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Physical vs Digital—Why Physical Video Games Are Better

I have to be clear, I don’t hate the digital downloading of videogames—a Steam library full of thousands of games I’ll probably never be able to reasonably touch in my lifetime can attest to that. I love the convenience of buying a game from the comfort of my home, ready to play anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or so.

That being said, several hundred physical discs organized in an alphabetical fashion upon shelves and shelves is something special itself.

Old games, many of which never found their way online whether in a digital storefront or a torrent site, sit on those shelves readily accessible at any time. The same cannot be said for some of the games I let go before I started clinging onto them, some of those I may never play again. But the case for physical media goes beyond that; it goes beyond the risk of not being able to play old games ever again. Physical games, are an investment that you have control over; something tangible that with care could last your lifetime.

But with digital titles, there is a lingering unanswered specter. What if a digital download storefront goes belly up? What happens to the games you own that are bound to it? Thankfully in the case of Steam, that is very unlikely to happen. But Steam isn’t the only dog in the game anymore. Epic Game Store, Origin, GOG, just to name a few, are among a legion of online retailers that will sell games as a download from either their own sites, or another location.

But what happens if the place where your game comes from is suddenly gone? Does that company provide a way for you to retain all that you’ve purchased? Or is it simply lost to the internet void, as though you never owned it at all? In terms of gaming, it’s the closest thing you’ll find to an existential crisis. Do your digital games have an afterlife in the wake of a storefront collapse? It’s a question I ponder now and then.

It’s also the reason that, despite all my digital purchases, I still always try to get my hands on hard copies of games when I can. This scenario, however unlikely, is a worrisome one. We already know that these digital distributors reserve the right to take accounts away from users if the code of conduct is broken severely enough.

The money itself spent on the account has no bearing; if you’re found in a bad enough violation your account access can be limited, or outright banned. We already know losing your games in that way is a possibility. Do these companies prepare for the future though? The possibility of dire straits where their stores would collapse, with an outcome that doesn’t leave their users swinging in the wind? Who knows? Hopefully we never have to find out the answer to that question, and if we do, hopefully that answer isn’t the worst case scenario.

In the meantime, I’ll still be grabbing physical versions of games when and where I can as long as they aren’t outrageously priced. What are your thoughts on physical games in an ever-expanding digital era?

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  1. As far as I am able to I will always buy physical. Buying digital gives too much power to the Devs/Publishers/Moderators over a game that you spent your hard earned money on, the game does not belong to you. Also there is no trade in value.

  2. Gog.com lets you download back-up installers, which you can keep in any form you like (burn them to disc, save them to your back-up hard drive, put them on the cloud, whatever), so you can always have them, even if they go belly up. They have no DRM and you don’t need to do anything with their website other than the initial download. That’s one reason GOG is my preferred game retailer.

    • I came in to say this as well. The backup system offered by GOG is very impressive. It split DVDs if that’s your preferred method, and they have installers that require no internet whatsoever.

      I have a small home that I prefer to keep clutter free. I had piles of games, and they where beautiful to look at. That went wrong when they were stolen 🙁

  3. Problem with Physical copies, that they don’t contain whole game. Especially PC games… Its contains about 30% of game and then its requires online connection to download missing content. So basically your modern physical copy is just Steam key or activator to download game.

    Only old disc’s contain whole game. So its only worth collecting old games…

    And there is one more thing about Digital library. Inevitably owner of that collection passes away and steam accounts go inactive or get lost. Or hes family didn’t know that there is something as digital game collection. And all that games drift in the void… But physical collection can be resold.

    rip. my friend DeeZaster (steam lvl 38, 1150 games, last online 327 days ago)…

    • EvilSpirit on July 18, 2019 at 7:41 am said

      > Inevitably owner of that collection passes away and…

      I wonder if you can inherit a Steam account. Probably not 🙂

      This is my main complaint with most of the “digital” media. They’re usually tied to some sort of account and sold as a “license” thus missing some of the main benefits of, at least older, physical media while at the same time being sold for the same price or in some cases even more than their physical counterparts.

      • well you can inherit Steam account if person leave all connection information for it. But often you just see days offline number growing after someones death…

    • Dethstorm35 on July 18, 2019 at 6:46 pm said

      That’s a great point you make about physical copies of new games. With all the patches, updates, and DLC now even if you have the disc you don’t know the whole game. Never thought of that.

      • It is a good point if you are a PC gamer, console gamers generally dont have that problem other than with todays looter shooters which are dumpster fires to begin with.

