Physical Media: Soon to Be a Thing of the Past?

By Sean Michael-Patrick Thompson
December 29, 2017

Today’s topic is one that reaches far beyond the Zelda series and grasps all of gaming. This debate has been waged time and time again since games began digital distribution, and here we are to wage it once more. Well okay, I’m not actually going to pick a side, I think both options are equally justified, I just want to analyze how physical and digital mediums of entertainment have developed up until now and focus specifically on how they will affect Nintendo Switch going forward.

First we shall examine my preferred option, physical media. Among other aspects of gaming, I enjoy collecting neat stuff. I had a difficult time accepting that I was not getting the Master Edition of Breath of the Wild, and though I could write another entire piece on that, I’ll spare you the pain of trying to digest the world’s largest pile of salt and say that I’m pretty happy with the Special Edition. Even without limited editions, I just like collecting games and cases and displaying them. I have a nice-ish organized-ish shelf full of all my games at home, and I am proud to show off that I’m the only guy you know who likes Metroid: Other M enough to still own it.

The other major benefit is not having to worry about storage space on your console. As hard drives kept getting larger and larger to the point of the new Xbox One X being looked down upon for only having one terabyte of storage instead of two has baffled me. I am behind the curve in the Playstation and Xbox markets, but my Xbox 360 has a 500 gig hard drive and I’ve never felt want for more space, even with a few playlists of music jammed in there next to my save files. Taking up the extra space seems like a waste to me, as purchasing additional hard drives or SD cards can get quite expensive on top of the fairly pricy hobby we enjoy in the first place. If I could save that money, why the heck not?

Moving forward with Switch, however, this issue may become more prevalent. The Switch’s 32 gigs of onboard memory are not only filled quickly by game saves, but of course by the current market’s habit of required patches. This past month I have had a lovely time with Doom, but the odd thing is that the multiplayer portion of the game is not loaded on the cartridge at all. You must download a ten gig patch to play online, and iD recommends you download the patch for some hot-fixes in the story mode as well. Ten gigs is a lot when you only have a small hard drive like that of the Switch, and this is not even the worst case I know of. Players of L. A. Noire’s physical version have to download a 14 gig patch just to play, and that is again on top of what is contained on the cartridge.

Somehow we have come to a strange time where the physical and digital mediums of video game delivery are intertwined. In these two cases, nearly half the size of the total game has to be downloaded even with the cartridge, and if you own both of these games, that’s pretty much all your onboard memory, so get ready to fork over for some SD cards. I miss the days when the game came out and you knew the thing would work. Day-one patches to me seem like if you bought a new fence and the installer left early with only half of it built but he left you a roll of duct tape. That’s kind of the day and age we live in, though, so I’ll suck it up and deal with it.

Is the digital medium so bad, though? As much as I prefer having a physical copy of something in my hands and how I wish I didn’t have a developer looming over me constantly to tell me my software isn’t up to scratch, there are plenty of benefits of going all digital right from the get-go. Sometimes the game really does have an issue that was not caught in testing that needs to be fixed. It is nice to have that ability when it needs to be there, but the mindset of releasing partially finished products doesn’t sit well with me.

Then, of course there is the convenience aspect. Don’t you hate to deal with traffic all the way from your place to the local game store? I admit that sometimes when a game comes out I’d much rather have it suddenly be ready to play on my system without me even paying attention, and with pre-loaded game purchases, that is actually possible now. Also it seems like every time you have to switch out a game cartridge that the walk to the TV is even further than the game store. The world is full of lazy jerks these days, and I am no exception. I get it, work is hard that’s why we have video games.

Digital distribution is also great for indie developers. Many small game companies don’t have the dough to pay half their staff, and the extra money required to print mass quantities of cartridges or CDs is just another headache on top of that for them in many cases. Games like Cuphead or Blossom Tales may not have thrived as well in the physical market, since at launch they had fairly little marketing behind them. The extra expenditure to print a physical release of a game could push small companies over the edge financially, and even after massive success it could be hard to come back.

An interesting quip I’d like to add, digital gaming does not necessarily only mean downloading games. Currently Playstation 4’s online services include free games which players can stream from the cloud at any time. Getting games delivered as easily as a show on Netflix might not be as far off as we think, and that would solve most of the problems of physical and digital games all at once. Game developer Hideo Kojima (who you probably know as the man behind Metal Gear) related it to an idea he had coined as “transfarring” wherein players of PS3 games could easily switch to the PSP version. “I believe [Switch] is an extension of that idea. The fact you can play something at home and take it outside, this is the gamer’s dream. The Switch is an evolution of that.” He went on to explain that this would be made even more seamless once we reach the age where games can simply be streamed between any device.

So which is better? Both have their strong sides and their weak sides, which one will last forever? I think certainly that we are moving toward a more digitally focused future, but can physical games really die? People like me delight in collecting crap, and we are willing to pay craploads of money for it. As long as there is a market for it, even if it becomes a niche market, there will be physical games. If they do die out, it will be a long time from now past any foreseeable future.

What’s your take? Do you prefer physical stuff to show off or the ease of selecting your game from a menu? By all means, let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter and I’ll happily argue about it for hours. Let’s keep the conversation sailing!

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