Home / General Musings / Physical vs. Digital: FIGHT!

Physical vs. Digital: FIGHT!

Written by Phillip Law

Physical media has always ruled the roost in the world of video games. Want the latest release? Then you will be fuelling up the car and heading off on a journey of reasonably epic proportions to your local game shop of choice, dodging rabid fan-boys and hoping that the last copy hasn’t been sold to your overly competitive friend. Well, that is a worst case scenario, but it can happen. It was no surprise then that with all the negatives involved in purchasing physical media such as fuel costs, queue times etc, that someone said “hey, music became massively popular to download, why can’t games go the same way?” Thus, the digital distribution of games was born. That was a handful of years ago, and it didn’t do so well on the consoles. But now progress has been made, right? We can finally get full games downloaded straight to our systems at home and just play…right? Well…no. Just like disc-based games and…well, anything in life, there are still several advantages and drawbacks to both. Take my recent download of the God of War Collection as an example. I’ll try to highlight a few places where this method still needs improvement.

Obviously, the biggest positive to downloading your games is the convenience of it. The fact that you wouldn’t need to do anything but wait for the latest blockbuster game to arrive on your console is quite an appealing concept for most people. Consider the lazy and busy folks among us, and I cannot find many strong arguments against this. Unfortunately, I think this is the only thing that gives you any incentive to buy the games directly from your console at the moment.

Cost has always been my biggest gripe in the digital versus disc battle. The prices are so unreasonable. Why would I pay £14.99 for a downloaded copy of Dead Space, when I can buy a new physical copy for £5? It always strikes me as odd that they charge so much for a digital version when surely they should charge less, as they no longer have to pay for packaging or even the retailers. On the PC, Steam has managed to provide great games at low/discounted prices for a while now, and it constantly pulls me back for more great deals. If the consoles want to make direct downloading a serious method of purchasing your games, then they should really take a leaf out of Steam’s book.

With the price on the consoles in mind, you can imagine my surprise when I found God of War I and II (HD) for around £20, when most of the disk versions (at the time of writing) are still around £25-£30. Finally, a step in the right direction! I couldn’t resist, as someone who has never played God of War, this seemed perfect.

Now we move on to the next problem: the actual download. I know that games take a large amount of space, and this was no exception, clocking in at just under 20GB. I knew I would have to wait a while for it to download, but I imagined that since I can download 1.5GB worth of movie straight to my iPod in around 30 minutes, this would take around 6-10 hours. It took about 30 hours. Yet again, the PC gets it right by allowing me to download a full game in around 2 hours. When you couple this with the fact that my PS3 is only a 60GB, and I am not in a position to upgrade that at any point in the near future, then you discover that it is just not practical for everyone. I understand that there are bigger hard drives (my Xbox 360 has a 250GB HDD), but if I had just bought the disc version, I could have installed a fraction of the data in minutes and played right away.

Availability is also an issue for two reasons. The God of War Collection was released in the USA on the 11/17/09 and in the UK on the 04/30/10. Well, the digital version was released on the 11/02/10. There is clearly a massive gap between the two versions, and its an unfortunately common trend that will need to be changed if digital media is to be a reasonable option for the consumer. Couple this with the fact that there is never a guarantee that the game will get a digital copy, and I will just stick to buying the physical version. Furthermore, if all games did only become available through download, then a lot of gamers will be left out. I know several people who prefer to keep their consoles offline and just buy games at the store. Even if downloading full games did take off, they would still need to cater to both parties.

Finally, the personal preference of the buyer. This isn’t a big problem (if it is a problem at all) but I just thought I would throw it in here. There are some people who prefer to buy a physical copy of the game, and I will admit that I, too, am partial to getting a game I can hold in my hand. I also like the interaction with the shop staff (well, the nice ones) and other gamers. I can’t tell you how many friends I have made just by talking to a few people when I’m buying a game. Not so much a problem, but like I said, it is all down to personal preference/experience.

Now it might sound like I hate the idea of digital distribution but I don’t. The truth is, I use it a lot. I get a lot of games through Steam, as they are cheap and download quickly, and I get all of my music through iTunes. I would like to see games available on the same scale as music and film downloads, simply because it gives me, as a consumer, more options and a chance for a great deal. This does NOT mean however that I want SOLELY digital distribution. Choice is a great weapon to be wielded by the consumer, and I want to be able to choose which method would be better for me at any given point.

So, will the digital distribution of full retail titles take off for consoles in the future? Well…honestly, I can see it happening. Steam has already proven that it can be done reasonably cheaply and effectively on the PC. If Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo take notes on what Steam has done right and apply it to the consoles, then I see no reason why it couldn’t become as big. Furthermore, with companies like GameStreamer appearing, this arena is certainly expanding and adapting. However, until the downloads for the consoles jump over the hurdles I have mentioned, most notable of all, the cost, the download speed and availability, I still lack any incentive to download my games on the consoles. Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to the shop. I wonder if the fan-boys are still there…I may need some body armour.

One comment

  1. Great article Phil!!. When I buy a new game I like to buy a coffee then wander around a few game shops in my town, looking for any bargains along the way and picking up the game at its best price. I also like physically owning a game, reading the instructions and having it sat there on the shelf. The only games I have ever downloaded (apart from dlc) have been Halo and Monkey Island for 400msp each. If the prices got more competetive then I may be tempted but I enjoy bargain hunting too much!!

Scroll To Top