In favour of physical game copies

What physical games mean to me and why they won’t go away any time soon

I love physical copies of my games. And I’m definitely not alone on that.
With the release of the recent PlayStation 5 and it’s option to opt-in for a digital-only version I have the need to talk about physical releases and what they mean to a portion of us.

Playstation 5 with a disk drive on the left and a Playstation 5 without the disk drive on the right.
The physical and digital version of the Playstation 5 next to each other

I still remember the day I went out to buy my N64 copy of Ocarina of Time. It was a sunny day in February 1999. I saved up my money for a long time, didn’t spend my precious allowance, because I read in a magazine that the new Zelda game would release by the end of the year. I asked my parents for this game as a Christmas gift. Sadly, both of them said “No” as we just didn’t have the money to spend this much money at once.
But I made it. It was one of the most joyful experience in my young life and I still tend to think about this moment, even though it’s over 20 years in the past now.

Many people have nostalgia stories like that, probably even multiple. They might not involve the buying process, but the moments in the game itself. The mind-blowing experience that we just couldn’t fathom when we were younger.
But is that really all? Depending on who you talk to, you might get different set of reasons as to why people prefer their physical copies.

History has been written

Before we go into more detail why we love to see that little box on our shelves, let’s look at this very moment in time when Sony released a PlayStation without an actual disk drive.
Even though Sony introduced a digital-only console, they didn’t go that route all the way. There is still a version out there that contains the usual disk drive. And I personally think that Sony realized it themselves. Going digital-only will probably make a lot of potential customers very upset, aside from the still very present issue of availability.
However, it’s a sign towards our future selves. Eventually us physical-lovers will have to go further and further to keep collecting like we used to. That is if other companies want to join on the digital-only path Sony has created now.

A box to remember with

Having something to look at allows us to relive the nostalgia we’ve been trying to conserve. It’s part of why people try to create or play retro-looking games. It’s a reminder to different times.
I’ve been doing that in the very first paragraph of this article. But in general it is just easier to tie memories and emotions to something that you were actually in possession of.

In fact, there have been several studies that talk about how children prefer the original over a perfect copy or how people just plain out value digital goods less than physical goods.
All of those studies are worth reading on their own, but I’d like to take my own stance to the argument.

I made this :)

Ownership is something that has to be considered in this day and age. It is extremely convenient to have everything at your disposal via a comfortable executable that’s always there, even the games you uninstalled or were unable to install yet because of disk space. But it mostly comes at a cost. It’s not your game to keep. Once the service shuts down, you’ll have trouble to get hold of the games you paid money for. For example, the Wii as well as the Wii-U Shop (at least in some countries) have been shut down already. There is no legal way to even obtain some of the games any more, because they were only available digitally.
Technically this can happen to all the platforms, including Steam, the Microsoft Store or even the PlayStation Store. And once it happens, people will be upset, rightfully so. But every player agreed to that particular part of the contract — either because they didn’t read it in the first place — or because there was no alternative option.

An expensive hobby

Digital goods also mean that you are, for the most part, unable to resell your copy to a third party. One reason for a lot of people out there to get the physical copy, is to resell said copy before the actual game goes on sale. This has two benefits:

  1. It allows people who can’t spend 60–80 <insert currency here> on a game can get a 2nd hand copy for way cheaper than the actual retail price.
  2. It allows those who spend 60–80 bucks on said game to sell it and partially fund their next adventure.

So both the buyer and the seller win in this exchange.
Digital stores don’t have this feature. And frankly, they don’t need to. The used goods are still digital and never lose their value. That makes it already hard to argue on an agreed price tag, especially with stores wanting some of the revenue, now that they are in the loop of things. Those stores are better off just doing a special sale every now and then.

One store to rule them all

Digital stores are great. I’m not denying that my Steam and GoG Libraries are ever growing steadily. And I love those services for their accessibility, availability and the amount of games they provide.
But it also tells a story that makes us dependant on said stores. What would you do if Steam had to shut down? Would you re-buy your games just in order to be able to play them again? Most likely not. A vast majority of us would sail the high seas so they can get their hands on games they previously owned.
To be fair, my personal bias goes towards GoG, just because you get an executable to download, it being DRM-free and all.
While everything is alright with these big stores as of now, it could sway in one way or another at any day.

Limited Run Games copy of Celeste for the Switch
Limited Run Games copy of Celeste for the Nintendo Switch

Most of these issues are nothing the consumer base can fix, it’s something publishers and indie studios have to sort out for themselves. Services like Limited Run Games offer physical copies to games that were previously only available digitally. It’s a service I personally appreciate very much. It comes with the downside of people trying to scalp other because those physical copies are rare, but it’s a step into the right direction.
Shelf space in stores is also limited, leading to a lot of physical games being left out on the market if your favourite electronics or department store just doesn’t sell the games you’re looking for.
It usually means that games with a bigger marketing budget (if they have any at all) will appear in stores. Most indie studios aren’t able to do that, since they try to keep themselves afloat without adding costs to production and marketing.

Looking into the glass ball

A view into the future proves to be more difficult than initially thought. One the one side, I’m excited for people to change into the digital-only market.
But it’s not the future for quite some time. Even if Nintendo and Microsoft would join with their versions of digital-only consoles, people demanding their treasures will always be there.
On the other side, physical game copies are a way to project towards. Memories, love, it even makes for a better gift during celebratory days, because it means you have something to unpack (at least more than just an empty box with a piece of paper in it).

So it will probably take some time for everyone to figure out what’ll happen with them. I said it at the beginning: I love my physical copies. But that doesn’t mean digital stores should go away, that’d be ridiculous.

To those that have and love their digital PS5 I say: Congratulations, you’re part of the future… as slow as it may come.

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oerny

oerny

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I do web development and love to talk about the art of games and their content. Streaming on rare occasions.