Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Full Steam Ahead: How Digital Will Kill the Disc

Robert Rath | 18 Jul 2013 12:00
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This week was the first time I paid serious attention to a Steam Sale. I'm an analog guy. Let me choose my poison and I'll buy discs not downloads, paper books instead of PDFs. For an absurdly long time, I still bought CDs and DVDs rather than switching to iTunes and Netflix. I clung to the hard copy because I could sell and lend it. Having a game disc made me feel like I'd bought something tangible, not just the digital rights to consume a piece of media. I liked game stores - yes, even GameStop - because I could browse the shelves at my leisure and talk to the employees about what they've liked recently. Steam sales passed me by without notice.

That's changed. I've transformed from a store-and-disc man to a frothing, banner-wielding digital revolutionary ready to tear down the system. And my sudden radicalization was for a completely unexpected reason: floorspace.

I've always felt digital game downloads were the future, but to me that horizon was several miles distant. We'd need better internet infrastructure and release management, I reasoned - imagine the server snarls from everyone downloading the new Call of Duty at the same time. Consumers would also need some sort of price incentive to walk away from the return on investment they get from game trades and resale. Console manufacturers would need to put their shoulders behind phasing out discs; all the while placating the demographic that enjoys Collector's Editions. That's all still true, but recent events in my own life have made me understand what's really going to drive the change is urbanization and our shrinking dwellings, not to mention web-connected toddlers.

When my wife accepted a job in Hong Kong, we suddenly found ourselves facing the reality of living in a world city. Sure, a young couple can't exactly afford a mansion in Austin, Texas, but moving into one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world - without blowing our housing stipend - meant sizing down to about half the square footage we're used to. I tried to think of it like cropping a photo, figuring out what most important and shearing off the rest. We winnowed down everything we planned to ship to about 120 cubic feet. Purged every book that wasn't work-related or written by a friend and bought Kindles instead. Then, of course, there were the games.

My games and DVDs amounted to about three medium-sized boxes. They'd have cost somewhere around $90 to ship, and on arrival, shelving them would've taken up valuable floor space. Realizing that the majority of the bulk was from material that weren't the games themselves, I ditched the cases and rehoused the whole collection in a CD folder. I hated to do it. The act went against my usual aesthetic sense. There's a satisfaction that comes from seeing your collection all lined up on a shelf. A certain romance to selecting a title from your game library, looking at the box art and hearing the little pop as you open the case. But what's more important, I reasoned, looking at a game, or playing it? The answer is playing it. A box is just a box - it's what's inside that counts. And in a rental market that charges $7 per square foot you have to weigh the costs of all those pretty boxes, since bookshelf with a 6" x 24" base will run you $84 a year in rent.

I couldn't help but think that if I'd downloaded all these games, storage space and shipping would cost me $0.

I'll be the first to admit that my case is a little extreme, but it's also more common than you might think. People living in small spaces, from New York apartments to dorm rooms to bunks on aircraft carriers, already embrace the CD case method as a way to keep down their clutter. Eventually, when the infrastructure allows it, these people will likely switch to digital as a storage solution. And they won't be the only ones. Demographically we're likely to start living in smaller and smaller spaces, necessitating compact media storage that travels with us.

In 1927, when my grandmother was a little girl, the world population was two billion. Today, it's seven billion. I'm only twenty-nine, and the population has already jumped two billion in my lifetime. Most projections suggest that there will be eight billion of us by 2030 and nine, or even ten billion by 2050. Now we're talking long-term population trends here, not something that'll necessarily come into play with next generation consoles, but the fact is housing will increasingly become a premium and dwelling spaces in cities will likely shrink. We're already seeing this in some real estate markets that are desirable because of job opportunities or quality of life. My own recently departed home of Austin, Texas grew by 51.1% between 2000 and 2010. That created a crazy rental market - higher prices, smaller units, 98% occupancy. That's the story in many cities, and we're not even discussing a truly insane market like Manhattan, where people will charge $300 for a breakfast nook with a bed in it.

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