Senua’s Saga: Hellbade II is Xbox’s next big console exclusive video game coming this year. We learned a lot about the upcoming action game during Thursday’s Developer Direct. We also learned, afterward, that Hellblade II won’t get a physical release, continuing a trend of big AAA console games skipping discs and going digital only. And that’s not great.
For a long, long time, big and small console games (PC is a different story) always released physical editions of games because there wasn’t any other option. But around the era of the Xbox 360 (nearly 20 years ago), some smaller games or indie titles started skipping physical releases and went digital-only, often at a cheaper price point. There was concern from some that this could lead to games becoming unavailable once the servers hosting the content were shut down—which did happen and continues to. However, for the last two decades, outside of smaller games or indie titles, most games were still getting physical releases across all platforms.
And then Alan Wake II happened.
While I love Alan Wake II (it’s my personal game of the year of 2023) an odd and depressing bit of trivia about the game is that it might be the very first major, AAA, blockbuster, GOTY-contending game from a large publisher to skip any physical release on any platform, even consoles. Remedy Entertainment explained in an FAQ that the decision to skip a disc release was so the price of Alan Wake II could stay at $US60 instead of $US70. The studio also wanted to avoid shipping a disc but forcing people to download a large update anyway, which is certainly annoying, but is it so bad that it justifies Alan Wake II existing only as a digital $US60 game? I’m not so sure.
What’s so bad about digital-only games?
Digital-only games have a few problems. They are harder to preserve on consoles, folks with limited internet options are screwed, and digital games can’t be resold or traded in. And let’s not forget: Digital games exist only as long as the companies who run digital stores allow them to. Sure, all of the major platforms will let you re-download games you previously bought, even if they were removed from the storefront for licensing reasons. But that’s only true as long as the folks running the storefront deem it so. (And in some cases, it isn’t true at all.)
So it’s not great when a big game skips a physical release. Sure, not every game on a disc can be played offline or without “Day 1” patches, but most are indeed playable, as documented by fans on this nifty website.
That’s why it was so disappointing to see Hellblade II confirmed by Xbox as a digital-only $US50 video game. Some might argue that many will play the Hellblade sequel via Game Pass and never even own it anyway, which is likely true. But it’s still not ideal that another AAA console game is charging so much—compared to other, cheaper digital-only titles— while also removing the option to buy it physically. This means that folks won’t be able to trade in Hellblade II or hold on to it and play it years after servers die and companies close.
The video game industry has long been terrible at preserving its own history. It’s often fans, modders, and even, yes, pirates who are doing the hard work that publishers and devs should be doing to make sure as many games as possible are playable 30 years from now. And if this new trend of AAA console games skipping the disc and going digital-only continues to grow, the already dire state of game preservation will get worse.
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