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Our Relationship With Physical Media Is About to Change

But that doesn't mean it's becoming less important. If anything, the opposite might be true.

When I buy a video game in a box these days, it's because of one reason: this game means enough to me that I want it taking up precious space in my apartment. I want it to exist outside of a hard drive. That feels real.

The death of physical media is coming, and not limited to games. It will impact every medium, and nothing can stop it. But death is such a hyperbolic term. It makes a good headline, it might underscore the broader trend, but it's also untrue. It's simply changing.

There might be a day when physical media ceases to exist, but I doubt it. What's released, however, might become more selective, targeting collectors and the nostalgic. Physical will become a premium that specific consumers pay for, and the rest move on. How do you explain the rising sales of vinyl music?

In the coming years, most of us will redefine our relationship with physical media. It's going to become more important. What we physically own will come to represent us in a brand-new way. It's no longer about access. The same way posters, action figures, and other accents are strategically placed in our apartments to materially represent our interests and values, physical media is joining that club.

The launch of EA Access, a new subscription service from the company that loves angering people with new subscription services, might be the company's most interesting offer yet. It doesn't offer anything I'd be willing to pay for, but as a thought experiment, it's fascinating. For a monthly ($4.99) or annual ($29.99) fee, subscribers gain access to The Vault, a selection of EA games currently limited to Battlefield 4, Peggle 2, FIFA 14, and Madden NFL 25. It's slim pickings at the moment, given EA's immense back catalog, but the The Vault's currently limited to what EA's published on Xbox One. That means no Dungeon Keeper or Wing Commander.

While I'd love a Netflix for games, we're years away from that, and individual publishers are probably not our best route there. Who wants to subscribe to a Universal Pictures subscription service? It's more likely EA Access provides a template for broader services, ones Sony is currently experimenting with through PlayStation Now. Only a few publishers could get away with charging individual subscriptions. The only one might be Nintendo. It's easier to imagine paying for a subscription with a rotating lineup (i.e. Netflix/PlayStation Now), and spending more to play what you want, when you want (i.e. PlayStation Network/iTunes).

I don't own many video games anymore, but that depends on our definition of ownership. Even though I've purchased numerous games on Steam, Xbox Live, and PSN, I don't own them. I've purchased a license to play them, a license that won't necessarily last forever, and nothing guarantees my previous purchases will work when the next wave of hardware arrives. That's been more and more true as hardware's grown more complex.

With the exception of media no longer working on new hardware, a situation more frequent for games, this paragraph could be rephrased to reflect the vast majority of my purchases today.

  • I don't own many movies anymore because I'm streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.
  • I don't own many books anymore because I'm buying digitally from Amazon and iTunes.
  • I don't own many albums anymore because I'm streaming on Spotify and Pandora.

Each of these services are riddled with DRM, but it doesn't bother me. I get what I want at really great prices.

Here's a look at the shelf above my TV.

There's one other shelf in my home that has a stack of boxes. It's mostly horror and TV.

Both of those shelves are really important to me. It represents so much about me and my wife. There's limited space, which means what's there has importance. It's not the newest purchase, it's not a random selection, they're my favorites. If you look through that shelf, you can glean an idea of my tastes and values, and get a small understanding of who I am. Over time, that's where physical media is going: representing personality.

Puppet Master, Upright Citizens Brigade, Friday the 13th, X-Files, Futurama. That's me.

Catherine, BioShock, Prince of Persia (2008!!), Klonoa, Mirror's Edge, Dark Souls. That's me.

It's not a perfect system, of course. There are scads of digital games, books, and movies that I "own" not represented. Sometimes, I mull printing out box art, so games like Super Meat Boy or Journey can join them.

When I originally moved to San Francisco, most of my games were removed from cases, shoved into a binder, and thrown under a couch. Know how many times I opened up that binder? Probably twice. This wasn't a back catalog, it was diary of abandoned purchases, one I trimmed every time my wife and I moved. As we'd pack boxes, I'd look through our shelves, comb through the binder, and toss what I hadn't seen, played, or listened to. If I really wanted to play that copy of Viva Pinata that I'd been telling myself I'd eventually play, I'll buy it again.

