Just recently Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water arrived in North America as a download-only game, making it a relatively high-profile retail title to be exclusive to the eShop. It's happened in the past with Ace Attorney titles, yet for fans of the niche horror series - developed by Koei Tecmo - this latest download release was a major disappointment. When you add in patents and loose talk of future consoles being purely driven by downloads and streaming, with no discs at all, you have a tricky topic for gamers and anyone with a passion for the medium.
The problem with Fatal Frame has arguably been crystallised by the Wii U's own limitations in terms of the pitiful storage included with the system. Sure, 32GB - or about 27GB that's actually available - will download quite a few first-party Nintendo games, but one meaty download (like the 15GB+ for Fatal Frame among others) and suddenly an external hard drive becomes mandatory. For many tech-savvy dedicated gamers that's normal - albeit a potentially unwelcome added cost - but for those a little less engaged in modern trends that could be a sudden headache. The realisation that an extra hard drive with a price (probably) of a full retail game isn't one that'll fill many hearts with joy.
Even accounting for the fact that many of its games are smaller sizes than on other current gen systems, 32GB doesn't go as far as 500GB on a PS4, for example, even with 30-40GB mandatory retail downloads off the disc on the latter. It was daft when Nintendo announced the hard drive sizes - the 8GB Basic model in particular - back in 2012, and it seems even dafter now.
That's not the core topic I want to tackle here - and I've marked this as an editorial as it's very much my own perspective rather than the site's - but rather the fact that the market (and particular segments of it) still like physical media a lot. That alone should limit fears of a download-only future, assuming Nintendo wouldn't be so bold - I doubt it will - with the NX.
We recently ran some polls on download retail games that weren't particularly surprising; in thousands of votes cast a good percentage (roughly half) were hesitant or even against a future revolving solely around downloads. It's tempting for some to point at those perspectives and make accusations of voters fearing progress, or being old-fashioned; I think it's wrong to make those claims.
I think what we're seeing in video games draws parallels to what's been happening in the book market for a few years. When eBooks began to gain rapidly in market share - largely driven by the original 'e-ink' Kindle and Amazon's extremely aggressive pricing - there was talk of a print apocalypse, with physical books doomed to irrelevance. Despite running a small eBook business for two years I never believed that, and was called naïve for insisting that the rapid digital growth would end and that eBooks and print would find their respective levels. There would be casualties for print as its market was reduced, naturally, but as a whole it would survive.
Print has declined, particularly in newspapers and magazines, but in terms of books it's showing signs of renewal. Just recently one of the UK's biggest book retailers dropped the Kindle, reporting that its print sales are actually starting to rise. After a period of trauma the print industry seems to be finding its feet; its market is smaller but it can now adjust and re-focus its efforts. Plenty are still spending a lot of money to read eBooks on phones and tablets - perhaps less so dedicated e-ink systems - yet good numbers also buy physical books.
I think that's a key lesson for the games industry to heed moving forward - not to try and destroy one distribution method to support the other, but to keep both in play. Some point to the billions of dollars made in iOS and Android gaming, as if that's proof of the prevalence of downloads. Well, that's apples and oranges, as smartphones are entirely virtual devices.
Though the Wii U has had a poor generation in sales, we should recognise the strong performance enjoyed by PS4 and Xbox One, and the fact that they still have healthy physical retail markets despite the fact the discs are actually largely redundant. Ultimately these systems install the game onto the hard drive anyway, and the disc is just there for the sake of appearances; yet that's the point - the market demands that physical media stay at the core of the dedicated gaming business. The discs may be meaningless, but it's the sentiment, packaging and options for selling and passing them on that adds value to the offering.
I think I'm an example of someone that typically dips toes in both sides. Games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf or Splatoon, titles I wanted but wasn't sure I'd love, I bought as downloads. Something like Mario Kart 8, though, and I had to have the disc. Special editions are also important - examples included the steelbook with The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D that I just had to have, and the Super Mario Maker bundle with the amiibo and gorgeous hardback book. Superficial those desires may be, but they're desires nevertheless - it's human nature to desire nice objects and preserve them, and I don't think that can be trained out of millions of gamers just because it might be convenient for platform holders and publishers.
I also believe that paying attention to physical media can foster loyalty and respect from consumers. Nintendo's rather good at this with its special editions, and I was struck by a copy of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that I picked up in my local game store; sometimes its nice to help pay someone's salary in a shop. It wasn't a special edition, but I opened it up and there was a story booklet, a lovely map and some stickers. The story booklet was charming (and helped as it's my first game in the series) and the map was a fantastic touch. The publisher didn't need to include these as standard, but it impressed me right from the off; my relationship with the game was off to the best possible start.
Little touches like this can be a key part in the future of physical retail. Downloads will always offer convenience and accessibility, yet buying the disc with nice (and cheap to produce) extras gives them their own appeal. This by extension helps keep game stores in business through trade-ins and customers through the door; trading in downloads isn't an option on consoles, remember.
At the moment the games industry is still in a weird place with its balance of download and physical retail business. Download stores are often pricey as publishers aim to keep retailers sweet, and a lot of physical media annoyingly lacks the courtesy of a decent manual. I can see a future where console manufacturers and bricks-and-mortar stores get real and sell downloads for a definitive $5 less than the physical media, with the disc copies having more incidental extras (like posters, manuals) to sweeten the deal. Quite how soon that'll happen - if at all - is tricky to guess.
Ultimately, though, I'd like to see the debate about downloads vs. physical media move on from choosing one over the other. There are still billions of dollars being made in game stores selling both discs and - yes - download cards, and likewise with online retailers selling boxes. There are plenty of gamers that want physical media for reasons of nostalgia, convenience - such as trade-ins and swapping with friends - or because they don't read a load of gaming press to keep up with all the ins and outs of the industry. Some just want to buy the latest Call of Duty, boxed, in a shop, like they do every year.
So the debate should be how to make the most of both worlds. How downloads can be incentivised for convenience - such as cross-play, plus Nintendo does some decent promotions - and how physical retail can improve. Nintendo, for its part, needs to make sure that NX is in all the major retail outlets and make a success out of it to stay there. If you ditch the high street, you're giving up a huge market.
Ultimately, the conversation needs to stay respectful of both sides. Those who are download fans need to understand why Fatal Frame fans in North America that prefer a disc are upset, and likewise those with a love of boxes and special editions also need to accept the reasoning of those happy to load up a hard drive with files. It's difficult in a world where 'console wars' can be a thing, but seeing the other side helps.
We might as well get along. Downloads aren't going anywhere, and neither are discs.