Do You Still Prefer Physical Games?

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Do You Still Prefer Physical Games?
Photo: Tengku Bahar / Contributor (Getty Images)

It’s time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites assemble to deliberate on a single burning question. Sometimes a serious one, other times less so; mostly it’s just a nice opportunity to talk more about video games. You down?

This week we Ask Kotaku: Do you still prefer physical games?

Fahey

Prefer? No. There was a time when I prided myself on rows and rows of well-sorted video game boxes filling every shelf of my home, but that time has passed. Between children wanting to play with the shiny discs and cartridges, leaving them caked and crusted with mysterious kid crud, and the fact that I can no longer stand and reach the out-of-the-way shelves, I am done trying to make my game collection look good for photos.

That all said, I am still a sucker for the smell of a freshly opened video game. Step two after removing the plastic is always “inhale deeply” for me. That I get most of my games digitally these days just means the times I do wind up with a physical product are more special. I’ve been testing out the Evercade retro console system lately, and popping open those plastic cartridge cases is like heaven.

Beats GameStop, mostly. (Screenshot: Brian Ashcraft) Beats GameStop, mostly. (Screenshot: Brian Ashcraft)

Brian

In 2020? Nope! Digital games have been a godsend. For a long time, I thought there was something nostalgic, romantic even, about physical media, but that does not necessarily reflect the reality in which we live.

I do like game shops. I like going in and looking at new games as well as old ones. For years now, game manuals have gotten skimpier and skimpier, and modern game packaging certainly does not compare to that of the past. I miss that as someone who likes video gaming culture, but not necessarily as a modern-day consumer.

As with music and movies, I feel like most of our consumption going forward will not be physical media. Honestly, I think a mix of both physical and digital is ideal, but I live in a rather suburban, even rural place, and it’s not always easy to get to a game store. So, digital media continues to be a wonderful alternative, pandemic or not — an alternative that is increasingly becoming a mainstay.

I know you were joking but... that is somewhat distressing. (Photo: Ari Notis) I know you were joking but... that is somewhat distressing. (Photo: Ari Notis)

Ari

Once upon a time, I bought every new game on disc. It was nice to grow a physical video game collection over time, the same way it’s nice to grow a record collection or a library of books. Selected media is part of who we are. Showcasing it is an act of expression vis-à-vis décor.

Then, in 2013, everything changed. With the launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft upended the natural order. I opened my first Xbox One game — Sunset Overdrive, a terrific game that deserves no blame in this matter — and promptly vommed everywhere. The disc wasn’t on the right side of the jewel case. It was on the left.

Since then, I’ve wisened up to the truth: that there’s no sanctity in physical media, that there’s little good left in the world, and that purchasing physical video games is a small yet not insignificant act of propagating anti-environmentalism, ultimately pushing our planet, slowly but surely, toward an inhospitable Mars-like state.

I still have some physical games, of course. Sometimes, a used copy on The Everything Store is just cheaper than it is on a digital storefront. (Yeah, yeah, my commitment to a healthy planet can be sold for pennies.) But whenever possible, I’ll go digital, a decision made much easier by the recent proliferation of games-on-demand services like Xbox Game Pass or PS Now.

Hardcover books still rule though.

A nightmarish vision of the future... of someone's dusty shelf. (Image: CD Projekt) A nightmarish vision of the future... of someone's dusty shelf. (Image: CD Projekt)

Alexandra

Though I used to be a huge collector, times change, and so do we. It’s a complicated topic but my personal answer is no, I don’t want physical releases. For me physical’s (very real) advantages are overridden by the simple fact that I don’t want more physical objects in my life. They’re a burden and weigh me down. I need less plastic, not more. The same is true for our planet.

Since I seem to be going the serious route, I also agree with these statements: DRM is horridly anti-consumer. Players have shockingly few rights or protections related to the digital games they purchase, including no ability to resell them. Physical games have charm, but far less than they used to — with the decimation of manuals, monochrome printing, cheap paper stock, flimsy cases, lack of even the full game on the media, it’s a worse physical product in every way, an afterthought produced with the cheapest possible methods. And finally, when media companies screw consumers over, consumers almost always find ways to circumvent, access, and preserve.

That last is a very important bulwark for regular people and the art we enjoy, and a major reason I’m ultimately not too concerned about my ability to access most content in a digital-only future. But I acknowledge that the physical vs. digital calculus will vary for other folks, who may have concerns about or suffer drawbacks with digital that I do not.

Now you're just showin' off. (Screenshot: Zack Zwiezen) Now you're just showin' off. (Screenshot: Zack Zwiezen)

Zack

My answer to this specific question is simple: No. Discs are a pain. I grew up with discs and hated losing games, scratching discs, or not being able to buy a game because the store ran out of copies. So I rarely buy physical games anymore. Maybe if Amazon or GameStop has a really good deal or I know someone who will want to borrow the game when I’m done, I’ll grab it physically. But 95% of the time I buy digitally and am so much happier.

