Every year there is at least one article discussing the need to drop physical media. Even on this site, there are some who would prefer if we went so far to ditch consoles as a whole and only focus on streaming. Even with these wants of some to see digital overtake physical that we see crop up every single year—it has yet to become reality. Advancements are made, changes in the industry happen, and yet year after year, consoles refuse to adopt a fully digital model. If this was simply due to technology, it would have happened already, one look at the PC gaming market with services such as Steam and GoG will show that it is possible.
So why hasn’t digital fully taken over?
Physical media, at least when it comes to games, is muddled into a litany of various agreements and deals that have kept physical media and the stores that sell it, alive. There is in addition to those agreements and deals, the various marketing benefits that come with having physical media present in stores. While these factors certainly contribute to the persistence of physical media, they alone are not strong enough influencers to keep physical media as a viable form to distribute games. After all, the PC gaming market was able to move away from physical many years ago, making the sight of a physical PC game a rarity in today’s world. If PC games could move away from the physical distribution model and consoles game can’t, what makes them different?
The answer to that question is simply, confidence.
When Steam initially came to the market, it was seen as a chore. Gamers complained, “It doesn’t work” or “This is just an anti-piracy system” were common and quite accurate complaints levied against the system in its youth. It was an anti-piracy system, and what it added to the gaming experience was non-existent. In the coming years, this would all change by adding features that made Steam not just an anti-piracy measure, but a platform that actually added to the gaming experience with features and functions that users wanted. Many of these features that Steam supports can, for the most part, be found on each console’s equivalent platform. Each of these features offers confidence in the platform itself, but what they don’t offer confidence is in the most important aspect of any digital platform: availability.
Steam as a platform rarely has issues when it comes to making sure a game is still available on its platform. Do you want to buy the original Doom on Steam? It’s there for you to do so. Buy it 10 years ago? That game is still available in your library, ready to download and play. There might be a few technical difficulties depending on the age of the game, but it’s still there, ready to download and play at a moments notice. Purchases made are purchases kept, Steam as a platform has an incredibly strong track record in making sure a game is always available. If you purchased it, you own it, no ifs, ands, or buts. And should a title not be available on Steam? There is always more unscrupulous means available on PC. Consoles on the other hand? The cracks have been showing for a while, and look to only grow deeper.
Both the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live have removed several titles availability over the years, in fact, digital platforms as a whole have removed enough games over the years that a whole website exists, delistedgames.com, to track and follow games and news related to their unavailability. Within the list of games that are unavailable on digital platforms, there is the most depressing list of games, those that are extinct, and that list only grows longer for consoles as time goes on.
Come January 2019, Nintendo will fully shutdown the Wii Shop. This means that you will be unable to buy games, purchase points, re-download titles, or even be able to transfer those games to a Wii U once January finally arrives. All those titles instantly become unavailable to everyone who doesn’t already have them already. If you have those titles, you’re in luck, for at least a limited time. When your Wii eventually stops working, those titles are most likely gone, and moving them to another console isn’t going to be an option, they are simply…gone. To add further insult to injury, in the case of the Wii, Virtual Console titles—that will most likely be making a re-appearance at a future date—are not bound to your account. When the fateful day arrives that Nintendo finally decides to add the Virtual Console to Switch, everyone who bought them before will need to buy them again.
The Wii represents just the start, and it is the first console to have announced its end that also had a significant digital presence. At some point, the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U will all lose online support, and what will come of those titles then? If you purchased any of those digital titles, will you be able to retrieve them? Or will they simply be lost in the past? As long as consoles exist the way that they do, constantly replacing their predecessors every 5-6 years, then the issue of having confidence in digital titles will remain. There won’t be a guarantee that you will be able to keep the value of your purchase, for once the next console is out; all bets are on the table.
Until console developers design systems or consoles themselves that are not designed to become obsolete, then a digital-only future will remain a pipe dream.