This isn't everyone, of course. I'm painting with a broad brush. Lots of people like having collections. That's not me. That's OK! And there are reasons, even for me, to have small collections. I'm tired of purchasing Super Mario Bros. for every new platform Nintendo puts out, for example, so I'm happy to have a CRT with a bunch of old consoles hooked up to it. Sony and Microsoft are only going to port a handful of games from PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 onto the new platforms, so I'll need to keep them around, in case I want to play You Don't Know Jack.

I'm conveniently looking at the upside, but maybe that's because this transition already happened with books, movies, and music, while games lag behind. Specifically, it's console games. How many Steam users are upset over the death of the box? PC gaming used to be dying, now it's bigger than ever. Do you want a box or hundreds, if not thousands, of games for way cheaper? Give a little, gain a lot. It means the publishers gain more control, but consumers have benefited, too. Steam is DRM, but most are happy. The benefits of Steam have not totally trickled down to consoles, but it's coming. PlayStation Plus was the first sign, and Microsoft soon followed with Games with Gold. There will be much more of that.

Or maybe not. Maybe we'll give up control, games will be ruined, and we're all screwed. I'm an optimist!

The question is whether Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and publishers like EA can provide better reasons to choose digital. It has to be more than convenience. That's not much of a carrot anymore. EA Access provides a hint of where we're going. We'll see how quickly that happens, but we're marching (dragging?) in that direction.

In the meantime, I just looked at my shelf. Who wants a copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl? I don't need it.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
235 Comments
Posted by Rabbykayn

Stop making me sad Patrick.

Posted by Unilad

I got one word for you.... Vinyl.

Posted by supergg2k

My game collection is slowly becoming digital because I have four kids under 10. Downloading games means no DVDs to scratch. I have a growing iTunes and Amazon Video library for the same reason.

Posted by Clonedzero

One time i opted to buy the digital version of a game instead of putting on pants and going to the store thats 5 minutes away. This is our pants-less digital future.

Posted by FesteringNeon

I just bought TOOL's 2001 Lataralus on Vinyl. Not to play (I don't own a record player) but merely for Alex Grey to sign and then put inside a frame of some sort.

I too take pride in certain physical media, but don't have an affinity to keep anything else I don't treasure.

Posted by LordAndrew

I will continue to buy my games on vinyl, and I don't expect to stop.

Edited by Helios1337

I still buy physical copies for console games (for now) and almost 100% Steam for PC, but since a lot of console games require large day one patches to function properly, DLC to download, and have content locked behind online activation codes, I don't really consider them the same as my cartridges for older systems. They are just a partial install disk to save me Internet bandwidth. I just don't see myself having nostalgia for a glorified activation code.

Posted by Xpgamer7

I own about 5 Vinyl records, with the intention of getting a few more. I don't own a Vinyl player, but they remind me that I love the bands, the artwork and that I can enjoy sitting down and just listening to music without reading a book or driving a car sometimes.

Posted by Branthog

Years ago, I was an ardent owner of physical goods. This has, unfortunately, shifted. Mostly due to the fact that owning physical content has no meaning, anymore for many products. Hardware can be disabled or bricked with a firmware update and software requires online authentication and constant logins and servers. Having media on a physical disc no longer ensures that you will retain access to the content therein years from now.

Largely, I've grown okay with that. It would be sad to have some sort of a post-online world where we no longer have access to those things -- and to own no physical books, movies, games, or music. But for all modern contexts, it is nice to have an enormous house and not have one inch of it consumed by books, movies, music, video games, news papers, magazines, letters, and so on.

I'm not happy with the price of the content for purchased goods ($60+tax+DLC+blahblahblah for digital goods that come without the overhead of physical goods for the distribution chain) -- but that's my only real gripe. For the price of four CDs, I have access to RDIO and a massive library for an entire year. For less than the price of one month of cable television, I have an entire year of Netflix and Amazon Instant Prime. For about the price of a physical book (sometimes a little less), I have access to the audiobook (a benefit when reading time is at a scarce premium). If this new Amazon program works out, I could access a life time of reading material for the price of one paperback per month.

