Digital video game releases have grown in popularity over the past decade, yet many gamers still prefer owning physical discs and cartridges. However, the recent introduction of hard drive consoles along with digital-only releases for upcoming titles such as Like a dragon Gaiden And Alan Wake 2 indicate that the gaming industry is abandoning its physical formats. Digital-only releases have drawn a lot of criticism from consumers, but could become a necessity for game developers.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Remedy Entertainment’s Sam Lake and Kyle Rowley detailed how Alan Wake 2The digital-only release gives the developers more time to refine the game. As they explain, digital-only games don’t have to wait for physical copies to be printed and shipped to retailers. This means they can use this extra time to fix bugs or other issues before the game releases. This digital release also allows Remedy to sell the game at a lower price than most other triple-A titles. Based on this, it’s clear that digital-only releases are far more beneficial than many realize. This raises the question of whether digital-only releases should become regular practice in the gaming industry.
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Game studios benefit from purely digital releases
Digital-only releases could be an important step in solving one of the biggest problems of modern gaming. In recent years there has been a plethora of unpolished and bug-filled releases. Notorious examples like Cyberpunk 2077, pokemon scarlet and violet, And redfall has shown how hasty development can ruin a promising new title. While some of these games eventually recovered through post-launch patches, their seemingly unfinished state upon release ultimately tarnished their reputation and disappointed many fans from day one. A digital-only release doesn’t guarantee a game will live up to expectations, but it can be crucial to avoiding the disastrous releases that countless re-releases bring.
Another point to consider is the increasing obsolescence of physical copies. games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons And no man’s heaven rely heavily on content updates. Therefore, even physical copies require additional downloads for players to enjoy the full gaming experience. This isn’t necessarily a flaw with contemporary titles. Developers often use updates to provide long-term support for their games. Instead, this practice highlights the fact that physical media is rapidly declining in importance in the modern gaming industry.
This is doubly true for live service games and online-only titles. These primarily use servers and not disc content to provide the bulk of their experience. Because of this, physical copies of these games are almost pointless – especially for titles that became free-to-play after their release. However, the most worrying aspect of owning physical copies of online-only titles is the inevitable shutdown of their servers. Online gaming strives to keep their servers active and available for as long as possible, but not every title succeeds in doing so. games like lawbreaker, StarBlood Arena or the PlayStation 3 port of Final Fantasy XIV receive physical releases. However, the closure of their servers (or the specific console version in XIVs case) and lack of offline capabilities make them little more than paperweights these days.
Digital-only releases aren’t even a new concept and have resulted in countless successful titles. Indie studios often rely on digital storefronts. This helped digital exclusives like Minecraft, undertale, And Stardew Valley become monumental cultural phenomena. Hi-Fi Rush later proved that digital-only triple-A games were also capable of reaching large audiences. Digital-only releases are now much more controversial due to the growing discourse about the possible elimination of physical media, but there’s no denying that they’ve been a vital part of the gaming industry for years.
Only digital releases come at a price
Despite all the benefits that digital-only releases bring to both gamers and developers, there’s a good reason why physical releases are still widely supported. When you purchase digital games, you only receive a digital license tied to the purchaser’s account. The loss of this account would mean the loss of all associated digital games. In contrast, physical games can be installed without an internet connection and grant buyers full ownership of their purchased copy. This also means that physical games can be shared with other accounts and consoles, or even resold, without much hassle. Digital releases may be more accessible and convenient, but physical games have far fewer restrictions.
More importantly, physical copies are vital to video game preservation. Digital titles aren’t just tied to specific accounts. They are only accessible through their respective consoles. Backwards compatibility meant that older digital exclusive titles remained playable. Since there is no guarantee that future consoles will retain these features, this is only a short-term fix. As consoles age and digital stores close (e.g. closing thousands of games lost to the closure of Nintendo eShop), there is a greater risk of exclusive digital games being lost to history.
Preserving digital titles is also more difficult than preserving physical games due to console-specific limitations and legal ambiguity when transferring licensed software to other platforms. Physical games may also have digital backups to ensure their preservation. However, the ability to store a physical disc or cartridge makes keeping these formats much easier (and legally less problematic) for gaming archivists.
There is a potential compromise that can alleviate the problems that digital publishing brings. Studios that require a longer development time can start with a digital-only release and save the physical release for a later date. Alternatively, they can simply delay their game altogether. This approach gives developers the extra time they need to refine their games while giving players the choice between digital and physical copies. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect solution, as it would force consumers who prefer physical copies to wait longer for new titles. Worse, this practice would give studios the ability to cancel planned physical releases of games that don’t meet their original sales expectations.
Despite the potential problems that digital-only releases could bring, the gaming industry seems to be moving towards a digital-only future. While this may bring a much-needed improvement in the quality of upcoming titles, it will come at the expense of physical ownership and historical preservation for newer games. Thankfully, studios don’t seem to be giving up on physical releases just yet, giving the industry time to find a better solution than Remedy Entertainment’s all-digital extreme.