Critical Intel

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

Robert Rath | 18 Jul 2013 12:00
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People are willing to pay more for less space so they can be where the jobs are, and right now the jobs are in cities. According to the latest census, more than 80% of Americans now live in urban areas, meaning we're concentrating our population around city centers and with that increased density comes a decrease in home size. The trend toward smaller living space is especially strong among Millenials, who've settled for smaller apartments or living with family to tighten their belts after getting hit hard in the recession - a situation that will likely continue as they spend the next few decades paying down student debt. In other words, cities are getting more populous, housing more expensive, and floor space is where we cut costs. Suddenly, romantic notions about media libraries start to fall away and digital goods make a lot of sense.

Added to that, digital media is easy to transport, which is an important factor for our increasingly mobile workforce. Twenty years ago workers only changed cities if their company transferred them or they heard of an open position through connections, but with the advent of the internet, job seekers can look for openings across the country and may move twice or more every decade. This is particularly the case for younger workers who have yet to settle down and start families - the demographic that videogames target the most. Physical discs cost money and time to box up and move across state lines, while downloads ride as carry-on baggage. Things get even more tempting when you consider the ramifications for people that live and work globally. It's common these days for people to live abroad for part of their lives. Newly minted graduates head off to teach English in China. Software companies send their brightest to conduct training at a satellite office in Mumbai. Aircraft manufacturers send engineers to oversee component production in Italy or Korea. Some postings only last six months, others last years, but in both cases physical media is more trouble than it's worth. In addition to transportation costs, overseas workers struggle with region lock and localized versions - both problems that can, or could be, avoided by going digital. You can access your Steam account overseas, for instance, though you need a workaround to purchase anything from a foreign IP. Once that problem's solved, you can purchase games without worrying about whether they're compatible with your hardware. The service isn't really there for consoles yet - only this year did Xbox provide tools to easily migrate Live accounts to another country - but it's easy to imagine game companies embracing Amazon's model and letting people access their account from anywhere with minimal fuss. After all, it would be good for them too, since digital downloads may stem the temptation to pick up cheap foreign bootlegs.

However, the thing that makes the switch to digital almost inevitable is a generation of children raised on smartphones and tablet computers. These kids grew up reading Goodnight Moon on iPad, and their childhood gaming memories aren't going to be about Mario and Link, they'll be about the Angry Birds and Swampy from Where's My Water? Downloading games won't seem odd or different to them, since unlike us, digital ownership and physical ownership will be the same thing in their minds. They'll probably remember GameStop the way we remember Blockbuster and Tower Records - dinosaurs killed by new distribution. Microsoft is one of the companies that's preparing for that possibility in the near future, since the Xbox One was designed as a hybrid machine where you install games off the disc before playing them, which is likely a baby step toward wholly or partially phasing out discs over the next half a decade.

Things aren't going to change overnight. There are still significant hurdles to overcome with digital distribution of games, the largest being that most gamers still like the freedom to lend, trade and sell their discs. However, as consumers warm to the convenience of purchasing and storing digital media and console manufacturers decide to put their weight behind the idea - preferably with price incentives to sweeten the deal for late adopters, or smaller, cheaper downloadable titles like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger - digital sales both on PC and console will gain ground until they overtake the market. Eventually, discs will exist only in the realm of serious collectors, the vinyl of videogames.

So start cultivating your air of too-cool detachment, because you'll need it in a few years when you sniff, adjust your boxy glasses and say: "Halo 5? It plays better on disc."

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher who lives at the bottom of the Pacific, occasionally arising to ravage the coast. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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