        • EvilSpirit on July 22, 2019 at 4:06 pm said

          Most of the time, if not always, the DLC available for PC and Console are the same.

          Console releases might have the upper hand in how ready the games are at release but I’m not sure about that. I suspect that most of the time it takes one or a few patches to iron out the most irritating bugs even on console.

    • Let me log in on July 25, 2019 at 7:20 pm said

      “Ownership” is something that’s being phased out as much as possible. Things that are consumer friendly are not what the decisionmakers want. They want people to be dependent on them. They want to be able to use the threat of turning off access to what you paid for to police your behaviour.

      Digital distribution without corresponding options for physical media was a mistake.

      My plan is to try to keep a list of all the games I bought on all the various storefronts, and if anything goes down, I’ll find a “backup copy” somewhere online. It’s the best workaround to that issue I can think of.

      Sorry about your friend. Was this in his will, or can you talk to steam about that?

  4. EvilSpirit on July 18, 2019 at 7:32 am said

    In other words, you are a collector who likes to display your collection. I prefer digital because I have little to no need for validation from others and they’re overwhelmingly convenient. It’s just not worth the hassle trying to organize a collection of the size we’re talking about in a convenient and usable manner

    I find it somewhat humorous when you lament the fact that you may never be able to replay some of those physical games you “let go” while readily admitting that you have hundreds if not thousands of games on Steam that you most likely will never touch.

    That said. I don’t find anything wrong with collecting games and being proud of displaying them but I think it’s more of an emotional decision than a rational one. That is, it’s your more primitive parts of the brain rather than your neocortex that is making the decision. I am also buying way more games than I’ll ever be able to play in a lifetime.

    • Let me log in on July 25, 2019 at 7:23 pm said

      My collection of physical games is sitting in a box, or a bookshelf with a cover in front. They’re not displayed. There’s still something about the security of knowing for certain that the games are there whenever I want to revisit them.

      Physical game disks have perks above digital-only stuff. Enough perks to make it important that the physical media be preserved. The removal of physical media from the marketplace was a mistake. It might take a while longer for the average person to see it.

  5. Janie Rice on July 18, 2019 at 12:26 pm said

    I always buy physical if I can help it, especially for console games. As a media seller on Amazon I like to be able to re-sell my game if I don’t like it. Did that with Anthem, Watchdogs and Nioh to name a few.

  6. Poisontoast on July 18, 2019 at 1:34 pm said

    I have a classic collection ranging from atari 2600 on. It is about 2000+ games in total across every console (and I mean all of them) up until the classic Xbox. And all it does is sit on shelves and in boxes. I would love to have the space to set everything up so its all playable but I don’t really use any of it unless I have a itch to pull out the snes/segaCD.

    Even then, I have a modded Xbox and a Wii. All of my classic collection are on both of those as well. So I can emulate all the crap I own and never bother with the hassle. I love my collection because I love the history of gaming. It’s is really cool to see how far video gaming has come in the short time it has been around. But I am torn weather or not collecting games is worth it beyond the Original Xbox. After that there is always online DRM and the disks don’t contain the full games anymore.

    Again, coming into this conversation as a collector. I don’t agree. Couch coop is more or less dead. I would rather invest in a lan room full of PCs for my wife and kids to play together, or a full room VR setup then bother with making a playable Museum.

    • Type text here…Since when don’t disks contain a full game bought dishonored 2 on ps4 put in disk and played. A patch to fix a game is not the same as a game not complete on disk. You can also play without the patches if you wish on consoles.

    • Let me log in on July 25, 2019 at 7:25 pm said

      Couch co-op is still around, but it’s not as common as before. Check out https://www.co-optimus.com/ if you want a sort of reference to look them up.

  7. This op-ed brought up some good points that I didn’t think about before. I doubt that it will ever happen, but most digital storefronts are a single point of failure and if they go under then your entire collection is lost. At least when a console breaks you can find a replacement and still play the games made for it.

    A more realistic issue with digital games is the problem of games disappearing from the storefronts because of various reasons (usually copyrighted music).

    Another problem that was mentioned is the control of the publishers have over your account. You can get banned for whatever reason and lose your entire collection. Furthermore games that you own are subject to change. Say if a game wishes to censor something they do it with an update and it nearly impossible to get the original version.

    The above lends in to the overall notion that physical games give you true ownership. You can lend them and resell them if need be. You actually own that snapshot of the game unlike digital titles, which only give you a license to play.

    Whenever the option is available I go for hard copies of games I’m interested in. I also wouldn’t pay more than £20 for a digital title.

