As a 33-year-old gaming fan, I still remember the joy of cracking open a cardboard box for PC and N64 games, and being greeted by chunky manuals and discs in paper or plastic covers. If I was particularly lucky, a paper map of the game’s world be thrown in for good measure. Heck, I even remember the wonderful ink and glossy paper smell of manual from games like Baldur’s Gate II.
When I got an original Xbox, I remember games moving into DVD jewel cases, which was a major departure from the cardboard boxes of the past. Some of these had sizable manuals to pour over, such as the original Halo (opens in new tab) and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. But as the years rolled on, those cases came with an ever-dwindling amount of supplementary paper.
And that’s a good thing. While I love to pop on a pair of rose-tinted glasses and get all nostalgic about yesteryear’s PC and console gaming — I still have a big box of PC games sitting under my bed, like a collection of shameful secrets — digital downloads are the future. That future will be driven by the PS5 (opens in new tab) Digital Edition and the rumoured Xbox Series S (opens in new tab).
Disinterested in discs
It’s already happed, to a certain extent. I own a mere four physical PS4 games and the only Xbox One X disc I own is Red Ded Redemption 2 (opens in new tab). Even then, it's only because I have terribly slow internet, and physical copies of games are sometimes cheaper than their digital equivalents.
Thanks to automatic background downloads, PlayStation Store sales and the frankly excellent Xbox Game Pass (opens in new tab), I have started to go all-digital on my games collection. And I suspect I’ll do the same for the next-generation consoles.
Even though it can take me ages to download games, especially those that take up tens of gigabytes, the convenience of being able to boot up what I want to play without fiddling with discs is worth the pain of a long download. With the speedy SSDs of the Xbox Series X and PS5, that convenience is going to a lot more pronounced, with the ability to switch between games on the fly.
Having the ability to swap between games on a whim means that dragging myself off the sofa to swap discs will feel even more repellent. It’s already bad enough that I have to insert a disc for a fully installed game due to digital right management (DRM), even though that disc isn’t needed for content purposes.
I don’t know if this is going to be an issue for the Xbox Series X or the standard PS5. But I’m not keen to take the risk, which is why the PS5 Digital Edition (opens in new tab) and Xbox Series S appeal to me, especially as the former looks better than its disk drive-equipped sibling (opens in new tab).
My colleague Henry T. Casey noted that digital-only consoles are a bad thing, as they should be entertainment machines hungry for Blu-ray discs rather than just gaming machines. I can see where the esteemed editor is coming from, but I don’t really agree.
I’m fairly confident that a lot of people who are interested in the next-generation consoles already have one of the current-generation machines. Both PS4 models have Blu-ray drives and Dolby Atmos support; bizarrely, though, the PS4 Pro doesn’t have a 4K Blu-ray player. And the Xbox One S (opens in new tab)and Xbox One X can both play UHD Blu-ray disks.
Is there really a need for another machine that can play the same discs? I don’t think so.
Dawn of the download-only
Unless you’re blighted with my awful broadband, you don’t really need a 4K Blu-ray player most of the time, as the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO and Disney Plus all support 4K streaming. And I’m pretty sure that people who really must have a high-end Blu-ray experience will have a dedicated machine, and likely a full home cinema setup, to do so.
As such, there's no particularly compelling need for a disc-playing next-gen game console. And that’s absolutely a good thing.
Not only will the PS5 Digital Edition and Xbox Series S make gaming more convenient, but they could also drive a proper surge in digital downloads. This could encourage more competitive game prices in online stores, as annoyingly, it can still be cheaper to buy a physical copy of the game.
This somewhat bizarre issue has been around for a while, and arguably has to do with Xbox and PlayStation having what’s pretty much a monopoly over digital downloads on their respective consoles. But as more games go digital-only, other online retail forces that could see digital downloads get priced more competitively.
Even if that doesn’t happen, online services like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now deliver access to digital downloads for a recurring but rather reasonable fee, particularly if you game a lot. This makes the idea of ordering a physical game online, let alone going into a store to buy one, seem like an arduous task not worth the effort. This strategy has worked for Netflix, Spotify and other streaming services, so there’s no reason why Microsoft and Sony can’t build upon their digital games services.
Of course, this won’t be great news for physical game stores — although they haven’t been having a good time for years now. And the secondhand market and game trading will likely start a downwards spiral toward extinction. As sad as that is for people like me who grew up with games we could actually hold, it’s the price of change.
When it comes to the environment, that change is a good thing. Fewer physical copies mean less plastic and other material used on retail games. It’s especially pertinent when you consider that a lot of the time when you install a game using a disc, you’re then prompted to download a good chunk of supplementary content. You might as well just download the whole thing.
Other than using the odd disc for copyright purposes, I very rarely bother using the physical copies of the games I have. While I’m not likely to throw them away, I certainly don’t want to add to them, as I’m short on space. All this stuff will need to be dealt with when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil, and I don't want anyone to have to sort through all the woefully outdated, valueless things I’ve hoarded over the years.
In short, the digital-only next-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles are very much a good thing. They could not only make life better for gaming, but also help reduce the impact of new tech on the environment.