I know that digital libraries are only good for as long as servers remain up and companies let you access your content. Here’s the thing, and this might anger some folks, but if Sony announced that all digital games bought before 2014 were going to be removed from players’ accounts, I don’t know how much I’d care. I rarely have the time or interest to go back and play most older games. There are exceptions, but for the most part, I don’t care.

Still, my own personal feelings don’t matter. Ultimately, I want physical to stick around as long as possible to allow more people access to games and to make it easier to buy games that are removed from digital stores. And I think physical games aren’t going anywhere. We still buy newspapers, DVDs, and CDs in 2020. I think game discs will still be a thing in 20 years, even if a vast majority of folks will be playing games digitally by then. And if a store does shut down, which seems unlikely considering how big these companies are and how much money they make selling stuff to people, I have faith in pirates and modders. They will do what they always have done: Be the most powerful force in archiving the history of games, no matter what legal bullshit they face. The real heroes.

Ethan went to photograph his beloved copy and was alarmed to find it missing... until remembering he'd let his brother borrow it. (Whew!) So here's some nice art from the PSP version. (Image: Square Enix) Ethan went to photograph his beloved copy and was alarmed to find it missing... until remembering he'd let his brother borrow it. (Whew!) So here's some nice art from the PSP version. (Image: Square Enix)

Ethan

I’m a physical media holdout so set in his ways I waited three weeks to play Final Fantasy VII Remake because I refused to just download it digitally. It didn’t always used to be this way. I’ve always preferred physical to digital, if only so I can at least share my games with friends. (They’re more on the one-or-two big games a year schedule, and it’s nice watching a copy of God of War or Death Stranding sisterhood-of-the-travelling-pants its way through the group over the course of a year.)

But I haven’t always cared about owning or collecting games. Growing up, my siblings and I had a communal library we would contribute games to, and more often than not our next big JRPG like Xenogears or Alundra would make its way to us through a friend or neighbour. By college I’d all but sworn off video games, my collection consisting only of a few classics collected over the years through birthdays and holidays.

But as I got back into games, and especially as I got older, I’ve grown more attached to curating a physical collection. Not necessarily out of preservationist anxieties or retro enthusiasm but because having the physical games in their cases with their original box art on a shelf where I can glance at them helps make the story of my life feel a little more organised, or at least present.

I have a distinct memory of playing Tactics Ogre for the PS1, a copy of which I’d borrowed from a close friend, on a small CRT in my bedroom late at night during the summer after freshman year of high school. My clothes were soaking wet from having jumped in the pool at a friend’s house earlier and then walking the hour it took to get back to my house because I always lied about having rides somewhere. Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief had just come out and “We Suck Young Blood” was playing on my boombox as I tried to lay siege to a castle with my disheveled squad of underleveled knights and mages.

Tactics Ogre is a very sad game. Beyond the cycle of war continuously ruining people’s lives there was the fact that if you were shitty at the game and let certain characters die, or killed them instead of sparing their lives, your journey would turn from one of redemption into one of inevitable despair, recreating the very system of injustice you had originally been trying to supplant. Hail to the Thief was released in 2003, a year after the invasion of Iraq, two years after the global war on terror was launched, and nearly three years after George W. Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore.

And so there was Thom Yorke crooning “we want young blood” as I took shortcuts to scrape through fights because Tactics Ogre is a very long game and I didn’t have the patience to grind. The friend who lent me that game moved away at the end of that summer and never came back. I can’t neatly break down what the tiny but lasting impact of this weird constellation of events was on my life but I still have the game sitting in my closet just a few feet away from where I type this and I’m never getting rid of it.

How About You?

Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? Do you still seek out physical games, or are you perfectly content with a digital hoard? The conversation continues below, so have your say. We’ll be back next Monday to deliberate and debate on another burning issue. See you in the comments!

Comments

  • I vastly prefer to deal with digital games over physical. If I have a suite of digital games installed, I switch between them at will (which I do regularly – I’m a ‘sampler’, I very rarely sit down and play something from start to finish), but discs make that something I’m reluctant to do. So: no disc changing, one less point of failure in use, no ability to ‘lose’ the disc, no risk of physical damage, and it doesn’t take up precious physical storage space (look, my library is massive and I’ve very quickly run out of room under the TV cabinets).

    It’s not even as if the downsides of waiting for downloading are that big a difference from physical either, given how pretty much ALL disc games now come with massive day-one patches to get rid of their game-breaking bugs.

    All else being equal, digital easily trumps physical.

