People are always divided on whether physical things are better than digital, and the divide has grown more in favour of digital in recent years when it comes to video games.  But is digital really better?  Or has the lack of physical copies, especially in the PC market, forced us to think differently?

It’s no secret that I love to play video games.  My first console was a Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis to those in North America), and I have considered and called myself a gamer ever since.  For years the only type of games you could get were physical cartridges and later discs.  The online world wasn’t as big as it is now and many people never played games online or could only connect on certain specially made for online play, games.  Playing an offline single player game was common and nobody had any problems buying physical copies and looking after their games.  But over the last couple of decades a slow shift has happened, and in the last few years physical games are no longer as popular as digital ones.

The digital takeover

With new technologies and better internet connection worldwide than ever before, people are buying more games online.  This trend has been most felt in the PC market.  Physical stores such as STEAM have greatly increased this rise with many owning hundreds even thousands of games on the platform, more than they would ever own physically.  As STEAM grew however it led to the decline of physical games, not only because of the popularity and ease of online buying and gaming, but they began to force people away from the physical market, by getting rid of the opportunity to buy physical games.

Gamers had to start connecting their PCs to the internet, just to play any physical game they bought.  It wasn’t just STEAM who were doing this, but they definitely led the trend.  More and more games and game franchises, previously available on discs to install offline, needed online activation.  Gamers had to agree to go through the online platforms agreeing to their terms and conditions, just to play their games.  And any gamer who didn’t have a decent internet connection was essentially given the middle finger.  Adapt to this new way of PC gaming or don’t play.

PC versus console

Many games that appeared on PC would also make it to console, where people like me would buy.  I didn’t always have a decent internet connection and still don’t, but I refused to buy through the online platforms for my own reasons.  It seemed strange.  The same games found on PC which needed to be activated online, were on console and these were exempt from being checked and ‘verified’.  It seemed that only a PC gamer could commit fraud and only PC gamers were considered pirates.

With the latest console generation there has already been a divide though, with XBox One users requiring an online connection just to play their games.  I don’t know if there’s any ‘verification’ that goes on there (I’ve never been an XBox owner), but it seems another platform has ceased to be available for truly offline gamers.  And although they are few, there are people who still play games offline for many reasons, and usually they can’t afford or don’t have the connection they need to be online to play their games.

The truth about physical

Most people now list a collection of reasons for why physical games are bad.  The usual arguments are that physical games break while digital ones don’t.  It’s true, physical discs can be damaged with time, as could cartridges if you don’t take care of them.  My beloved Sims 2 last expansion disc, the disc I use to play the game in my PC got scratched and a break happened in the centre of the plastic, torn far enough into the centre of the physical plastic ring to affect the data layer of the disc.  But the truth about that disc is that it was my own fault it got damaged.  Because I used to stack discs on top of my PC without their covers, and the disc got bent once when I accidentally shut the drive with only half the disc inserted 😮  Most physical damage is caused by people and their own mistakes on where to store discs or how.  The solution: to buy another disc, which these days isn’t difficult or expensive either, or just take basic care of your games – i.e. return then to their covers!

Another problem of physical games is that you have to change the discs around to play your games.  People like to make it sound like a terribly difficult task that takes a long time, but the truth is that a mere 2-3 seconds of swapping discs with one hand is all that’s needed to play a new game.  But of course this is seen as a negative these days, as if the whole act of swapping discs is painful and damaging to the mind and body. There’s only one negative that is an understandable one to me, that of the space that physical copies take.  For some space is important and to have a large collection of games can hamper storage space.  But there are things you can do also, store games out of their big boxes and held together on special storage spindles for multiple discs.  Similar solutions lie for cartridges too.  And besides digital discs need space too, although it’s a different kind.

Physical copies have faults.  And it’s true they are not perfect.  But their faults are not big and they have advantages too.