I would even pay a monthly subscription for a gaming library service. However, it has to be like Netflix. It has to provide nearly everything and at an extremely low price. I'm not interested in paying for fifteen separate gaming library services. I'm not interested in only getting some of your content from a few years ago, but nothing older or newer. I'm not interested in paying per hour of play. I'm not interested in paying $30 for a streaming experience with a game that is a decade or more old.

Posted by Branthog

@hailinel said:

Fuck the argument that an all-digital future is inevitable, or even desirable. People that argue for it never seem to acknowledge the many downsides and seem flabbergasted when they run into the limitations inherent to digital media. I still buy books, listen to CD, and buy physical games whenever possible. And if that makes me a dinosaur; then so be it.

The nature of any collection will ultimately reflect personality, whether that be the angle of the completions, personal taste in genres, nostalgia, or whatever else people collect anything for. It's always been that way. Does that lead to collections being curated at times? Yes, but that's normal.

This article just made me angry. I know I shouldn't be, but fuck it.

Of course, the problem is (and the reason I stopped giving a fuck about physical media) that all of the content you mentioned is not actually yours. The content on those CDs is merely licensed to you. Same with the video games. Same with the movies. In fact, I believe it has been argued in some contexts that even printed books are merely licensed to you.

The main thing that drove me away from physical music and movies is the expense. I can get access to a massive library of music on any device for $5/mo, rather than paying $15 for one album. I can have a massive library of television and movies for several months for the price of one DVD. The thing that drove me away from physical copies of video games is the proliferation of titles requiring authentication servers and logins and constantly being online. No longer content to requiring serial keys or verification codes from physical manuals, but requiring authentication and communication with online entities to use the content. Compound this with so many games no longer allowing user servers anymore, so that your use of the content is dependent also on whether the company even maintains gaming servers (or even the authentication servers!) for your content.

Of course, it also helps that I don't give many fucks about movies and television and music, either. I could could the number of times I listen to songs in a given month on average on one hand -- and probably only a couple of the fingers on it. Gaming is the only thing I really keep up with and enjoy and even that feels like a thing coming slowly to an end for me, many days.

Edited by ProfessorEss

@branthog said:

Mostly due to the fact that owning physical content has no meaning, anymore for many products. Hardware can be disabled or bricked with a firmware update and software requires online authentication and constant logins and servers. Having media on a physical disc no longer ensures that you will retain access to the content therein years from now.

The biggest blow against physical media for me is the fact that the as digital services have improved the physical product has degraded. No manuals, flimsy cases and a disc that probably only has about 70% of the game on it. Then that game probably has to be installed and patched, a process that often takes as long as downloading the digital version in the first place.

I think physical media will stick around for a while purely because of the number of people for whom digital download is not an option, but as far as collecting is concerned, I can't understand anyone who would want to collect anything but the very best/favourite of Collector's Editions anymore.

Posted by Gunslinger

I think the difference between PC gamers being okay with the "death of the box" and the same logic being applied to the consoles is, like you said, the lack of porting and permanence that comes with owning digitally downloadable games on the systems. You can still go buy Abe's Odysee on Steam and have it run on a modern machine, but imagine if it was only available as a digital download on an online system that's already gone under, like the original Xbox Live? Would that just be gone forever? What about DRM-wise, or the online components? What about digital purchases for things like the DSi, or Wii games (when that eventually gets shut down)? These don't seem like big things at the moment, since the pickings on there were slim, but it's the precident of those things being lost forever.

The strange position that gaming is in, is that the medium itself changes every half a decade or so (or thereabouts). We went from using a joystick and a single button, to now sometimes you don't need a controller at all. Whereas with PC, it's "here's your keyboard and mouse, go", with consoles the very way that we interact with games alters itself with each progressive generation. Hell, I think this new cycle of consoles is really interesting in that we haven't really seen any significant changes in the controllers. That's nuts.

