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With the next generation of consoles, digital buying looks better than ever

I am generally someone who appreciates physical media. I collect vinyl records, buy printed books and enjoy watching 4K Blu-ray movies. But for a variety of reasons, I switched entirely to buying digital games on each platform as the option became available. Now that Sony and Microsoft have fully revealed their next-generation consoles, many more people may choose to do the same.

To recap, yesterday Sony announced the pricing for its upcoming PlayStation 5, both the regular model and the discless digital edition. The standard PS5 costs $ 499.99 and the otherwise identical digital edition costs $ 399.99, saving you a full $ 1

00 if you swear by physical games forever.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has gone even further to incentivize digital game purchases and Game Pass subscriptions. The X series will go head to head with the standard PS5, with both consoles offering disk drives and 4K output for $ 499. The S series will play at lower resolutions and does not have a disk drive, but is much smaller and has a Incredibly low price of $ 299.

The message is clear: physical games are now an optional high-end part of the console gaming experience. A lust. And both Sony and Microsoft are willing to subsidize the move to digital. The disc drive alone may not explain the $ 100 price delta between both PS5 variants, for example, but Sony wants to be your sole reseller and expects to recoup the money via digital edition customers who they buy the games directly. Microsoft, meanwhile, is definitely selling the S Series at a price well below cost, but it will benefit from increased Game Pass revenue and digital game sales.

Xbox Series S (left) and Series X.
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

If you feel strongly attached to physical games, that’s not good news. People living in areas with poor broadband service or data limits face the prospect of paying for a more expensive console, as do gamers who often offset the cost of an expensive hobby by buying and selling used games. That market is also likely to be significantly reduced as more people switch to digital-only consoles, which doesn’t bode well for retailers like GameStop, although they do have the ability to be more flexible on pricing than platform owners. Digital games are often more expensive than their retail equivalents when they’re not on sale, but you should expect next-gen games to be expensive wherever you buy them for the foreseeable future.

Despite the potential problems, this change seemed inevitable for a long time. With PS4 and Xbox One, games don’t even run off the discs they were printed on – you have to fully install them on the hard drives of consoles because Blu-ray access speeds are much slower. This removed a key advantage of physical play on consoles like the Xbox 360, where storage was a boon for many users. Even before that, moving the PS3 to Blu-ray discs often meant mandatory partial installs to reduce loading times. When was it really controversial Devil May Cry 4 forced you to install 5GB of data on your hard drive, believe it or not.

As that generation developed and larger hard drives became more common, Sony and Microsoft began to push full game downloads as an alternative to traditional retail. Sony had already started making PSP games available digitally as standard with the 2009 PSP Go, a smaller digital-only PSP with a sliding design and a higher price point than the regular model. In the same year, Microsoft announced its Xbox Games on Demand service, which marked the first time it was possible to download full retail Xbox 360 games, although only older titles were initially available. Sony then launched a program in 2012 called PSN Day 1 Digital, in which new games arrived on the PlayStation Store on a day and date basis.

The PSP Go digital only.

When PS4 and Xbox One came out, both companies sold all new games both digitally and retail. Microsoft has also sought to make digital ownership a core component of its platform, with the ability to share and resell downloaded games at the expense of offline play and support for used games. Of course, the company eventually reversed course after a huge backlash. But we finally saw a discless Xbox One S hit the market last year, and I wonder how Microsoft’s original vision for Xbox One would have been received today.

Maybe not much better: Physical games won’t go away completely, of course. But things are moving in that direction. Nintendo also announced yesterday that more than 50 percent of its Switch game sales were digital in the first half of this year, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The figure was 74% in the April-June quarter for Sony, which was already 53% a year ago. Those numbers will decline as customers return to brick-and-mortar stores, but once people get used to digital games, they may be more willing to accept the experience.

The main advantage of digital from the user’s point of view is convenience. You don’t have to waste time ejecting and inserting discs. Your games don’t take up shelf space, and they don’t take up hard drive space these days. You can shop in stores across multiple regions, and everything appears in the same bookstore. Once you get used to it, dealing with spinning records seems archaic.

Some people will still want physical games for the chance to sell them or for the opposite reason: to keep a tangible collection. Retention isn’t as important as it once was in this era of live servers and day one patches – many PS4 discs will be pretty useless for decades to come. That doesn’t mean there’s no call for a collection to be created, however, and companies like Limited Run Games play this market with special edition physical releases for titles that wouldn’t otherwise get one.

But this is really a niche: video game vinyl, if you will. (And yes, Limited Run also sells video game vinyls.) What has changed is that both Sony and Microsoft are betting that there are now enough people available to stop buying physical games altogether. Both companies are also making sure their digital-only shoppers feel like they’ve already created a collection from the start. There is Xbox Game Pass, of course, which does a great job of integrating into your library, and Sony has just announced a PlayStation Plus collection for PS5 featuring many of the best PS4 titles.

Buying digital is worth it if you value the experience, and it’s also in Microsoft and Sony’s interest that you do. This makes a product like the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition an obvious plus for people who are already used to digital – a better experience at a lower price. (And a more attractive design.) The key question is how many people buying physical products today will be willing to make the next generation trade-off.

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