The Drawbacks of Digital-Only Distribution

Google Stadia and Microsoft’s All-Digital Xbox could be the beginning of the end for physical media

Digital distribution has revolutionised the entertainment industry over the last decade. Movies, TV shows, music, books and comics have all benefitted greatly from online delivery channels like Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify. Global increases in bandwidth mean that most of us now have pretty much instant access to download or stream our favourite content.

Gamers have also enjoyed the positive effects of this technological surge. It’s quite telling that the indie market has grown in tandem over the last ten years with the rise of online distribution. It stands to reason – indie developers have been able to gain access to huge online platforms like Steam, PSN and Xbox Live where they can connect with consumers directly. They’re no longer tied to legacy media which requires vast amounts of investment and infrastructure. Plus, these days even physical releases require ‘Day 1’ patches to iron out last minute issues only discovered after the game has ‘gone gold’.

So although recent reports suggest that the PS5 will still have a disc drive, allowing it to thrive in developing markets where bandwidth is still an issue, it was inevitable that we would be seeing a non-disc version of a current or next gen console on the horizon.

Last week Microsoft announced the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, the first modern console to ditch physical media. There’s also a lot of hype around xCloud, its upcoming streaming service.

Google has also recently announced its first serious foray into gaming with Stadia, another play anywhere cloud service that lets users effectively rent a virtual machine on their servers, connecting via a TV or smartphone. And despite several setbacks and waning consumer interest, Sony continues to push its PlayStation Now service.

But for all its plus-points (Steam being a shining example) digital-only distribution does carry some inherent drawbacks, especially where gaming is concerned.

Will the Price be Right?

It’s well known that digital market places like the Playstation Network, Xbox Live or the Nintendo eShop don’t always provide the best value for money. Oftentimes, titles on their digital shelves can be purchased on disc much cheaper, either online or on the high street, especially for games that have been out for some time.

Whilst healthy competition eventually compels retailers to discount older physical stock, there’s a risk that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo could keep their digital prices artificially inflated, especially for exclusives. Each of these online stores would effectively become monopolies if physical releases are phased out in future generations.

Without other distribution channels, publishers and consumers would be forced to adhere to pricing standards and release restrictions set by console manufacturers. There is always the possibility that this could stifle competition and innovation as a consequence.

Is the Infrastructure Reliable Enough?

Network speeds and file sizes will always play a big part in the proliferation of online delivery. Movies, music and books all have relatively small digital footprints in comparison to the average global connection speed (9.1Mbps as at Sept. 2018) meaning that those forms of media can be streamed whilst being consumed, with modern devices capable of storing thousands of albums and TV shows on their internal memory.

Games are a completely different animal. Some modern titles have file sizes approaching 100 gigabytes at launch and when factoring in follow-up patches and updates, hard disc real estate can quickly become an issue – even Microsoft’s all-digital Xbox One S with its 1 Terabyte HDD will eventually struggle to store an average gamer’s catalogue. If you’re anything like us, you probably enjoy being able to flick through your library and select a game on a whim. Most people have experienced the awkward decision-making process of clearing their HDD for the latest release. Having a digital pile-of-shame taking up virtual space is probably more disheartening than a physical backlog taunting you from beside the TV – if you delete an unfinished digital game, the chances of returning to it no doubt diminish significantly.

There’s also the fact that you will be dependent on the console maker’s own network stability. You might have a Google fibre connection, but at peak times or periods of network maintenance, you may not be able to access your cloud-based library or have to wait an age for a new title to install. Although recent trends have shown that the pre-load option of purchasing titles works quite well, the fact that you can buy a game, download it onto your console, then not be able to play it until Sony/MS/Nintendo say you can, leads us onto our final point.

What are the Terms of Service?

We all read them thoroughly, right? We understand that in this digital age, when we sign up to a streaming service, purchase and then download a piece of digital content, that we are effectively just renting access to that media under a strict End User Agreement?

Many people don’t realise that even the physical consoles on which they play come with so many clauses and legal agreements, that the manufactures can remotely brick them if they deem gamers have broken their terms of service. Of course, this absurd turn of events has never happened. Sony has never enforced this rule, but it came close – back in 2011 some users had the audacity to reinstall Linux on their PS3s after Sony had removed it (again, remotely). Let’s also remember that Sony’s 4.45 firmware update in 2013 inadvertently locked up a number of systems for several days.