I know all this sounds like a tangent, but what I'm getting at is that I'm firmly on the side of "have these games for legacy purposes." I get that a lot won't have the space, or even the money (I know I really don't, so I'm a massive hypocrite in that regard at the moment) but like people enjoy having bookshelves of nicely bound versions of classic books, or their vinyl collections, I'd want to have a small part of my house to shelve all my classic games, and while that's easy for the cartridge era, we're moving onto a digital frontier, and like a lot of people and their qualms about technology, I sometimes worry that there really could be the case of "whoop, this game's just gone now! Sorry!" like what happened with MvC2 on XBLA that I bought, but didn't have on my hard drive when it was taken down. So that's just gone forever. And I really don't like that.

tl;dr I think a 'Netflix for games' system would be like a fossil fuel: Great for the short-term, and would probably work just fine, but what about the long-term?

Posted by Vampire_Chibi

i wish publisher would band together and launch 1 single service for all their nonsense across all platforms, i don't want publisher specific applications for running my games, yes EA, yes Ubisoft, i'm talking about you!

Posted by HurricaneIvan29

@gunslinger: The argument that everyone seems to bring up is sustainability of the digital content. This viewpoint seems exist in a scenario where the infrastructure goes out of service or collapses. With todays games relying so much on patching and online connectivity to experience the full breadth of the game, in what form would you really have those games without their supportive infrastructure anyways; even if you put games on physical media to sustain past their supportive services, they won't stand much without them, anyways.

Old consoles didn't rely on the internet for the users to experience the games in their full capacity. This is why they have the sustainability and longevity that they do.

So really, the question is: at this point, no matter the form of media, how sustainable are video games without their infrastructure?

Edited by EXTomar

The problem with the counter argument against "the all digital future" is that a lot of games are no longer built or designed to be anything but all digital. Take for instance CoD4: If you still have a disk of this it is pretty worthless by itself because to get it to run on any of the platforms it ran on requires patching of the platform and CoD4 itself. There are definitely platform and software version combinations that will work but one will never know if it is compatible or not until they try it.

But this is a problem that isn't new either. I have the disks for Ultima V for the Apple IIe. It is actually easier to get that working in emulation on a modern MacBook Pro than to drag together all of the parts necessary to even try let alone if the media or hardware is good any more. It turns out it is way easier to embrace "the all digital future" than it is to keep this junk around.

Posted by guiseppe

I buy vinyls because there is nothing that offers superior audio quality. I buy them because I love music, I buy both new and old vinyls. They do still make them for a reason, you know. As for physical media disappearing, I dread the day.

Edited by guanophobic

Gaming, and especially the rise of PC gaming is also a very niche market. With people whine about hipsters buying vinyl; "who the fuck buys a desktop nowadays when there's laptops/tablets thin ass paper, able to do everything we need".

And even hardware could be something we're paying a subscription for in the future. Razer's been conceptualizing a subscription desktop gaming PC (called Project Christine), updating your hardware as time goes by.

Maybe we'll see offerings like cell phones in the future: "Buy a Steam Machine + Premium account with unlimited play hours for just about $100/month!"

Edited by wh00kie

@jazz said:

Must be nice..having a decent internet speed. Those of us on 300kbs and lower are super jelly.

Yeah my internet tops out around 500kbs, my friend on the other side of australia gets around 3x - 4x that speed... Playing the Destiny Beta with him was fun, but not for me because by the time mine had downloaded he'd hit the level cap and went to bed.

Posted by TerrenceC06

Can't wait until HDs get really really cheap. Only reason I still buy physical copies. Not a fan of selling them back to stores.

Posted by BlazeHedgehog

When I buy a game in a box it's because I can't afford good internet and I'd rather not spend an entire weekend (or more!) downloading a game.

Posted by YukoAsho

The argument that physical media "licensing" is no different than digital licensing is beyond stupid. Companies can't come to your house and take your games from you when they're on disc. They can damn sure snatch them from you in the "digital future" that True Believers like Patrick seem CONVINCED is inevitable.

Posted by AbsoluteDeicide

I'm going all digital this generation for convenience and for the fact I'm all out of shelf space. I have drawers full of NES and Genesis games, two entire bookshelves crammed with 360 games, and various collector's editions, strategy guides, and collectibles scattered everywhere; I've pretty much just reached my saturation point with physical media. At some point you look at everything and think, "what a bunch of junk."

