Yesterday, Sony finally lifted the lid on its PlayStation 5 console, showing off not one but two different versions of the forthcoming system.
The base model has the traditional disc drive in place, but Sony is also releasing a cheaper digital-only variant which lacks any kind of optical media drive – something which Microsoft also did a while back with its Xbox One S All-Digital Edition.
While the big players aren't quite at the point of abandoning physical media just yet, Sony and Microsoft's actions hint a digital-only future where all of the games we consume are downloaded directly to our consoles, rather than delivered on game cards or discs.
In fact, a digital future isn't really a 'future' for many players in 2020 – it's the present. For those who are solely smartphone gamers, the concept of physical games will have been alien for the past decade. On PC, digital downloads are the norm, while on consoles, we're seeing digital stores like the eShop gain more and more custom as people turn to digital for convenience and the occasional mammoth sale.
A digital future isn't without its drawbacks, of course. Do don't 'own' the games you download – you only own the licence to play them, and this can be revoked at any point. Games can be de-listed from digital stores due to licensing agreements ending, legal problems or a publisher going bust, and every digital storefront has a finite lifespan – the Wii's was recently turned off, so purchases can no longer be made. That means games like The Castlevania Adventure ReBirth, Alien Crush Returns and Blaster Master: Overdrive are now lost to the mists of time – unless you were savvy enough to purchase them prior to the store being shuttered, of course.
A digital future is actually quite scary in many ways, as games no longer become a physical commodity that we can own and treasure. Going all-digital on a hardware level also means that players could potentially miss out on Switch titles that currently have no digital option, such as Nintendo's Labo range and Ring Fit Adventure. Even if you're a religious supporter of physical games in 2020, you often find that the game which ships on the card or disc is actually very different to the one you play due to ongoing software patches and new content being added (some Switch games, lest we forget, don't even fit on the game card you buy and require additional downloads for the full experience).
Having said all of that, removing physical media from the Switch would allow Nintendo to lower the price and make the system even more appealing than it already is to the mass-market, and that could prove to be of vital importance as the next-gen war kicks off later this year. Nintendo could release digital-only versions of both the base Switch and the Switch Lite, which would potentially ease the strain on production lines as fewer components would be involved in manufacturing the machines. It would also allow Nintendo to shave dollars off the cost of the Switch Lite, which would open up the console's potential market even further.
While Nintendo fans who love the idea of collecting physical games will no doubt be aghast at such a proposition, there are a large proportion of Switch owners who predominantly go digital when it comes to software; there's no denying that Switch game cards are quite small and easy to lose, and the notion of having to swap out your game on a portable console does seem rather old-fashioned – especially to a generation raised on playing games on smartphones and tablets. Critics of this approach will no doubt cite the ill-fated PSP Go as a sign that such an approach is doomed to fail, but that was a console released a decade ago in a very different environment to today.
While everyone is waiting for the long-rumoured Switch Pro to appear, could a digital-only variant be a more sensible step for Nintendo? Vote in the poll below and be sure to share your thoughts with a comment, too.