Consider for a moment that one night in July 2009, a number of Amazon customers lay in their beds reading a book on their Kindle. When they woke up the next morning, the book was gone. A legal dispute over publication rights and copyright ownership had forced the company to remove the title from its online Marketplace. As a consequence, the book was remotely deleted from thousands of devices. Amazon, in a digital sense, crept into people’s bedrooms, removed the book from the nightstand and credited those customers with refunds. The book in question: Animal Farm.

Now we’re not saying that that this could ever happen with a games console, but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. And in a brave new digital-only world, it becomes more likely. If Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo become embroiled in a future legal dispute with a publisher or developer (or even each other) there is always a slim chance that gigabytes of data on your console will be remotely corrupted and your purchase refunded back into your digital wallet (which is non-transferrable, by the way). That might not seem so bad, but what if you had invested significant time into that title? What if you’d spent hundreds of hours playing, building up characters and earning achievements? Surely you would be entitled to some form of redress for that lost time? Well, as it turns out, according to the user agreement, no, you wouldn’t.

Yet another drawback of a digital only collection is the inability to sell your games, trade them in, or even pass them on to friends and family. A tangible collection of films or books can have a meaning and value greater than the sum of its parts. Physical games can be borrowed, passed on, or sold at the owner’s discretion. I have a large physical of collection of classic game cartridges and discs that will one day pass to my son. A digital catalogue can’t be transferred or bequeathed in the same way, something iTunes users established many years ago.

And whilst it’s heartening to learn that the new PS5 will have a disc drive and full backwards compatibility, there’s always the fear that we will just end up being sold games we already own, rehashed with better textures but none of the charm of the originals. Licencing disputes could mean that some titles will be lost in the aether, deleted from online stores and forgotten about whilst technology moves forward, as though they never really existed. We could end up like the book people in Fahrenheit 451, reliving stories of fantastical adventures to future generations when the servers eventually go down, taking our libraries with them.

But enough negativity. Digital Distribution has changed entertainment for the better, there’s no question about that. But as games are the only physical media we still buy nowadays, the risk of them going the way of books, CDs and DVDs has become very real, and that makes us nervous.

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John games on all platforms, across all generations, but believes indie game development is where true innovation lies. He's always on the lookout for new experiences, be it retro homebrew releases, Steam Early Access projects, or the next big VR hit.

9 thoughts on “The Drawbacks of Digital-Only Distribution

  1. II was so happy when I heard PS5 has a disk drive. Say the PS5 was diskless and the new xbox had a disk drive as much as it pains me to say I would have switched to xbox. For sure this next gen (PS5) will be the last gen with disks thats almost a 100% IMO

    1. Agreed; I think choice is always a good thing and if console manufacturers take that choice away, gamers will vote with their wallets!

  2. The problem is we have zero rights. The internet, at least in the west, needs its own bill of rights. Digital has turned into a cash cow of selling nothing. Literally. How is a digital game the same price as a boxed one? Servers are relatively cheap by comparison. The benefits are rarely passed on to the consumer beyond immediate convenience. Convenience that dies when the game can’t be re-downloaded. Digital needs a lot of work. A lot.

    1. An excellent point. As online consumers we are only protected by the statutory rights of our local jurisdictions. In my experience, trading standards authorities can be quite toothless when dealing with huge online corporations. Often, ‘mite is right’ – as I found out recently when trying to get a refund on a digital purchase. We definitely need some kind of universal bill to protect the interests of online citizens.

    1. I admit sometimes digital deals are too good to pass up; always have to be mindful of DRM, but at that price I agree it’s a bargain for Deus Ex.

  3. My wife works in publishing and she said that the sale of physical books has actually increased over the past few years whereas the sale of ebooks has dropped, especially in fiction. Also, physical comic sales still far outweigh digital.

    It seems people still much refer physical media for things they really love because, as the article says, you actually OWN it rather than your access being based on the whims of some company.

    This is the biggest thing against digital distribution for me. If I turned on my XBO to find half my games gone because Sony bought out some publisher I’d be royaly pissed! Unless there is some way in which consumers can be guaranteed they OWN a game bought through digital distribution I’m always going to be wary of it

    1. That’s an interesting metric regarding book and comic sales! I wasn’t aware. I’ve always loved my Kindle (especially for accessing work by indie authors) but I have found myself drifting back to physical books – not least because quality control in ebooks sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, but I guess I also like having a bookshelf.

      The scenario you mention is not outside of the realms of possibility. Even today, it’s happening with songs and music from games like GTA – when the licencing runs out, they just remove that content remotely through a patch.

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