Do You Still Prefer Physical Games?

Do You Still Prefer Physical Games?

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?


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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!

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