    Of course… all else is not equal. The one and only factor where physical has the edge is that physical media tends to bring the deep discounts earlier for new releases, often to the tune of a 30-40% difference even on launch day. I picked up Tsushima within a week or two of launch for $60, which I could never have done digitally. This is made most frustrating by the fact that digital has far, far fewer overheads factored into the price than physical does. Physical requires printing, shipping, storage, and placement in retail locations, who then have to pay rent, wages, utilities, marketing and more. Digital’s costs of server maintenance, storefront maintenance, and marketing are a miniscule fraction of physical costs… but the digital price is higher.

    This difference goes directly to publisher/platform pockets, and it’s the opposite of what we were told by the pundits would be the benefits of embracing the digital future. It’s almost as if the cynics were right. AS ALWAYS. (Never bet against cynicism, it’s always right.)

    • Agreed. Especially for Bethesda, Origin, Ubisoft,2kGames and every Epic Timed Exclusive… buying the physical box copy is $15 to 25 dollars cheaper due to “Australia Tax”

      Borderlans 3 was $15 dollars cheaper on release at JB HiFi (it was cheaper than EGS that was has a lower margin), a year later its $90 in both Steam and EGS, $40 cheaper if you go to JBHiFi or EB games today.

      That’s insane. Its why I refuse to buy any digital game full price, if it’s not on sale… ITS A RIP OFF!

  • Man, I’m riding this physical media train until the last station.

    First and foremost, because I still trade with my friends regularly. I’m currently slogging through my friend’s copy of Death Stranding while they chip away at my Persona 5. Their Sekiro is on standby for me, and I have TLOUII and FFVII Remake waiting for them. There’s a certain comfort in this camaraderie that dates back to high school years and I want to hold on to that shit.

    Secondly, because physical games are still so much cheaper on release.

    However, come next generation I will start buying games I play online digitally only. I’ve been playing Mortal Kombat 11 far more regularly than I thought I would since release, and before that I had a couple of solid years of Overwatch, and the constant disc swapping has definitely become tiresome. I will also probably continue to buy indies digitally. But big single-player AAAs are gonna be physical as long as I can hold out.

  • I really can’t understand the fascination with physical media. In practical terms all it is nowadays is a serial key in an elaborate box. One would be hard pressed to find any games that didn’t require at least the download of a day one patch before playing, which from my perspective is pretty much the same thing as just downloading the whole damn thing and saving myself some shelf space.

  • I’m no stranger to digital games but I still prefer physical discs.
    I’ve definitely gone off special editions, they are rarely worth the extra money these days and most have lame digital dlc anyway.

  • I prefer physical, although between the lazy ‘heres a Steam code’ mentioned above thats been a plague for over a decade, to digital only releases there isn’t much choice to be had for PC players.

    • For me its been a price decision, even if the box is just a key… its surprising these digital stores with lower margins (especially Epic) still charge full retail price.

  • It depends on the game/platform really.

    Digital all the way with PC/Mac games.
    Digital if its a smaller game on console.
    Physical if it’s a large game with a HUGE download size.
    Then, whatever is cheaper. PS4 games tend to be cheaper on physical disc after a period of time. Plenty of games you can get on disc for $25 dollars some places but on PS4/Nintendo store are still $80/90.

  • I mainly play on Xbox so it physical for me, it’s cheaper even years later, I can borrow and lend out games to family and friends and I can trade in or buy used.

    If you take care of your game discs and play as I do (start to finish) you won’t lack space or risk losing/damaging the disc.

    My whole collection is around 6 games physical and 5 digital (becuase of game pass).

  • I’ll take physical games that are almost always at least a third of the price of their digital counterparts and being able to swap games with friends and family any day of the week.

  • After a brief bout with homelessness and having to basically throw pretty much everything that wouldn’t fit into a backpack in a skip I’ve fully embraced digital for basically everything these days

  • Depends on the system. Switch / PS4? Mostly physical with some smaller indie titles as digital given space limitations. PC? Digital all the way. I suspect there is a place for both currently, particularly with how bad our archiving is for older games.

  • With each year I lean ever so closer to fully digital. I might go with the digital only PS5 if the price difference is substantial enough.

  • For PC its digital – has been for a long time. Consoles more so now as well especially since disc reading is SLOW as all hell and your console sounds like a jet engine whirring up with those drives.
    I actually prefer physical, and kind of wish that game consoles would go back to cartridge format (kinda).

    A proprietary format where it is essentially an SSD for the game would rock.
    The games core files would be locked down so you couldn’t accidentally erase them.
    Your game wouldnt have to install much because its already on an SSD, you update your game on the SSD (using less of your consoles storage) and you could have the option of saving game data back to the SSD.
    SSDs in the capacities required are reasonably cheap now a days too.

  • I’m always going physical when possible. I fear that all the digital games I have will one day become corrupted and irretrievable, and I take VERY good care of my physical media (The missus and I have a “library” downstairs)

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