Looking at the Pros and Cons of an All-Digital Future

This is a debate that has been raging in the gaming community for some time now. As time goes by, more and more games are being released digitally. Some games ONLY exist in digital form. Every day it’s looking more like this industry will become all or mostly digital. Is this a good or bad thing? Let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of an all-digital future.

A bit of a disclaimer before we dive in. By all-digital I mean a future where all or most games are either downloaded to your console’s hard drive or where you can play games via a streaming service like Playstation Now. Got it? Then let’s start things off with some of the pros:

The Pros

No need to leave the couch.

This is the example that most people cite as being a big advantage to an all-digital future. Traditionally, gamers would have to commute to their nearest video game store to buy a game. Some would wait on long lines to get a game at midnight and all of us have had to deal with crappy weather just to get our hands on a game. Digital downloads take the uncertainty of leaving your home out of the equation. It’s scary out there!┬áSeriously though, the convenience of purchasing a game and having it download directly to your hard drive can’t be understated. Current generation consoles allow you to play games as they download which makes things even sweeter.

Your entire game collection available at the press of a button

Right now, most of us have a sizable collection of games. To play different titles we have to get up and swap disks in and out of our consoles. Having all of your games digitally in one place, whether it be your hard drive or a cloud server, makes things so much easier. People can play one game then switch to another without having to move more than their thumbs. The advent of streaming services like PlayStation Now will make having an even larger game collection much simpler to manage.


Saves physical space

While having a big collection of games to stare at and show off is cool, having an ever expanding collection takes up considerable physical space. You can save a lot of room by having all of your games exist inside of your small hard drive or in a cloud server. You’d also be doing your part to help the environment since you won’t have to throw out those plastic boxes with their paper manuals and covers. Think of all the things you can fit into your room without having all of those games taking up space.

Cheaper prices

This one isn’t exactly set in stone but with games being all-digital, there would be no need to match the price of physical games and therefore, the prices of digital games can come down. A perfect example of cheaper digital prices can be found with the many sales we see for digital games. Steam has them frequently as does the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live. Without physical copies there is no reason for companies to keep games at $60 (other than greed).

Your collection is backed up

Have you ever lost a game? Had it stolen or destroyed? Having physical copies means that there is always the possibility that you could lose your game in some form or fashion. However, this is something that you don’t need to worry about if your entire collection exists in digital form. If the worst should happen and your place burns down, you’d have to replace a lot of things but not your video games. You don’t have to worry about getting disks scratched or having one of your pets do some unmentionable act to your precious games. Having games saved digitally means no more worrying about what may physically happen to them.

cloud storage

Now that we’ve seen some of the pros, let’s look at some cons to an all-digital future:

The Cons:

Slow internet speeds

Let’s just get the biggest con out of the way. The prospect of an all digital future is severely hampered by unreliable internet speeds. If your internet provider isn’t exactly one of the best out there then you’d be SOL if all or most games were digital. As of right now, America has some of the slowest internet speeds on Earth and many of us have to wait long periods when downloading games. Go and download DC Universe Online and tell me how long that takes you. Let’s not forget about those who don’t have access to the internet. An all digital future pretty much tosses them to the side.

Games no longer belong to you

While it’s convenient to have all of your games inside of a digital space, the truth is that they don’t really belong to you. You have no physical copy and therefore you’re left at the mercy of publishers who could pull games at any given moment. Yes, you paid for the game but since there is no physical copy the companies who released them could do whatever they want with them. Even if you have games in your hard drive, a publisher could still restrict you from playing them. The owner is the publisher and not you.

Nothing to share or sell back

One of the most effective ways to spread the word about video games is to share them with your friends. This is how a lot of us got to play many games and still do. With no physical copies you can no longer lend games to people for them to try out. There is also the fact that you can’t sell a digital game back since it’s not something tangible. You may not be able to make a lot of money back from selling your used games but you get something in return at least.

huge game collection

Nothing to hold onto

While saving shelf space is nice, there is something to be said about actually having a physical video game collection to look at. I myself am a collector at heart and downloading a game isn’t nearly as satisfying as actually having something to hold in my hands. You can’t have collector’s editions with unique boxes and manuals in digital form either. This also hurts the collector’s market which thrives on buying and selling rare copies of video games.

Market saturation

We could see big publishers like Electronic Arts (Origin), Ubisoft (uPlay) and Square-Enix (Project Flare, which already in motion) decide to cut out the middle-men console manufacturers like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo and release games on their own platform. How would they do this? Most likely via some kind of applications in smart TVs or mobile devices, since remember anything with a screen and an internet connection could essentially get a game delivered to it.

Although internet speeds are slow now, they will be much faster in five to ten years. PlayStation Now, like video service Netflix, will be able to work with internet speeds of 5mbps so it’s not hard to imagine how apps similar to it will run as internet speeds increase.

