Buying games have all of a sudden become complicated. It wasn’t long ago when the only way to buy a game was either going to a store or buying it online and having it shipped to you. Either way you went, you received a physical copy of the game. More and more these days, games are distributed digitally. Each of the three major console makers offer games to be downloaded to their respective system, forgoing the physical copy all together. The question I’m constantly grappling with is, which do a choose? Do I order or go out and buy a physical copy of the game? Or do I buy a digital copy?
Life isn’t simple anymore. Back in the day, and I suppose back in everyone’s day at one time or another, the only time I would get a video game was on my birthday and at Christmas. There was the very rare moment when I would save up enough money to buy one myself. Mostly, I relied on the kindness of my family to be the enablers of my habit. Now that I’m grown, and have a vast amount of disposable income (he says, sarcastically), I’m able to buy games at my discretion.
Growing up has presented a problem for me. As I’ve grown, I saved all the games that I have ever received or acquired. Before I began selling them off, I had nearly 800 games. After watching a couple of seasons of Hoarders, I started to realize that the physical isn’t as important anymore. That in essence, we shouldn’t “own” in a traditional sense, but rather use. This becomes a striking realization with gaming and was a shocking blow for those during the transition from the Nintendo to the Super Nintendo. The realization that our favorite games, the games that we slaved to get by mowing lawns or doing chores were not going to work on the new system. It all seemed like a huge waste and I remember my Mom thinking it stupid at the time.
This happened for another generation of hardware and the sting of not being able to play older games on the next-gen hardware dulled. We were used to it, we no longer expected it. Not until the launch of the PlayStation 2 were we introduced to backwards compatibility, although the Atari 7800 was backwards compatible with Atari 2600 games. However, by that time, with all the promises of NURBS and what-not the PS2 was capable of, the idea of playing a bunch of blocky games held little interest. Now with the current generation of hardware, we sort of expected it, if not hoped for it.
Backwards compatibility came in a limited form for the current generation of hardware. Initially the PS3 was able to play PS2 games because it had the Emotion Engine. In later models, Sony decided to cut the Emotion Engine out of the design to save money, and gave the excuse they wanted people to focus on buying PS3 titles and not PS2 titles. Microsoft, chose to emulate the original Xbox with software. This only allowed specific Xbox games to be played on the Xbox 360. This meant Microsoft chose which games would be allowed to play on their newest console. Nintendo did the world a solid with the Wii because it is fully backwards compatible with GameCube games.
You’re probably wondering why I’m yammering on about backwards compatibility. Well, that is the advantage of digital distribution. Since it can be downloaded, you can feasibly take it with you from generation to generation of console, even if the manufacturer decides to use something as crazy as crystal cubes as it’s medium. In addition, because there is no physical copy of the game, it doesn’t take up any physical space. For me, these are two huge advantages.
There is a big disadvantage, that is the power of retail. Retail, whether online or good ol’ brick and mortar have limited space available to store goods. There are only so many spaces on a shelf. They are constantly needing to cycle through inventory. This results in game discounts or clearances. You won’t find these kinds of discounts or clearance prices with games distributed digitally, because storage is never a problem. Take for instance Borderlands Game of the Year edition. On Amazon.com, the Borderlands GotY for Xbox 360 costs (as of this writing), $36.54. The GotY edition has all the expansion packs for the game currently available. On Xbox Live you can get Borderlands for, $19.99, but then you have the option to buy each of the four expansion packs separately at $10.00 each. In the end, the same game you can get on Amazon for $36.54 will cost you $59.99 on Xbox Live. That’s a $23.45 difference!
Owning physical copies of games is what we’re used to, and there is a sense of satisfaction when you can watch your game collection grow. It’s also a great feeling to put money down and get something you can hold in your hand; something tangible that you can place on your shelf. While a physical copy of a game may take up space, you don’t need to be connected to your console or the Internet in order to play or get information about it. You can take the case off the shelf, read the back and maybe check out some screenshots.
This type of physical ownership gives you the option to sell or trade games that you no longer play. This would pave the way for you to afford more games, or the newest console coming out. Digital downloads, don’t give you that freedom. Once you pay for it, you own it for life and there is nothing you can do to recoup any money. This poses an interesting dilemma when deciding on what to purchase. Knowing the limitations with digital downloads, it would cause me to rethink, or think really hard about whether or not I want to buy the game.
Owning physical copies of games is not without it’s disadvantages. I have already touched on them when describing the advantages of the digital download process. For me the biggest disadvantage is storing a physical copy of a game. After realizing that I was no longer owning games, but hoarding them, I saw how having physical copies of anything was drowning me. Before coming to this understanding, I never would have thought a digital copy would be a viable option. Now, looking at how much space is being taken up with games, owning physical copies seems to be less of a desire.
Another disadvantage is backwards compatibility. We are never guaranteed that discs are going to work with the next generation of hardware. Of course, we are never guaranteed that a digital copy of a game is going to work on next generation hardware too, but it seems more likely. There may come a time in the future where all consoles won’t have disc drives and any disc based game won’t work, but that is another post all together.
All of this is going through my head when I decide on buying a game. Unfortunately all this over-thinking often prevents me from buying games. Is it worth the potentially extra cost to not have to store a physical copy of a game and have a better chance of getting backwards compatibility in the future? Or is it better to own a physical copy of a game so that I could trade or sell the game in the future and possibly get them at a lower price? UGH, the pros and cons of each leave me stumped. Until I figure out what’s best, I’ll just rent and take what people give me.