We are less than two weeks away from the arrival of the PS4 and next-gen gaming. Next-gen will usher in a new era featuring souped up graphics, new IPs, and renewed flame wars about which console is better. One thing remains up in the air though: will this generation finally bring about the digital revolution in gaming?
I firmly believe that gaming distribution will eventually become fully digital, as will all media. The benefits to a digital game library are numerous, and far too convenient to not become standard across the board. Convenience is really the biggest advantage of going all digital. You don’t have to deal with going to the store and hunting down an annoying salesman so they can unlock the glass case that hides all the games. You don’t have to worry about a game being sold out on opening day. It’s a simple as booting up your console and pressing “Download.” Similarly, you don’t have to deal with the issues that arise from owning physical copies of games. Shelf space isn’t an issue when your games are all on your console. You also don’t have to worry about losing games or getting scratches all over a digital copy. Digital media means having everything under one device, easily accessible whenever you need it.
If digital gaming is this simple, why is there any doubt that the gamers would go full digital for next-gen? There are still quite a few hiccups in the system. Ironically, storage is one of the most prominent issues. While shelf space isn’t a concern with a digital library, hard drive space most certainly is. This is also concerning with the recent announcement that the PS4 won’t support external hard drives. That means unless you swap out the hard drive, you’re stuck with the 500GB one the PS4 comes with. And with Killzone: Shadow Fall clocking in at 50GB, that hard drive space is going to fill up fast. That’s only going to be 10 games total, and that’s not including DLC for said games, or any smaller indie games you might be interested in picking up. This space issue eliminates the greatest strengths of a digital library: consolidation and convenience. And if it’s biggest strength is rendered moot, why even bother with it?
Of course, that isn’t the only obstacle standing in the way of a full digital revolution. Many gamers are still clinging to their vast collections, and enjoy being able to look at a wall full of the games they own. Also, companies have increasingly been relying on releasing special collector’s editions of games, packed with exclusive collectibles such as statues and artbooks to further entice consumers into buying physical copies of games. While I can’t deny that there is a distinct sense of satisfaction at looking at the collections you have amassed, or the pleasure you get ouf of some of those cool collectibles, I don’t think it’s the real reason gamers are resistant to going digital. People are resistant to change, and gamers are no different.
Finally, there is the problem of bandwidth and download speeds. While most of the US has wireless and broadband connections in their homes, not everyone does. This issue was infamously brought to the forefront when it was announced that the Xbox One would require the console to connect online once every 24 hours. Microsoft backtracked on this policy, realizing it will cut off certain consumers, and it’s an issue for retail becoming fully digital as well. It can’t work if everyone doesn’t have access to it. Even for those that do have internet connections, not all of them are fast enough to download large game files. It took me a full day to download inFamous 2, and that was only about 8GBs. I can’t imagine how long it would take to download a 50GB game like Killzone. Sony is advertising that you can play the game once a certain amount has been downloaded, but we won’t know how effective that is until it’s put into practice. Questions like, “how much of the game do I need to download?” and, “how much of the game will I be able to play?” remain unanswered.
Digital is clearly our future. I’ve switched to digital for both my 3DS and Vita. Digital distribution and handhelds makes sense, though. You can easily upgrade an SD card to fit all of your games, and the games are of a reasonable size. Consoles still need to fix the issues with memory. With games being of such a large file size, optional storage options, such as external hard drives ,are going to be a must if digital is going to fully catch on.