There’s been an undeniable shift in buying habits this last decade. Digital sales have risen significantly across different platforms as online gaming takes greater precedence, whether that’s a simple purchase, streaming or a subscription-based approach. Consoles have moved towards an online-based future and for some, discs and game cards are a thing of the past. For many players though, physical media is far from finished and it continues to hold a place in their personal collections.
Consoles have moved towards an online-based future and for some, discs and game cards are a thing of the past. For many players though, physical media is far from finished and it continues to hold a place in their personal collections
To understand the current situation, it’s important to know why that shift happened and like most technological advances, that comes down to convenience. By offering players near-instant access to games upon payment and preloading for upcoming games, no longer are we waiting on deliveries or finding our local retailer has sold out. You don’t even need to leave the sofa, and that alone is hard to argue against. It’s far from exclusive to gaming as both the music and film industries have seen similar shifts too, many preferring platforms like iTunes, Spotify or Netflix to CDs and Blu-Ray discs (the future of the latter is looking increasingly fragile as Disney has just announced it is ceasing production of 4K discs for its back catalogue releases).
There’s also a lower risk for developers going digital and these online platforms make publishing more accessible, though some still struggle with visibility. Many indie games are quite niche and traditionally, these developers would struggle to justify production costs to big publishers. Money talks, and you’d have much better odds pitching first-person shooters to the average punter than you would visual novels. Some fans will withhold buying in hopes of a physical copy, however, which isn’t always guaranteed. With no standard cross-buy between physical and digital – like modern vinyl, for example – asking people to double-dip isn’t fair either, though dedicated fans often show support on both sides.
Digital comes with its own problems though, and a lot of that ties into the concept of ownership. Most digital platforms sell you a game’s licence only, and if that gets revoked, there’s little recourse. Speaking to Josh Fairhurst, owner of Limited Run Games, he described this problem, telling us how physical copies ensure you can return to your game over time, but digital buyers need to be aware that “when the servers for these new platforms inevitably go down in a few decades, that person will lose access to those games unless they've been backed up or still remain on their hard drive”.
Jeff Smith, CEO at Special Reserve Games, was also happy to discuss this point. Calling it a “what happens when the electricity goes out” type of scenario, he explained: “If you don't have a physical backup of something, it can easily be erased”. It all ties into the risk of delisting, a practice only possible within a digital-exclusive environment. Games can be removed from sale at any point, leaving no legitimate means of purchase available and has claimed some higher profile casualties before, like PT, Minecraft: Story Mode and DriveClub.
It's all too easy and legal for a publisher to decide to pull a game for licensing issues or to just outright pretend a game they don't want to support doesn't exist anymore
Delisting isn’t necessarily permanent. Sometimes that comes down to a change in publisher, as we’re currently seeing with Danganronpa. Other times there’s a new version of a game, replacing the previous one. Nintendo has been seen to do this, Pikmin 3 being a fresh example and, for a brief time, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s Wii U edition also disappeared. Often though, these games are gone permanently, forcing you to rely on physical copies for access, if one even exists.
Licencing issues are one of the biggest causes here. One collector, who wished to remain anonymous (we’ll call him Jay), cited games like Scott Pilgrim and Marvel vs Capcom as key examples and advised: “It's all too easy and legal for a publisher to decide to pull a game for licensing issues or to just outright pretend a game they don't want to support doesn't exist anymore”. Ducktales: Remastered was another prominent example too, having been removed last August due to licencing but unusually, saw a surprise re-appearance in March.
Jay dived into this further, also confirming they don’t wish to rely on an internet connection to access their library. Steam recently suffered a glitch that removed access to people’s purchases temporarily and whilst quickly fixed, highlighted his concerns quite well. This also touched upon wider resistance to DRM practices too within gaming. Let’s not forget Microsoft tried to restrict reselling on Xbox One games and require a permanent internet connection; opposition to this later forced them into one of gaming’s biggest u-turns before the One’s launch.
Physicality also allows for preservation, and from Jeff Smith’s perspective, a lot of his reasons go beyond just archiving the finished product. Explaining how he began work as a developer in the mid-'90s, he explained how he wishes to “preserve the art from these great independent digital games, in a physical form", clarifying this further by stating “not only do I like to showcase the art from the game but also concepts that show more about the development studios intentions during the creation of the game”. A lot of it comes down to documentation for him and physical copies highlight the artistic value beyond digital downloads.