  8. I myself prefer physical over digital. With digital, you truly own the game with digital, you only pay for the right to use it. And with one screw-up, could cost you an entire library. I’ve heard enough stories where it has happened. With love and care, my collection will hopefully outlive me and I can choose who inherits it.

  9. I agree, I love digital for the convince but I’m also a collector, having the physical game, strategy guide, and box with inserts and all was so awesome. Now games if they are physical at all come with just the game and no inserts…

    Also, imagine no wifi, or losing your account. Youd lose your games ala steam!

  10. Charlton A Blake on July 19, 2019 at 2:37 am said

    Nah, Digital is way better. Let’s face it, 99% of those old physical games are never gonna be played. Technology moves so fast that the grand majority are gonna be swept up in the newest greatest releases. But here’s to hoping for a unified store that can combine Origin, Ubisoft, GOG, Epic, and STEAM.

    • I think the article has some merit, but I generally feel the way you do. We keep talking about “but what if the storefront goes belly-up?” and that’s a real concern especially for newer ones, but I’ve had my steam Account for 12 years now, and I don’t think any of my physical games lasted that long. I have a few, but the CDs get scratched or lost or the technology gets so outdated that I can’t get them to run anymore (Oh Empire of the Fading Suns, how I miss thee). Meanwhile, I can play ancient DOS games like Quest for Glory thanks to sites like GOG.com.

      I can see more merit to the physical idea for cartridges and consoles than for PC, and with PC, I think there are better ways to get the benefits of a physical copy (ie hard backups), such as a GOG downloader archived on the cloud or in a backup HDD.

  11. supersiren on July 19, 2019 at 2:42 am said

    i also love physical games, that said i have a substantial library of steam games.
    my favorite thing would be a game with a download code in a physical box.

  12. GoldfingerXL on July 19, 2019 at 7:04 am said

    I am not a collector (anymore), but still buy physical copies whenever I can. I buy them on the second hand market and after playing them, I sell or trade them in. For me, here lies the true strength of physical media.

    I shy away from buying digital when I can, mostly because of the reasons stated by the author and all of the replies. That being said, I believe that Gog.com is the best digital storefront in regard to actually owning your games and I am very happy with their policies and customer service.

  13. Samuelvania on July 20, 2019 at 4:27 pm said

    I do digital. I can’t stand having “stuff”. I live light and having all that stuff just makes me feel like a bugman.

  14. Type text here…I would like to point out that even if you do buy a physical copy of a game, that does not guarantee you that you will be able to continue playing it in the future. If the game developers were to say….shut down the servers for one of their games that was online only, then that would effectively render your game, physical or digital, useless. I can think of at least two games off the top of my head that this scenario has happened with, Hell’s gate: London and M.A.G.. While the previous had and off-line single play campaign that was good, no more support for it meant no new content and the game quickly losses it’s replay value. Where as the later had only online PvP and so when Sony shut down it’s servers, they effectively rendered my hard copy a heartbreaking paperweight. So I guess what I am saying is, in this new generation of games, with most of them being online co-op, or online PvP, you as the player don’t really own anything, no matter which one you buy, digital or physical, when the game companies can just shut their servers down and render the game dead.

  15. Physical games are better when they are not linked to any digital service AND not copy-protected so that they could be archived. Otherwise there is only miniscule aesthetic factor.

  16. GOG provides DRM Free, offline installers to their games, so you can always download them and keep somewhere safe.

    Origin, Epic Store and UPlay belong to big fishes, so unlikely they are going down anytime soon.

    I, too, have bought a lot of physical copies in the past, but I simply don’t have more space to store them.

  17. I don’t lose sleep over Steam or any digital storefront going belly up. If that happens, I pirate the games on my library.

    The only things that I won’t be able to regain are the online-only games. And that’s a problem that doesn’t really need solving because it’s a given that they’re on a limited lifespan. Those games will never outlive a digital storefront.

  18. I prefer to buy physical games too (single player games, that is), kinda like I prefer physical books to digital ones, If its a multiplayer mostly then of course digital. Although, yea, these days they are not worth much, they usually dont contain the full game. Devs still need a year or two (if we are lucky) to release all patches, updates, dlcs, season pass content etc. Thats why I try to wait for GOTY/complete edition. The problem u never now if game gonna receive one, lol.

  19. Jonas Larsen on July 24, 2019 at 12:10 am said

    I want to play the game, nothing else.
    As long as I`m able to play the game I could not care less if that game comes in a package or as a digital download.
    The less clutter Im forced to have in my living space the btter.

  20. nice thanks

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