Feature: The Desire for Physical Media

Digital isn’t always enough

Yesterday we reported that there’s a new SNES title on the way in 2013. That title is Nightmare Busters from developer Super Fighter Team, a run and gun action game with a planned pre-order run of 600 copies. The concept of developing for a console that's now four generations out of date is unconventional but not unprecedented — back in 2010 we explored the continuing trend of current-day game development for NES in our feature Homebrew Is Where the Heart Is. There are still indie developers creating new titles and selling them as bona-fide NES cartridges, as opposed to simply releasing them to the digital winds.

The upcoming SNES title, meanwhile, clearly targets gamers with retro collecting sensibilities. At what can certainly be considered a premium price of $68 for U.S. customers, the physical contents of a purchase are clearly as important as the game itself:

One (1) copy of Nightmare Busters for the Super Nintendo; a game cartridge with full colour label, which supports both PAL and NTSC based systems.
One (1) full colour instruction manual.
One (1) full colour cardstock box to house the game cartridge and instruction manual.

An emphasis on a label, manual and box with a cartridge may seem obscure to some current gamers, but it reflects the meaning of a video game as a physical object in previous console generations. Before the current batch of consoles, games almost always came in boxes, including a paper manual and the treasured cartridge, CD or DVD. For some collectors, or just gamers keen to retain their games from past times, these tactile objects represent nostalgia in its purest form.

Nintendo gamers can still indulge in this traditional quest for stylish boxes, collectable CDs and peripherals. Two of the most obvious examples are Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s Wii Remote Plus bundle. The actual game in the former was flawed in execution, arguably a lazy port, yet the edition included an illustrated booklet and soundtrack CD, so some Mario aficionados undoubtedly cast aside doubts about the true value of the package and put in pre-orders. These were bundled Mario titles that had been released in multiple forms, yet the attraction to buy these games all over again was intrinsically linked, for some, with the extra content that didn’t actually go anywhere near a Wii. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, meanwhile, came with a soundtrack CD across the board, but there will have been a number of gamers who paid extra for an attractive box and a gold Wii Remote Plus.

Extras such as these add little, if anything, to the actual experience of the game. The appetite and market clearly exists, however, otherwise limited editions of this nature wouldn’t see regular release across all platforms. Titles that perhaps represent part of the Wii’s final hurrah, The Last Story and the soon to be released Pandora’s Tower, both have limited edition bundles that include features such as steel cases and the obligatory illustrated booklets and soundtrack CDs: some games clearly deserve more than a basic box and black and white manual.

As always, times change and the gaming industry progresses and evolves. As a new handheld generation gains momentum, and with next-gen home consoles also on the horizon, some feel the prominence of video game pack-in paraphernalia is slowly eroding. Nintendo’s 3DS has started the trend for the company, with Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 being pertinent examples where instruction manuals have been replaced by minimalistic fold-out sheets: full instruction manuals are available on the game cart itself, following the same format as eShop software. Although it could be argued that this is an effort to save the environment, both of these titles still include plenty of paper in the form of warranty and advertising booklets.

The principal rival to 3DS, Sony’s PlayStation Vita, has in some games abandoned printed manuals entirely. Some retail boxes have no paper at all inside, or perhaps just one sheet of technical information, a sad sight for gamers with a tradition of thumbing through the manual before firing up their new prize. In fact, our Push Square team listed the lack of paper manuals as a negative before Vita even launched, an important part of gaming practice lost.

The greatest threat to traditional video game packaging is, of course, digital gaming — it’s already possible to download entire retail games on a number of platforms, with Nintendo currently bucking the trend. That's likely to change in the future, however, with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata stating that Nintendo is considering retail downloads on 3DS and Wii U. His comments suggest that it’s not a case of if it will happen, but when.

For the digital sales of the content, we are also considering the future possibility of digital distribution of packaged software, which is often referred to as “software download sales.” This concept was built into the design of the Nintendo 3DS, and we already have the necessary infrastructure. We will prepare the same infrastructure for the Wii U … as an option for the future, the significance of this business field will increase.

As our video games become digital, we’ll own little more than a licence to access software on a hard drive, or perhaps even via an online cloud service. If there’s no physical media, do you actually ‘own’ the game in any way? What happens if a cyber-attack wipes out your console’s servers or hard drive, the company hosting your game goes out of business, or if copyright issues arise and a game is changed or — in the worst case scenario — removed? If you’ve bought a digital copy, then you have little hope of keeping that original title in your collection if something goes wrong behind the scenes, nor do you have any tangible object to go back to in future years.

Trends will progress and issues about digital products will become more relevant with each passing day. For those of us who treasure our cartridges, CDs, boxes and manuals, we may need to look backwards into previous gaming eras to get our collector’s fix.

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