There's something to be said about playing games in their original, intended form (you have to play Super Mario 3 and Contra with a sticky NES controller praying the system doesn't crap out on you, for example) but with mandatory installs and everything on digital media anyway, downloading a game is just a delivery method. It doesn't fundamentally change the game at all, and it's really the new standard; there are way more "digital only" games for current-gen systems than boxed copies.

As far as ownership goes, as far as I know anything paid for and downloaded on the new consoles can be played indefinitely so I'd consider that "ownership" as much as owning a disc. The added benefit to that is you already have a "binder" in the harddrives you store the games to (on Xbox One and Wii U anyway...). Something like Steam or GOG would be trickier if/when they shut down, but I'd be shocked if that went down and they didn't just drop the DRM completely. Barring that it's not like pirates wouldn't hack the shit out of it and release everyone's games anyway.

Posted by Zevvion

When I buy a video game in a box these days, it's because of one reason: this game means enough to me that I want it taking up precious space in my apartment. I want it to exist outside of a hard drive. That feels real.

What about these reasons:

  • Physical games are still (a lot) cheaper than digital (yes, even Steam prices, unless sale or indie titles).
  • Physical games take up no digital space. Inserting a disc takes less effort and time than (re)downloading a title.
  • Physical games require no internet connection to install. You just insert the disc and install it instead of having to wait 1-8 hours depending on the game and the dreadfulness of the servers.
  • Physical games can be brought to a friends house without having to spend 1-8 hours downloading and installing the game (which ruins it if you only play for one night).
  • Physical games can be sold.

The only advantage digital games hold are:

  • Don't have to leave the house.
  • Takes no physical space.
  • Doesn't need a disc to launch.

The first is a criticism I never understood. If you mind leaving the house, we are completely different people and we'll never agree on that part anyway. Physical space I get. But it's not a big deal for me. Not having to put in the disc I get, but again, not a big deal. Especially because it is connected with the pro of physical media: that you can easily take it anywhere else, it's weighing the pro's and con's for me and this one is again not a big deal.

Physical media will be my preferred way of doing things until digital gets a lot (A LOT) better.

Posted by UnsolvedParadox

Great article, I have started to shift my physical game purchases to titles that I think will have lasting and/or sentimental value to me in the future.

Posted by EXTomar

Hm, there are a bazillion games for free on PC that are complete digital. Just saying.

Edited by falling_fast

about to? i've been buying the vast majority of games i play for steam for a while now

edit: i do still buy movies and tv shows in physical form, though, so that's a fair point. it's because i've never been a fan of renting things or subscribing to things, and there isn't really a steam equivalent in that area. i also buy physical books.

Posted by Hippie_Genocide

I can't decide who I find more irritating - the all-digital zealots or the people so diametrically opposed to it they become raging asshats at the mere mention of the possibility they might buy fewer physical media in the not-too-distant future.

Posted by superNoid

I used to have an opinion about all this physical to digital nonsense. I've lived through the Steam beta years, yes ... years. I accepted digital was the future long ago, but its been a bigger sting on my consoles. There is such a love for something when you own it. Years later now, it seems to matter less. Living through the pre GUI internet days and gaming, and ansi art days of BBS's ... I recall what it felt like when things were moving away from BBS's to GUI interface services like AOL/Prodigy etc.. There was a sting, and a hateful uprising from the crusties back then. This is very much the same.. we will all be mad for 5 years or so, then move on and be mad about something else. Ultimately we'll all die and within 2 generations will be forgotten so its all a waste. Also, cock.

Posted by Captiosus

@branthog said:

Of course, the problem is (and the reason I stopped giving a fuck about physical media) that all of the content you mentioned is not actually yours. The content on those CDs is merely licensed to you. Same with the video games. Same with the movies. In fact, I believe it has been argued in some contexts that even printed books are merely licensed to you.

This is true but it is much, much harder for the publisher to come in and take those items back. Just look at the case Vernor v. Autodesk. Although the Ninth Circuit ultimately sided with Autodesk and thus set the precedent most companies now use when referring to EULA's vs. the First Sale Doctrine, it took Autodesk years of litigation.