The truth about digital

Digital games are heralded as perfect by so many, but they have their pitfalls too.  You have no box art or anything that feels real that you can touch.  For some this is not a problem, but for others there is nothing better than the feel and look of that beautiful box art and the anticipation you get from just looking at the pictures.  To not feel your own games is not an issue for so many, but to others owning something is being able to see it and touch it.  For me I get a lot of thrill from just looking at the box art, in the instructions and the excitement and anticipatiion of playing a game.

Another issue is simply the cost of buying a physical copy compared to digital.  The cost of digital games is controlled by platforms like STEAM, while physical copies can sometimes go for peanuts when there’s a clearance at a games store.  My own experience of this is finding Neverwinter nights for just 99p, yet it’s become a game I’m obsessed about and have spent hours (probably months of my life) playing, and it’s the best 99p I ever spent!  With digital copies costing around the same as physical used to, are digital buyers now paying more for their games?  After all the packaging and cost of producing a physical game would make it less cost effective than digital to the games companies, and yet these days people are just buying some code to download and paying practically the same price.

Owning many new and indie games is one of the biggest reasons why digital is seen as good.  Nobody would ever commit real money to buy a small game by an unknown company (well, at least not that many people would have in the past), but a purchase through a digital store makes it possible to do.  This is one of the true advantages over physical games and I have no argument against it.  But on the other hand, buying physical makes you careful with your money.  It makes you think about what you are buying and makes you part with your money on only the things that you truly want to get.  But having a digital store makes it easy to buy anything, and sometimes it can lead to libraries full of games you’ll never play, or worse, a library full of terrible games that should never have been made.

Digital games cannot be sold and in many cases can’t be traded either (depending on the platform you use), something which the companies running digital stores know only too well.  Gone are the days of selling an old game you were done with, didn’t like or made a genuine mistake in buying (maybe you bought the wrong version).  But if you buy digital there is no real refund.  Refunds might seem to be there, but you can only make them under certain conditions (remember those terms & conditions you had to agree to) and you can’t always share your games with everyone.  But physical copies of games can be resold for ever.  And reinstalled forever too.  My original Sims game has been reinstalled at least six times now, not because it’s broke but because I wanted to move it to new hardware, and then changed my mind, and then changed it back!  I could reinstall it forever, and on many different computers, as long as I have the PC hardware to do it.

Digital stores have a shelf life.  It’s news no-one wants to hear but it’s true.  Although people want to believe that games will exist forever online, technology of the past proves that it isn’t true.  STEAM may be loved now, but it takes just one person in the company’s future to take all the access away.  It takes one bug, one internet crash, one hacker to take all those games away from you.  Games can’t be reinstalled forever or even played forever if they are online (and in some cases those online servers have shut down forever rendering those games unplayable), especially if you lose access to your own account.  Digital games have their advantages but their disadvantages are many too.

Which is better?

My post I’m sure reflects my own views on digital and physical games and why I prefer the latter.  I’ve always been an offline gamer and want to be able to play games forever and own those copies I can feel and see too.  Sure I don’t own technically a copy of the game (read any EULA) but rather a licence to play it…But as long as the physical cartridges or discs are working, I can play that game until I’m very old (and yes I’d keep a retro PC well into my nineties, just for the sake of it) 😛

Having said all this I do like digital too.  I can see the advantages and have many digital games on my phone.  And I do see the merits of the digital world and why so many are now keen on it.  But I don’t like the idea of one of these being taken away in favour of the other.  Digital music, films and books exist, but their physical copies are still available offline too.  So why are games, and I’m especially speaking of PC games, so very different?  Why can’t we have the best of both worlds: Digital and physical PC games, and why can’t we be the ones to choose how we want to buy and play them?

-I have more topics like this one I’d like to share and I wish I’d unpacked my games to show you their physical beauty 😉  but for now let me know what side of the fence you sit on in this debate?

Do you prefer digital or physical games?  Are you a gamer and if so are you of the older generation or new?  Does that affect how you feel about games?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