Using these kinds of delivery methods a publisher could allow people play their games without having to release it on a console. While this sounds good on the surface, imagine having to pay separate subscriptions for EA, Ubisoft and Square Enix games. This could potentially saturate the market with countless publishers releasing games on their own; games set to whatever prices they want. Although competition could keep publishers from overpricing their titles, people would probably have to pay a lot of money for all of these subscriptions.


Final thoughts

There are many more examples that I could have cited but these are the main ones that sprung up when I asked people about this subject. Personally, I’m kind of skeptical and worried about an all digital future. While this is the way the industry seems to be headed, I’m not sure if I’m 100% comfortable with it. My main gripe is something I mentioned above, that the games don’t actually belong to you. If there was a guarantee that a game I downloaded digitally would be accessible to me forever that would be great. Unfortunately, that will never be a reality and the ultimate ownership of these games lies with the publishers or whichever digital server is hosting them.

I do have to say that, while this future seems to be inevitable, I don’t believe that physical copies will ever completely go away. For example, people still buy vinyl records even though most don’t own vinyl players. Why do they buy them? For the purposes of collecting something rare. An all-digital future could actually be a boon for the collector’s market if only a handful of physical copies are printed.

This future is still a long ways out considering how shoddy internet connections are. Those who are against an all-digital future shouldn’t be too worried just yet. However, this will come to pass within the next ten years or so. Some think it will happen even sooner than that. This current console generation could possibly be the last one to have physical games be the standard. The time may come when future consoles have no disk drives at all.

Again, this seems to be the way that the industry is headed so it’s best to accept it and not complain about something that you can’t really change. But what do you think of an all-digital future? Sound off in the comments below and let us know if you’ll embrace or resist a digital-only world.

Join the Discussion

  • uptownsoul

    sorry, the con’s still outweigh the pro’s. Add that if this net neutrality issue falls the wrong way (and stays the wrong way) digital is all but dead. No way people will pay exorbitant amounts on data to download a game (which would, by default, make the physical games much, much cheaper).

    • Masoud House

      Digital hasn’t killed movies and music, and distributing digital media via an always accessible service from nearly anywhere in the world (that has a computer and good service) is easier than publishers needing to make distribution deals with and ship games into stores and retail chains. Not to mention manufacturing costs for the disc and cover, the disc of which will get more and more expensive with new formats for a while. Although playing devil’s advocate with myself, you could say the same will happen with harddrives, with the increasing need for digital space rising the costs for external drives or new harddrives.

      But with many publishers trying to distribute their own games through their own services, no middle man could mean far less prices, or at least a decent drop off of the current standard price.

  • Roy Reardon

    The biggest pro for me: two copies for the price of one. I have two Xbox Ones. When my kids play on my Xbox logged into their accounts they can play any game I bought digitally. I can then log into their Xbox and play the same game at he same time. This includes multiplayer, single, coop…any game mode. That’s a $65 savings on every game I buy.

    • Clayton Borges

      same with PS thats what i like. also right now I’m all digital and i love how i don’t have to get up and put a Different Disc in. So i will continue to be all digital. if and when they Decide to pull a game out of say the PSN ill just Buy the Disc which I’m sure ill be able to find for 10 bucks or less after Yrs of thee games being released ­čśë I’m sure its not happening anytime soon. and Net Neutrality if it happens ill just start buy disc again no biggie

  • Red Foxx

    I’m not so sure we’ll see games going below $60 online. With higher development/marketing costs and longer development cycles for many of these games being released on PS4/XB1, I don’t see how publishers could justify letting go of that price point to their shareholders. Sure you may sell more, but the difference between Tomb Raider hitting it’s 7 million sold target and it’s actual 4-5 million sold wasn’t $20. Is the difference in price really going to shoot game sales up that much more in a timely manner that matters? Small developers love those sales, but big publishers want the big money because they support the big projects and big franchises. Idk, it just doesn’t seem like the industry is headed to a place where projects are leveling off in size or scope. Maybe it needs to. But as long as we keep getting bigger open worlds and multivaried endings, and crazy graphical detail, it doesn’t seem like that price point is moving any lower.

  • Matt Dickinson

    I think they should just continue to offer both options as best as possible. Downloadable titles give smaller companies easy access to a lot of sales. But collector’s editions of hard copies still sell well, and are still being advertised for preorders.

    Here’s a link to the earliest online service I know of for games, for anyone interested in the history of things:


    • Masoud House

      I’ve never seen that. Very awesome post!

  • stealth20k

    I do not think its the future

  • You could run out of hard drive space. I would have needed many terabytes to cover all the games I bought on the PS3/360. The idea that games take up to 25 or more gigs to download makes digital only ridiculous. We are not all going to be getting Google Fiber.

    You can’t import games. There are many great games we will missed out that get localized in Europe but not in the States. There is also so many out of Japan.

    Cheaper prices will always be physical. You can’t bargain with digital media and won’t find market competition. What am I going to do when I pass away? I can’t exactly put all the games I buy in a will either. There is not much positive. Physical media is better. It has actual value.