Conversely, if you bought the item digitally, they could revoke the license at any time. Remember the kerfuffle when Amazon took away George Orwell books from people's Kindles without telling them? How about a more recent example from Europe, where a woman had her entire Amazon account closed, thus removing access to all her paid-for Kindle books because she was accused of "abuse of Amazon's policies"? Amazon never explained what the abuse was, they simply shut her down, deleted her stuff, and told her they hoped she could find a better retailer to suit her needs.

Working in IT, I have spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with "licensing compliance" and have had to study the various facets of copyright law and software licensing for years. While, in theory, Sony and Naughty Dog could revoke my license to the physical copy of The Last of Us Remastered that I have sitting here, their ability to reclaim it is next to nil, short of suing me. If I bought it digitally and they wanted to revoke the license all they would need do is throw a software flag on the licensing authentication servers and--viola!--my game is no longer playable.

Although I use Steam on my PC (because I have little choice), I cannot support an all digital future until copyright protections are put in place for consumers. Under the current set of copyright laws, an all digital future is a wet dream for publishers because they get ALL the money and ALL of the control, while users naively give away any consumer protections for the sake of "convenience".

Beyond this, the argument that digital only is imminent is completely at odds with the backlash Microsoft received a year ago when they first announced their XBO plans. I wonder how many people here praising the inevitable digital distribution model also complained about the draconian DRM Microsoft planned on implementing. Newsflash: In an all digital future, that draconian DRM will be standard.

Posted by cspiffo

Fuck physical media,

I have 7 large, full boxes of VHS tapes that are destined for a landfill one day. I have maybe played A VHS tape once a year or three in the last decade and a half. I have 3 full boxes of cassette tapes and I think I might own a cassette player somewhere. Physical media is quite meaningless in the digital age. It's nice to think we can hold onto this stuff forever but at the end of the day it's just stuff. There's so much DRM even on physical media these days that the "Physical" part of it is quite superfluous. I just can't see physical media surviving for much longer. It's mostly around now due to certain countries Governments and telecoms holding back innovation and infrastructure. Collectors will find other things to hold onto as that is their nature.

As far as records go. I have to admit the intrigue is there but at the end of the day the idea of playing a record is so cumbersome that I just don't see the actual appeal. Can you take a record with you in a car? The record companies do however record to records at the highest possible quality though, so there's that angle. It's still all from a digital source though so most of the appeal of records for me is pretty much gone, replaced by overly produced auto-tuned garbage. we'll never hear that authentic studio sound again because music has moved on and no longer masters recordings in analog.

Someone mentioned photos. Perhaps they have forgotten just how much a PITA it was to take pictures from film. I remember quite well hoping that the picture I took actually came out then having a bunch of used canisters of film lying around unprocessed because I was just too cheap or lazy to take them to the photo mat. Then to show them to people I had to take out this 5lb. album of blurry pictures for someone to flip through. Now I just take my phone out and show them the very best of the thousand or so I took on my vacation because I didn't have to worry about film and whether my picture would develop properly.

I have my photos in so many places now I no longer worry about losing them. The cloud has taken care of me in that respect. I still keep them on my HDD as well but it's really just out of nostalgia. I would worry far more about my HDD crashing than Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, or Amazon shuttering there doors.

Nostalgia is always rose-colored.

Edited by CakeBomb

I think a good future is one where you can buy a physical copy, even if it's directly from the developer/publisher or a special limited edition for those who care.

Another way to do it is having the option of burning a DVD with the game (which wouldn't be an issue with DRM-Free games anyway) and downloading all the artwork and cover so you can make your own physical boxed copy at home.

I for one am buying a lot of stuff on Humble Store where many games come DRM-free and Steam ready at the same time, and I plan to burn the DRM-free files on a DVD and backup to a hard drive if the worst happens (ie I lose my Steam account or Steam dies, becomes evil).

Posted by schizogony

lol physmed

Posted by DragonNinja789

Patrick, I love your thought process and the way you write these words.