Is physical media on its way out?

Last week bastion of woe, Ben Kuchera (from Polygon), wrote that the days of owning games are coming to an end. This is not the first time that someone has written that owning physical media will be a thing of the past; to be replaced by digital download, except even this is facing competition from streaming.

For me personally I feel like I’m in a unique position in regards to my media consumption. I consume my media via the range of ways previously mentioned, yet I have no fondness for strictly sticking to just one, for they all have their advantages. For example in regards to my music collection I am one of those people who still buys CD’s (I’m listening to one as I write this), but my whole music collection is also digitised. This allows me to listen to my music when away from my CD’s (which was the case for most of my time at university) and also on the go on my iPod (the one Apple product I allow in my room). I do have a Spotify account, but the concept of not “owning” a music collection is not something that appeals, especially as it restricts me to being wholly dependent on a stable Internet connection.

However Google have created a solution that almost feels as if someone there was listening directly to me. This solution being that I can “upload” all of my music to my Google account (although most music is actually just acknowledged and associated with the copy Google already has on its servers) and then I can stream my music wherever I am, or I can download albums and/or songs to my phone or tablet for offline convenience. This has allowed me to experience the best of all worlds without constricting myself to just one, allowing real flexibility with for my music consumption.

“What about videogames, I thought you wrote about them on Thursdays?” So to bring it back to videogames; they are at a crossroads. E3 2013 demonstrated this dilemma, Microsoft wanted to provide ease of access wherever you are. Say you visit a friends house, but you forgot your copy of Forza, no worries, just sign in with your account and there it is. The one problem, and it was a big one, was that Microsoft failed to allow for those instances when you can’t connect to the Internet or are unfortunate enough not to have a great Internet connection, i.e. most of the world.

Unlike Google which included some offline functionality, Microsoft wrongly assumed that those buying the Xbox One would have stable connection by the virtue of the console being at home. Microsoft tried to explain that online connectivity was a built in requirement and it couldn’t function offline. On top of this due to the way that games could be used on other systems without the disc due to being assigned to an account, used games would no longer be a simple process. If this didn’t appeal to you the only alternative, which former Microsoft games head Don Mattrick provided, was to buy an Xbox 360.

Microsoft could have at least offered people an opportunity to opt out of the benefits that the online features brought in order to have an offline capable Xbox One rather than a £425 brick. Meanwhile Sony took full advantage of the situation and made a big deal about how their console allowed you to use your physical discs in the same way as you had done in the previous generation. They took this further by creating an “instructional video” which showed  Shuhei Yoshida (Sony Worldwide Studios President) simply passing a copy of Killzone to Adam Boyes (SCEA VP of Publisher and Developer Relations) and that one step was all that was needed. It was a non subtle jab at Microsoft, but this helped place Sony in high esteem among many gamers, and this good will is still paying off for them.

The thing is Microsoft thought they were helping to move people to the future, and whilst gamers aren’t necessarily afraid of the future (much less so than the general public), Microsoft’s approach was more forceful than people were prepared to accept. Sony were already investing in a streaming based solution for games, but weren’t ready to roll this out, although they are currently openly testing its PlayStation Now service which is in beta. This is the better solution as it allows the process to be a gradual one so that people can warm to the idea whilst also not simultaneously abandoning the previous options.

What came out of E3 2013 wasn’t necessarily an attachment to physical media, but the freedom of choice. Microsoft came out as being seen to restrict what people could do, whereas Sony were seen to be providing people with options. In comparison with the PC market it is fairly safe to say that physical media is dead. No one buys a physical game on PC anymore. This is because there is freedom. Even though most people buy their PC games through Valve’s Steam service, there are alternatives available such as GoG and the Humble Store (then there is also EA’s Origin and Ubisoft’s Uplay store). What’s more is that for some time now PC games have been noticeably cheaper than their console counterparts, and then there are the infamous Steam sales, which sees people purchase a large number of games, many of which will never be played for more than an hour, if at all.

I am about to make the transition to the next gen (current gen) but I will likely still be sticking mostly to discs for the time being. The irony now being that because AAA games have gotten so big, storing games on discs seems to be a better solution than relying on storing everything on the Hard Drive. Saying this I will still be upgrading the internal Hard Drive of the PS4 before I turn it on for the sake of future proofing (and to store games I get through PS Plus). With the PSN store offering better sales I will continue to increasingly but more digital games, continuing a trend that has increased during more ownership of a PS3. Ultimately the system that is now in place allows for a form of personal choice to go with what may be more convenient or better value of money. Physical media is still relevant, but it is just one choice, rather than the default.



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