    • Masoud House

      Devil’s advocate: how much of this has changed music and movies? And you are up to your service’s mercy on imports, though Sony has imported some games over in original Japanese…just not games we really asked for.

      Also, most people aren’t thinking about video games when writing up their will and thinking about what their family needs when they die lol But I get the point.

      For me, I’ve begun to embrace some of the digital side. I’ve gotten insane deals from Steam and GOG for PC games and even some great deals from the PSN. I can always delete games and make room when I run out of space on my 500 GB drive (and I still have enough space for 30-40 AAA and indie games which I haven’t even begun to play) and then re-download them later.

      My biggest fear is what Tony wrote about with a certain game removed somehow…then there’s no re-downloading. But for PC games, you could always just back it up/save it to an external drive.

      • There are many Japanese titles we haven’t ever got and won’t ever get. We nearly missed out on Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story for example. We didn’t get Valkyria Chronicles 3. There are many.

        When they are writing their will? I am sorry but someone like me, I have over 500 games, I would have to take that in consideration. I have games like Panzer Dragoon Saga and Radiant Silvergun. Its not just about family needs. I seen people go crazy over ridiculous things in a will such as hats. Everything has sentimental value, especially something when it comes to a collection.

        No matter the counters, they are still negatives. The biggest still is sales. You can talk all you want about getting a game for 5 dollars and such. Steam is awesome and I use it but that 5 dollars has no value and one reason why Steam does so well because it does it with incredibly old games and indie titles. You don’t see any new games costing less than 59.99. How much is South Park: Stick of Truth? Same price as it is on physical media. There are a lot of cheap games on Steam and GOG because there is a lot of old games, those same games you can find super cheap in the bargain bin.

        • Masoud House

          True, new games generally come out the same price, but there are already digital distribution services offering sales on new games. Admittedly not as many for AAA games, but there are plenty of mid-ranged games that get great discounts on Steam, or come out via the Steam Early Access program with a discount or extra set of perks, plus future updates and such for free. And economically speaking, once more attention comes to digital sales for games, it’s nearly guaranteed prices have to drop (or find alternatives).

          Right now they’re matching physical sales because they can. And physical sales are allowed to charged $60 because on top of all of the development costs the studio goes through to make great games, there’s still distribution, marketing, deals with particular store chains to discuss, and more. Shipping locally is one thing, trying to get your game around the world is another. Sending it to another country where it needs localization is even more costly.

          Going digitally fixes some of that. Like Tony said in the article, there is still the existence of physical media: even music still has CDs releasing and vinyl to collect. But if you have costs dropped across the board, it’s a little easier to shave down some costs. The only reason they get away with keeping prices up now is that they can argue perks: you have unlimited downloads of the game available to you, often DRM-free games that could technically be shared with others for free, and some other content. And to be honest, that’s a great perk. You lose your entire physical copy collection, you’re out of it for good.

          Music has gone nearly completely digital; movies have gone into digital AND streaming like crazy right now; books are also in a struggle between digital and physical; at the end of the day, there will always be people holding onto physical, but evidence shows digital is taking over.

          As a person who worked in a bookstore for a while, I couldn’t even fathom the idea of ebooks taking over. But then I saw that one year everyone hated the idea, and then two years later everyone loved it. Now ebook sales are insane, ebook readers spread like wildfire or apps came to phones and tablets, and people are enjoying reading on every device.

          The only thing ridiculous so far is that games are incredibly large and consoles would need crazy large harddrives to work. Streaming needs higher internet connection speeds to work. But if those can get increased (and let’s be honest: for the price of a 32 GB flash drive a few years ago people can now get a terabyte-sized drive, many of which have been made even smaller than ever before) digital games and streaming will be the best choice.

          • Matt Dickinson

            You can still buy paper books, CDs, DVDs, etc. of any new release. Offering them as downloads is just a different option. However as time goes on it is almost guaranteed that a lot of download-only titles will be lost to time or only preserved on a few people’s old hardware. For someone who likes to play older games they may have difficulty doing that once the services are gone or a company has delisted the product.

          • The talk of digital is pretty ridiculous when we don’t have a good infrastructure for it. All I hear from every one of you people clamoring for digital and saying its the way is because you want it. If we all got speeds like Google Fiber than it would be easy. We don’t and we better hope internet isn’t capped otherwise there is your other obstacle.

            It can take me 5 hours or more to download a game. For a digital age, that is not suitable. That is with the fastest internet in my area. That 5 hour download isn’t one of those crazy 25 to 45 Gig games. I can’t imagine how long they would take. I can’t imagine storing 45 Gig games. I would need like a 10 terabyte considering the amount of games I buy.

  • Jecht_Sin

    I get the best of both worlds. Only digital (obviously) for the “free” or crazy discounted PS+ games, physical otherwise.