For us, games aren't a disposable, fleeting experience; they're lasting experiences and you should be able to return to that whenever you want. If you pay for a game, it should be yours forever, no ifs and or buts
Ryan Brown, head of PR and Communications at Super Rare Games, also touched upon preservation as a driving force in their operations, telling us: “If you look back at a game in, say, 20 years from now, it's important to us and others that you'll easily be able to just pick up that game and play it. For us, games aren't a disposable, fleeting experience; they're lasting experiences and you should be able to return to that whenever you want. If you pay for a game, it should be yours forever, no ifs and or buts.”
Jay also brought up preservation separately, stating: “I don't feel comfortable putting access to my games in the hands of others, especially with how low-priority game preservation has historically been in the industry.” Games preservation is an issue rarely touched in wider gaming as, unlike the film industry, little is done outside internal efforts. Recent leaks have shown Nintendo’s own dedication to keeping development builds but not everyone follows this and, last year, Square-Enix notably admitted they had lost Final Fantasy VIII’s source code.
I also spoke with Jack Sanderson, PR & Event Manager for Coatsink, but unlike the others, this was in a more personal capacity. Jack owns over 200 Wii U titles and tapped into a different part of the appeal, collectability. His own story begins years ago whilst working at GAME, telling us: “I’ve collected gaming-related stuff on and off for years, but the Wii U and Amiibo stuck with me. Soon enough, I realised I was too deep down the rabbit hole”. He also explained a sense of community within collector groups, banding together with fellow enthusiasts for rare titles and how this also led to new friendships.
Jack Sanderson has 300 games in total roughly, though he added that: “my physical copy collecting has stopped dramatically once completing his WiiU collection, now I have finished my Wii U goal I only really buy games I want to own and play”. Jay has lost count of his physical library after 400. Whether that’s down to completionism or a passion, there’s a sense of pride in owning full collections and within gaming, that often focuses on a particular console’s library.
With our publishers, their individual passions for collecting was clear and you can see how they ended up in this business. Josh proudly owns complete game collections for Dreamcast, Saturn, Sega CD, Sega 32X, PS Vita and Neo Geo Pocket Color. With Ryan Brown, his efforts are more Switch-focused, but he’s also built up a good library across most PlayStation consoles (PS3 excluded), alongside boxed copies of Game Boy, PC and DOS Games.
Jeff Smith confirmed he was previously big on PC Game collecting but like Jack Sanderson, his game-related collecting has declined in recent years, informing us: “I have found I don't want to collect as much game-related greatness over the past few years so I can keep my designs and ideas clean from influence of trying to match what else is being produced for other games”. His focus remains elsewhere for now, primarily on figurines and items he has found whilst travelling.
Physical copies hold more benefits beyond ownership and whilst many countries face uncertain economic times due to COVID-19, competitive pricing is more important than ever when people’s wallets are understandably stretched. Digital stores offer little flexibility as a main provider, issuing a set price unless they hold a sale, so big releases like Super Smash Bros Ultimate can remain as high as £59.99 for years after their launch. Third-party sellers had previously sold download codes, which offered some flexibility, but Nintendo recently scrapped this in Europe.
Physical releases allow for more competitive pricing between retailers, something we found with Paper Mario: The Origami King; we were able to locate it for £10 cheaper than via the eShop. With a physical game, you can resell it to reclaim those costs and that alone puts power back into the hands of consumers. Most digital stores don’t offer refunds without restrictions but with the eShop, Nintendo won’t allow it beyond some exceptional circumstances and was previously criticised for it.
Some people will likely say the obvious fix is just keeping our games in print for longer, but that doesn't necessarily work. The limited order window is a call-to-action so people buy the game now rather than waiting
Jay isn’t a fan of reselling, only having sold one game in his life but Jack Sanderson’s view differed, arguing upon finishing The Last Of Us: Part II, he will sell it for extra money if/when the currently rumoured PS5 version drops. Reselling has its own issues, though, and this particularly applies to limited physical releases, which has been previously criticised as liable to scalping. Limited Run Games have long abandoned hard limits on titles and instead use open pre-order windows, something that has helped fan frustrations.
