Gaming: Digital vs Physical


By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
Being a fan of older, retro (or “Classic”) games, I have been drug – nearly kicking and screaming – into this new digital age. It is inevitable, and there are benefits to both physical and digital media to be sure. But for me, and I suspect a lot of other “old school” gamers out there, I will always prefer to have my games physically with me in the real world. Does that make me an old fogey? Perhaps, but I don’t care.

The Good

So what are the benefits of going mostly digital in your gaming? It is quite nice to be able to have multiple games on your system without having to swap discs for those of us who are lazy. There are a growing number of remastered (and not remastered) classic titles that are available to play on the newer systems via download. You can get that new hot title immediately as opposed to having to preorder and mess around with crowds. Say goodbye to those clueless Mega Big Box store employees who don’t know where their Midnight release games are despite their department heavily advertising them. Sony and Microsoft operate under a very user-friendly system in which you can play your downloaded games on any system you choose to log into with your account details – although I believe there may be an eventual limit of how many systems can be currently active. But if you wanted to play your games on your friend’s console for the weekend, you could do so. Or if your system dies, just relog in on the new replacement and a few redownloads later, and you’re gold.
A huge plus is being able to buy games anytime and anywhere. If I have a hankering for a new game on my 3DS or Vita, I can buy one immediately. I don’t have to change out of my comfy sweatpants and put shoes on and spend gas to go to the game when it can just come to me. I could buy a new game on the toilet if I saw fit… which I don’t since that would be weird.

The Bad

The downsides of going mostly digital is more for collectors and nostalgia based. I love having artwork and cases for my games to display on a shelf. I like owning my games. I like owning my movies. I don’t like to depend on a company who, at any time, could effectively change their terms and conditions (since who actually reads those things when they update their policies) and could backdoor some restrictive DRM on games I already have purchased or games in the future. Technically, they could do sneaky things with physical games through a hardware update, but the chances of weird things happening with a digital game are much higher, in my Tin Foil Hat opinion. A downloaded game can, for obvious reasons, not be resold or traded in when tired of it. If my system fails or I have to get rid of it temporarily for monetary reasons, my games will be waiting for me to play again without having to spend time redownloading everything. Games are also getting more unwieldy in file sizes, so eventually no matter what system you have, you’re going to run out of built-in room.
Growing up, I loved – and I mean I loved – buying a new game. Not just because it was a new game, but there was a certain thrill of opening up a box containing the newest Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis game. Some people will even know what I am referring to as the “New Nintendo Game smell” in its cartridge plastic, wrapper and manuals for NES, SNES and N64 games. It was intoxicating and I’m not afraid to admit I loved to sniff it like the sniffer I am. You don’t get that with a downloaded game. Having recently bought Mario Golf: World Tour for Nintendo 3DS on cartridge still held a bit of excitement for me as an adult gamer that I wouldn’t have gotten with simply downloading it instead.

And the NintenDONT

And speaking of Nintendo, I am not alone in my slow adaption. For as much as I love them, everything about Nintendo’s setup for the Digital Age is so far behind that of Sony and Microsoft that it is embarrassing. Hardware-wise, for the Wii U to only come with 32GB of internal storage space (which ends up being decreased to around 25-26GB available to the user) is mind boggling… especially in the age where the Playstation 4 and Xbox One has 500GB standard. The Nintendo 3DS is even worse, only coming with a 4GB SD card for downloads (it has no real sizable internal memory for such options), and although that can be upgraded to 32GB, it is still very small. The Nintendo Switch? It, too, only comes with 32GB of storage – but at least allows for microSD cards (like the 3DS) and possibly even external storage options.
Account-wise, the aforementioned benefit of being able to easily replace downloaded games on replacement systems or sharing them between systems does not apply here. Your downloads are tied not to your Nintendo user ID, but to the console itself – meaning if your system dies suddenly, you are out those digital games, digital game saves, and even your user ID (or Friend Code on the 3DS) and Club Nintendo ID as it dies with that console. Sure, you can call up Nintendo, but you have to beg for them to release that ID and/or games so it can be placed on a new system, but they have a history of denying those requests. If you buy a new “Limited Edition” 3DS, you can perform a system transfer from your old to your new rather painlessly, but even with that Nintendo limits the time frame of how often that can occur.
So in short, everything you have heard about gripes as far as Nintendo’s online system is true, and it’s every bit as frustrating as you can imagine.

The Inevitable

It’s inevitable that the digital age is here and is pushing people like me by the wayside. Take a look at the very limited store space for movies and music at any big box retailer… they are a quarter of the size they used to be, and a lot of that can be attributed to digital downloads and streaming. Microsoft knows this and, very mistakenly, jumped the gun about it with their early Xbox One DRM policies that send the cyber gaming world into a rage. But they, Sony and Nintendo all push their digital stores to the extent that we’re only a console cycle or two away from the stuff that Microsoft tried to implement could become a reality for everyone.
But there will always be a market for physical media, even if its a small one. Search out eBay and you’ll see high prices for new or “complete in box” games from collectors. I treat my games like gold because I think there can be just as much individuality and art into the packaging as there can be in the game itself.
There are clear benefits to both. But for me, opening up a new game in my hands is like Christmas morning, and because it’s a physical game, it is a joy that future updates and restrictions can’t take away from me that can provide a lifetime of memories going forward.

    One Comment

  1. CameronFebruary 24th, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    One upside of digital that you don’t mention which is primary for me now that I have kids: physical media can get damaged really easily when you’re talking about optical discs, and lost even easier when you’re talking about the minuscule cartridges that the 3DS and Switch use. With hard copies, I know that the game will be either lost in the couch cushions or unplayably scratched within six months. That’s why I go digital, despite all the lovely tactility of the real thing.

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