The video game industry has evolved considerably since its inception. In the space of a few decades, the visual fidelity, scale of releases, consumer interest and inspirational potential of the medium have increased almost exponentially. If you’ve been part of even a fraction of this exciting journey, chances are you’ve also experienced your own fundamental habits and desires surrounding the transformation of virtual entertainment.
As a kid in the 90s, I grew up enchanted by the blocky wonder of cartridge-based video games. Nothing overshadowed the feeling of opening a sealed Super Nintendo package and savoring that new game smell. While Nintendo cartridges were infamously expensive, especially when owned by a low-income family, the art from the flashy box, nearly indestructible casing and sturdy instruction manuals provided a satisfying sense of ownership.
While Nintendo carried the gray brick torch into the next generation with the Nintendo 64, the disruptive folks at Sony successfully brought disc-based gaming to the mass market with the PlayStation. Sony was able to rival the graphical prowess of the N64 and deliver games at a drastically lower price thanks to the rationalization of compact disc manufacturing. This step was the first time I noticed that my desires were turning to convenience. It was cheaper and easier to collect PlayStation games, so that’s what I did.
Nearly thirty years later, discs remain the primary vehicle for shipping video games to customers. However, digital distribution and ongoing battles over subscription services have further repositioned the buying habits of the community. As the old saying goes, “convenience is king”. Unfortunately, the principles I once stood for are now being exploited by video game publishers to justify charging gamers more and giving them less authority over their video game libraries. The physical releases are on life support, and no one seems keen on providing true digital ownership.
An ongoing debate
The rise of digital storefronts and the anything but ethereal video game ownership associated with it has sparked heated debates with members of the community. Supporters of the digital future are celebrating the luxury of quick and easy access to their entire catalog of titles. Meanwhile, physical supporters and avid collectors suggest that keeping hard copies is the only way to truly “own” video games.
Regardless of your position on the matter, both parties seem resigned to accepting the inherent shortcomings of these practices. Gamers who prefer physical ownership often oversimplify the value of discs in an increasingly online environment, and digital purists frequently ignore or undermine the vicious history of video game licensing. Ultimately, customers have been conditioned to sacrifice control for convenience.
As someone who favors the simplified ideals of digital compilation but who has also suffered the ramifications of the revocation of virtual games, I find myself increasingly conflicted. We were promised high ease of access, low consumption costs and unparalleled advancements in archive hosting. However, as the market embraces digital media universally, publishers are on the verge of backtracking on these commitments.
Why it matters now
While customers are busy discussing with each other how best to give companies money, these companies are actively working to belie customer expectations. Recent examples of monumental video game franchises show why your preferences might not matter for years to come. After all, a physical copy doesn’t keep a game playable if the game isn’t even on the disc.
According does it play (opens in a new tab), the physical version of the certified behemoth of Activision Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains only about 70 MB of data. Since the full package is nearly 100GB, this drive is of little to no value without an active internet connection. The perennially controversial publisher is also charging $70 for the latest entry in the long-running FPS franchise, which means they’re charging around $1 per MB.
Joking aside, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is just one stark illustration of the critical flaws surrounding modern physical property. As more and more titles cement their foundations with online multiplayer components and games as a service, the quantifications of user rights and admission are starting to fade. We can’t expect every game to continue in perpetuity, and that reality allows publishers to leverage our investments.
In what almost feels like a direct response to player complaints and criticisms of full-priced video games with expensive ongoing content, free-to-play titles have become the new benchmark for monetization. With limited barriers to entry and potential for gigantic financial gain from Fortnite, this accessible subgenre has understandably garnered huge interest from publishers. Unfortunately, the “free” admission opened the floodgates for aggressive in-game “optional” purchases.
Last year, Halo Infinite sadly transitioned to a free-to-play multiplayer experience. With crossplay and its first dual launch on console and PC, Master Chief was theoretically positioned for huge success. Shortly after its release, I wrote an op-ed about what I got for spending $75 on Halo Infinite multiplayer. Compared to previous entries, my investments seemed superficial and unsatisfying. And in a few years, these objects will no longer have any real value. Of course, I’ll have the memories, and to name all the Hallmark cards – these are invaluable, but I can’t shake the predatory implications of this approach.
What is the solution ?
Video game distribution is at a crossroads. The industry has established itself as a force to be reckoned with, surpassing the tastes of film and music in a relatively short period. With this meteoric growth comes endless prospects for endless revenue acceleration. Basically, businesses are designed to maximize profitability wherever possible. However, these business ambitions are usually at odds with customer desires.
Compared to the Roaring 90s, when Donkey Kong Country 2 on SNES cost the equivalent of $115, there are objectively more opportunities to play video games on a budget. Subscription services like Xbox Game Pass offer hundreds of titles for a marginal monthly fee. Following the precedent and popularity guaranteed by Netflix and Spotify, most customers may be willing to give up possession for convenient access. The steady expansion of subscription services suggests that might be what the market dictates.
Enhanced player options don’t address glaring problems with video game ownership. As publishers like Capcom continue to announce that 91% of their sales are now digital, it’s inevitable that more and more releases, especially smaller ones, won’t be distributed physically. It is dishonest for anyone to make definitive statements about how to ensure genuine media ownership in the current era. The harsh truth is that publishers often prefer to keep control over how and when you access content.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, and this could be a scenario with no easy solution. Ultimately, I want to see the power back in favor of the customers. There must be options for players to sell and trade the digital titles they own. Additionally, physical editions of video games should include digital codes by default. We witnessed this trend when movies started embracing online connectivity. I’m incredibly excited about what lies ahead for the future of the games industry, but I expect publishers to respect past investments.