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Physical vs Digital: The Great Gaming Debate For The Next-Gen

Words by Lewis Empson and Alex Daud Briggs

In 2019 Microsoft gave us our first look into the future of mainstream gaming with the All-Digital edition of the Xbox One S; a cheaper variant of the already mega popular Xbox One S without the Blu-Ray disk drive. This came at the cost of not being able to play any games you owned on disk and any new games you wanted to purchase would have to come directly from the Xbox Games Store; this trade-off however was accompanied by a £50 price reduction and double the hard drive space with an upgrade from 500GB to 1TB. Now with the Xbox Series S continuing it’s legacy into the next generation and the PS5 Digital Edition hitting shelves soon, it’s time to consider do we even need a disk drive? Is all-digital the future? Or is the industry jumping too far ahead and leaving gamers with a lack of options for the sake of futuristic innovation?

The Case For Physical by Alex Daud Briggs

I understand the importance of change and I can’t deny just how impactful digital media is for video games. Being able to instantly have a game on your console or PC without having to worry about leaving the house or the store not having it in stock, or even just the clutter of all those cases is undoubtedly convenient however I still feel that gaming still has a place for good old psychical game disks and cartridges if only for a couple reason. 

The most notable being that I believe in the old-fashioned formula of buying a game for a fixed price and having the whole game. With the rise of digital gaming, the gamer no longer owns the product, they are simply authorized to play and if anything happens to those servers or the game is pulled, they will no longer be able to play.  We have also seen the ugly rise of incomplete games requiring day one patches and unethical microtransactions, transforming gaming in glorified gambling. These are not completely unavoidable with physical but with the best quality games, you can play anywhere, without online, without DLC or updates, without some shady company asking you to subscribe to their payed premium service, and still get a full experience

There is also the practical element of physical releases. Many would say that the plastic of a game case is bad for the environment (even though the data servers needed for digital gaming are arguably just as bad), but we should keep in mind that physical games can be resold at second-hand shops. This way you can safely get rid of old games and even get a bit of money out of them. This of course goes the other way around as well. I’ve gotten so many games and consoles second-hand years after their original release for a much lower price. It’s a great cost-effective way of trying out some old classics from the previous generations. Some of the older games I’ve gotten from CEX have become some of my favourite of all time, many of which still have not been rereleased on modern consoles. Not to mention, a lot of physical games can get rather rare in later years especially with those fancy limited editions, meaning you are holding something that could get you a lot of money. 

Finally, of course, there’s just this joy in collecting video games. I always feel like if I really love something, I want to physically own it. Seeing them lined up on your shelf and watching it get bigger over the years truly gives you a strange sense of accomplishment. Back home I sometimes find myself looking back on my game shelf, looking at the old cases and their beautiful cover art, reminding me of the times I’ve had in their worlds.

Overall there are still many upsides to physical games and even with digital becoming more prevalent, I’m gonna keep on collecting them for as long as they’re being put out. 

In Defence Of Digital by Lewis Empson

Physical editions of games have been the norm for decades and have in various forms whether that is cassette tapes, cartridges, those weird little PSP UMD disks and since the PS1 and original Xbox it has been in disk format (admittedly in different formats e.g. DVD, Blu Ray). Games are always shifting in form and therefore it feels natural that the next step is to forgo the restraints of the physical form and embrace the digital future. 

The first major benefit of digital gaming is the pure convenience of being able to access a store in the comfort of your own home that never runs out of stock. All you have to do is find the game you want and download it all without having to trudge to your nearest shop only to find they’re sold out – we’ve all been there. Adding to the convenience is the ease of pre-purchase and pre-downloading which gives you access to upcoming games that you have pre-ordered as soon as the clock strikes midnight on launch day. For dedicated gamers with messy sleep schedules, this is a godsend as they can dive right into their new title as soon as it drops. 

As previously mentioned all-digital editions are usually cheaper at initial purchase which has a plethora of benefits. The PS5 Digital Edition is £100 cheaper than it’s disk drive equipped sibling which could easily cover a copy of Spider-Man: Miles Morales or Demon’s Souls with some funds left over. On the Xbox side this becomes an even more tempting proposition as the admittedly-less-powerful-but-still-next-gen Xbox Series S is a mere £249.99, a whole £200 cheaper than the Series X (although it is admittedly lacking some features such as 4K as it is capped at 1440p). Savings like this can make the next generation and gaming in general so much more accessible and you can boost your experience with more games and accessories at launch.

The biggest push for all-digital is the various subscription services that cater to digital gaming. Xbox Game Pass is a fantastic example of this as it offers a frankly overwhelming slate of exclusive and third party titles including all new first party releases hitting Game Pass on day one, meaning in the past huge titles like Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 were available to download on day one. Playstation offers a similar experience with PS Now although personally I’d say that their selection of games isn’t quite as good and games seem to hop on and off the platform a little too quickly for my liking; Sony appears to be boosting their efforts with the PS Plus collection for PS5 which includes an awesome lineup of PS4 games including God Of War and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End so it looks like Sony is stepping up to Xbox’s game library subscription challenge. Mix that huge downloadable library with a pretty enticing price and the super fast SSD storage then you have a compact all in one package for powerful gaming.

Physical gaming has been the norm for so long and has absolutely served us well and I’m sure it won’t be phased out for a while yet, however the foundations have absolutely been put in place to ditch the disks.

In conclusion both options absolutely offer their own benefits and caveats so it really comes down to picking which one suits you best. If you have a big collection of physical games ready for backwards compatibility then you should probably pick a next-gen console with a disk drive but if you’re defecting to the opposing console or are taking your first steps into console gaming then maybe take a look at the new digital options to get a head start in the inevitable future of digital gaming.

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