Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, Kerry Brunskill explains why the current trend for expensive (and expansive) limited edition releases is overshadowing the games contained within...
Digital distribution has heralded a true revolution in gaming: there are so many great titles available today that wouldn't have even made it to market if they hadn't been able to sidestep traditional game publishers, a fact that's just as true for worldwide phenomena like Undertale, Minecraft, and Terraria as it is for beautiful indie experiences that simply don't easily fit within traditional marketing boxes.
Sure, it's easy to call Untitled Goose Game a roaring success now, but can you imagine trying to pitch the concept of "a slipper-stealing goose who can also honk into a radio and knock over bins" to someone who needs assurances this concept is going to be popular enough to justify sending off an order for tens of thousands of physical units? These games – and so many more – simply wouldn't be here at all if there weren't eShops to sell them on.
A cartridge is something you can lend to a friend or sell at a later date no matter how much time you've spent playing it, but, perhaps most importantly of all, it's free of DRM
However, as fantastic as a Switch filled with instantly accessible digital copies of everything from Nintendo's biggest titles to retro-style blasts of indie action may be, for many reasons, physical media will always remain a desirable ideal to a significant number of users. A cartridge is something you can lend to a friend or sell at a later date no matter how much time you've spent playing it, but, perhaps most importantly of all, it's free of DRM, perfectly preserved and playable forever (well, as near as it matters for most of us) regardless of whether any online stores or account authentication portals are still active. It's one point of permanence in a gaming landscape where everyone grumbles about releases getting suddenly or silently pulled from storefronts, and yet publishers keep doing it anyway.
This is where the new breed of limited physical productions was supposed to come to the rescue, filling in the gaps, preserving and protecting notable works and unusual niches from the unpredictable snags of digital storefronts. And it was, for a while. Then a trickle turned into a flood, and that flood turned into... this.
Now, one game can have multiple multiple physical editions over a variety of specialist crowdfunding platforms, publishers, and retailers, and somehow this has become the new normal. Physical games are no longer games in physical form, but collector's items to be publicly unboxed and then carefully shelved, a single title now viewed a useful excuse for multiple preorder tiers of increasing expense, each one featuring slightly different contents to encourage as many multiple purchases as possible.
Games feel more like barely-tolerated hanger-ons in their own specially numbered limited edition box, lost amongst the all collectables (and these are always 'collectables' regardless of use, relevance, or quality – ownership of these items is proof you're a real gamer, not like those other people buying bland standard editions or – gasp – digital copies) that litter promotional shots, half of which you can probably guess before you've even clicked on the image's thumbnail.
All that means the hype machine's working exactly as intended, gamers whipped into a predictable frenzy by FOMO
A pin badge. A sheet of stickers. A poster. A set of postcards. A keyring. A USB stick. A certificate of authenticity. An exclusive and collectable reversible insert for the game's box – all things that are cheap to produce and equally cheap to mail out. When they do stray from the standard 'goodies' we end up paying for coasters shaped like floppy discs, replica US-style Sega Saturn cases (who ever liked US Saturn cases?!), a 'functional' SNES cart you must never use in case it literally makes your SNES catch fire or a completely non-functional cart shaped like the real N64 cart you could have picked up on eBay at any point during the past twenty years for far less. It's 'Remembering Things: Please Enter Your Credit Card Number Here Edition'.
All that means the hype machine's working exactly as intended, gamers whipped into a predictable frenzy by FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out – stock allocations sometimes so artificially restricted there are specific hours on specific days when they are made available to preorder, people told to get in now or risk losing out forever, because we'll never make a second batch.
And should you emerge victorious from that checkout frenzy with an email confirming your order for the Premium Collector's Deluxe Edition? Well. That's great but... how bad do you feel now you know for a fact you aren't going to get the collectable keyring and fold-out map included in the Standard Special Edition, and would you like to come back again at 6 pm PST for a chance at grabbing a copy from our second – and final – stock allocation?
At the most extreme end of this scale, the game may now even be a ghost in its own physical edition. Nintendo has done this itself a few times over the years, from retro-styled Pokémon boxes with no actual Pokémon carts inside to more recently Fire Emblem's 30th-anniversary physical pack containing a download code for a game with its own inexplicably digitally limited eShop equivalent – at least there's a NES box in there... waiting for a NES game you can never (officially) put in it.
Physical releases aren't always quite this viciously profitable; some standard physical editions have open preorder periods, everyone ordering between two dates receiving a copy once production's been completed. Retro re-releases like Columbus Circle's Gley Lancer may not be in infinite supply, but there's enough around to allow someone to make their purchasing decision at some point beyond the five minutes after preorders opened – and even those hyper-exclusive collectors editions are still accompanied by standard alternatives to buy, if you can click past the marketing urging you to plump for the one with the statue and novelty cuddly toy to secure one before they sell out.
At the most extreme end of this scale, the game may now even be a ghost in its own physical edition
Limited physical releases are not the new face of gaming evil, and it would be completely unreasonable to expect publishers and the factories they use to produce an endless supply of these games over an indefinite period of time, and there are many reasons why an open preorder system or manufacturing larger quantities may not be practical or worth the risk. Even those 'collectable' extras can be great too; who doesn't want to see a good quality artbook filled with preproduction sketches or listen to a soundtrack CD as they read some entertaining liner notes?
But this constant drive for more, that push to always buy the next tier up, to see the game itself (the one without the foil sticker, limited translucent shell, or exclusive lenticular sleeve) – the one thing that is supposed to be the focal point – relegated to being the basic 'make-do' choice does at least as much harm as it does good. Physical releases of games old and new have an exciting future and serve a real practical purpose, but to prevent customer burn-out – especially in at a time when everyone's a little more squeezed for money and stressed than they should be – there has to be a serious commitment to quality above stuff, and for stock levels to consistently cater to a broader audience than those with the time and energy to check social media and newsletters for updates then go to fight for a copy with their bank account details in hand.