Asking Josh Fairhurst about this, he replied that this isn’t a simple fix with the sale period, telling us: “Some people will likely say the obvious fix is just keeping our games in print for longer, but that doesn't necessarily work. The limited order window is a call-to-action so people buy the game now rather than waiting. This is important for us because it helps us hit the minimum order quantity for each title we publish and it also ensures people don't forget these releases exist until it is too late.”
Super Rare Games utilise a different approach, setting hard limits but keeping collectors in mind. Ryan Brown confirmed: “we actually look over the orders on our back-end and cancel any that go over our hard 2 game per person limit.” There’s a clear, genuine passion in Super Rare’s ethos to ensure collectors get fair treatment, further explaining how they’re continuously reassessing their unit numbers to meet demand. Jeff Smith has a different outlook on the matter here, believing that anything considered 'limited' gives a perception of higher value to collectors.
Taking all of this into consideration, limited print runs make more sense and, as mentioned before, production costs factor in, too. Switch fans have previously noticed that games are often more expensive than their multiplatform counterparts, leading to many dubbing this the “Switch Tax”. It doesn’t explain pricing differences digitally, but Josh Fairhurst confirmed that due to Switch’s use of a proprietary cartridge format, games are more costly to print.
Although new digital releases often cost as much as physical, despite the lower production costs, even if that weren't the case we reckon that permanence is definitely worth the cost
Ryan Brown pointed out this too, though, in regards to these costs, he informed us: “that's seriously balanced out by all the advantages that come with physical releases. Although new digital releases often cost as much as physical, despite the lower production costs, even if that weren't the case we reckon that permanence is definitely worth the cost.” Sure enough, these higher costs haven’t deterred buyers.
Going back to Limited Run Games, Fairhurst confirmed that when compared to other platforms a game is released on, “Switch games tend to sell at a rate of five to one”. Whilst Super Rare only release Switch titles, Special Reserve handles PS4 releases too and Jeff Smith replied that: “Switch is the king of physical these days”, outselling PS4 games, but outlined that there’s still a “vibrant PS4 collector community out there”.
Outside of direct costs, there’s a greater value proposition here too and many first-party Nintendo games often include physical pre-order bonuses. Looking at recent examples, Paper Mario came with a set of origami sheets, Luigi’s Mansion 3 had a keyring and poster and Animal Crossing: New Horizons had no end of different bonus items, depending on the retailer. It gave fans more and in trying to keep pricing competitive, usually remained cheaper than digital editions.
Sadly though, many physical releases from big publishers include little more than a case and cartridge/disc these days. Our publishers have noticed this and it’s quite common to see extras like full manuals, cards or reversible cover art included. Jack Sanderson explained there’s a nostalgic element of this too, telling us about memories of unwrapping freshly-sealed games and reading through their manuals. Nostalgia sells in gaming, as we’ve seen with sequels or remakes, and these elements cater to a different aspect of that feeling.
It’s a sentiment which Jeff Smith also touched upon, explaining his reasoning with Special Reserve releases is to “honour the games in a tangible way adding a physical connection between the game and the fan/collector/gamer. Anything I design is intended to augment the emotions and vibe from the game by taking great artistic content and adding textures, reflectiveness and in some cases, even smell”. He then explains how this helps set the mood upon opening the game box, comparing these physical copies to buying a nice frame for a painting and it backs up Sanderson's point of view.
Some players will instead opt to go physical if a special edition is present, offering exclusive content and physical merchandise you could not replicate digitally. They aren’t to everyone’s taste though and these don’t always match a library’s aesthetic either, with Jay arguing he’d rather buy such merchandise individually.
In the end, though, it all comes down to personal preference. There are benefits to digital media which cannot be ignored, and as digital sales continue climbing, companies are adapting. We’ve begun seeing digital-only console variants with the Xbox One and on PlayStation 5, Sony is following suit. Crucially though, each platform maintains a disc-based version and for now, Nintendo has shown no plans to copy those strategies. Even whilst overall demand has declined, dedicated supporters have kept physical media alive in 2020 and there is clearly still a long future ahead for it.
Are you a fellow collector of physical games? Do you prefer digital or perhaps a mix of the two? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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