complete madness when it costs around $50 on disc as some electronics chains have a campaign at premieres and lower their prices quickly afterwards.

The idea that a game should always be cheapest online is not realistic, but the difference is too great today, and is only made possible by the fact that we are happy to pay for convenience and that competing online stores do not exist. Apple fought hard against Epic to be the only one selling stuff for iOS, and similarly there is no alternative on the Xbox Series S/X if you don't want to pay what Tekken 8 costs digitally at launch. Sony has even been sued, with the accusation that they are overpricing their PlayStation store. You can't check what another store charges for the same digital game as there aren't any options, but you can when it comes to physical formats. And when you finish the game in a few weeks (mainly single player titles and games you don't like), you sell them on eBay or Facebook and get a couple of dollars back. This difference is so big that even I, who definitely prefers digital, often buy physical instead during promotions, and most of my digital games have been bought during sales.

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So where am I going with this? Well, that there are several advantages with both physical and digital, but also several really heavy disadvantages, which are largely due to the fact that we no longer really own our games in the same way. The retro wave that now washes over us with outrageous prices on old titles is something I do not think today's 25-year old generation will experience the day PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X become retro. In fact, I'm not sure any game on these format will even be playable at all in 20 years - but by then I'll be retired and drinking lemonade on the porch in a hopefully more peaceful world that has realized that cooperation produces better outcomes for humans and animals than war. And I'll hopefully have some old video game stuff worth at least some money.

Unlike many of us who own old music CDs, maybe vinyl, comic books, movies and retro games, a generation is now growing up that has none of these. They access everything via subscriptions, but they own very, very little popular culture stuff compared to slightly older generations. Is this a problem? Maybe, maybe not, but it is clear that it will be very different at least.



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