When I was a kid, every piece of media I wanted involved a trip to the store and a physical, boxed copy of the product. Whether it was a movie, album or video game, I could hold every item in my hand and look at it on my shelf. It’s become clear in the last decade that people are moving away from this idea, replacing it with downloadable, digital copies instead. Music was first, with iTunes quickly becoming the world’s number one seller, and movies soon followed suit. Video games are no different, and are also moving in the direction of non-physical media.
Maybe I’m just old fashioned, as I’ve always liked owning actual copies of music. I’ve never purchased a single song from iTunes, and proudly display my CD collection. My movie and game collections are similar, but I’ve begun to see a little difference with the gaming side, which is pushing me in the direction of digital distribution: With music, I can always buy a CD then rip the mp3 and stick it on my device. The same goes with movies, but games don’t offer this luxury. With games (on console, anyway) you always need the disc, which is beginning to feel like an inconvenience.
I really like boxed copies, though. With music, there’s the awesome cover art and artistic inlay to enjoy, but this doesn’t really apply with games. Somehow, game boxes always feel like they’re committee-designed, with none of the flair of albums. The instruction manual is also beginning to feel unimportant, with most of the instructions contained within the game. In fact, some games don’t even include the manual anymore, expecting you to play the tutorial instead. Games are definitely moving in a digital distribution direction.
It’s only recently that I’ve started to feel burdened by my love of boxed copies. Sony are trying hard to release every PlayStation Vita game on the PlayStation Store, as well as in brick and mortar stores, and it just seems so much more convenient. Not only can I purchase a game without leaving my couch, but I can carry them all around without additional cartridges to keep track of. I must admit that I’ve bought a few games this way, but I’m sad that they’re not sitting on my shelf.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple, as we have storage to think about. The Vita is the perfect example of a flaw in digital distribution, as games must be stored on pricey, proprietary memory cards. It’s the same on Xbox 360, with Microsoft being the sole distributor of hard drives, adding to the overall cost of our downloaded games. The PS3 isn’t so bad, as it takes a standard hard drive, but you still have to open it up and replace it by hand. Really, the only place where storage isn’t a problem is on PC, so it makes sense that this is the leading platform in digital distribution.
I’m really in two minds about the whole situation. We’re at a strange point in time, where we don’t know the future of our current purchases. If I buy a physical copy of a product, I know that I always own it and can use it for the rest of my life. Is this the same with downloaded media? What if the company goes under and I no longer have access to the stuff I’ve purchased? What if I die and I want to pass on my collection to someone else? What if I change consoles, or move countries, or the whole economy collapses and the internet becomes a distant memory? Do I lose everything?
Physical media has its disadvantages, too. For one thing, I always have to have it with me. If I visit a friend, a digital purchase can always be re-downloaded and enjoyed wherever I am. There’s also the fear of natural disaster – if my house should burn down or flood, all my albums, movies and games would be gone. I can’t just turn to Microsoft, Apple or Google and say “Hey, you remember I purchased this, right? I’m just going to download it again.”. Nope, everything is lost. I could claim on insurance, but who wants the hassle of locating and buying all those old products again?
I have a feeling that in another few years, the question of boxed copies versus downloaded copies won’t even exist anymore. People are becoming more and more used to non-physical media, and companies are putting larger focus on it. For the companies, it makes perfect sense, as they don’t have to print and distribute their products, and there’s no market for reselling. For consumers, it also makes sense, as they don’t have to track down the product in stores, and maybe even save some money due to the lower distribution costs. Seems like win-win to me.
I feel myself being drawn to the convenience of digital distribution, but also worry that I may regret this choice in the future. We really have no idea what this shift will lead to, but it’s clearly the direction the world is moving in. For now, I’ll enjoy the ease of re-downloadable products and entire collections stored in one place, but I really hope that many years down the line, when I want to play some old games, I’ll still have access to them.
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