Physical vs Digital Games: Time to Decide


“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” – Stewart Brand

As time goes on, things change and begin to fade away as new ideas take their place. Sometimes for the better and sometimes …eh…not so much. Throughout the years we’ve seen numerous evolutions of our favorite hobby, from the rise and fall of arcades to being able to play games online with friends from across the world from the comfort of your home. One of the biggest potential changes coming our way is the sales of digital games.

Our very own SpawnStaffer, Chris West, talked of this in his “The Future of Games in the Digital Age” article – which by the way is a great read – but I’d like to revisit this topic, as it is a very important one.

As we all know, and probably heard about way too many times, Microsoft had planned to not allow used games on its system, meaning in short, that you would only be able to buy a new copy of a game, and then you would only be able to play it on one account, albeit with some, let’s admit, confusing friend-sharing functionality. Microsoft stated months later that were taking a step back, and now, they are allowing used games to flourish on their system. This, among many other 180’s, was one of the biggest u-turns in video game history.

For me, this was extremely good news, as I work at a store that sells both new and used games. If Microsoft implemented this change, it’d cut a huge portion of my store’s market, and probably cause us to lose a lot of money. But either way, I don’t see used games going away anytime soon.

The Xbox 360’s “Games” section dashboard.

The two big daddies in the video game market, Sony and Microsoft, both have their own versions of DD platforms. On the Xbox 360 you buy them through the Live marketplace, and on the PlayStation 3 you buy them through the PlayStation Store. Both systems offer downloads of games from past systems (for example: Xbox 360 has Xbox original games, and the PS3 has many PS1/2/P/Vita games).

I have both good and bad things to say about each of the systems above. The nostalgic side of me loves that I can buy old or rare games for the PS1 for less than 10 bucks, but the collector side of me wishes I could put my physical copy on my shelf with all of my other games. There’s definitely a good and bad side to each, but when talking about buying new games digitally, it’s mostly bad for consoles. One of the biggest turnoffs is paying full price for a game, while you’re basically only getting a portion of what you’d pay for the physical version of the game (manual, case, a disc, and sometimes even more). Not everybody is a collector, but I’m sure everybody would love to be able to save more money.

I can now buy this game for a cheap 10 bucks, while it goes for $50 in used games stores and even more online. Thanks PlayStation Store!

Not all games are like this, as Chris West stated, Deadpool was priced at $49.99 in stores, while being $39.99 for a digital copy. This is a good move, and I feel all markets should follow this example, but unfortunately, they do not. Most games are listed at the same price between stores and online markets, and the DD titles usually don’t offer any kind of bonus for buying it online (though we are seeing a hopeful trend with digital-only extras starting to surface) to make up for all the extras that would come with a physical copy.

For consoles, this is a huge problem in my eyes, since buying and downloading games to a system takes up a good amount of space on the system’s hard-drive, and sooner or later you’ll be forced to remove games for other games to take their place. And if you want to play the deleted game, you’ll have to download it all over again. It’s an endless cycle of downloading, removing and re-downloading.

But for computers, this problem has been pretty much crushed by the existence of Steam. It’s a store for online games, a place to keep your games, and a place to share your content with your friends. Steam does what basically all console marketplaces don’t; Steam consistently has amazing deals on games and is always communicating these deals via email campaigns and within the program itself. Steam is the positive side of DD, and helps keep gamers interested and buying. But, even on Steam, some games are still sold at launch at the same price as their physical versions.

But, referring to my note at the top of how Microsoft decided to listen to consumers and switch their DRM policies, it shows to me that they are listening. And perhaps Sony and other video game companies will follow suit as well, and we’ll see a steady balance of fair DD prices in the near future. Remember, this is just my opinion. Check out what some other SpawnStaffers have to say about the matter, and whether they prefer digital content over a something a bit more palpable.

Buddy Acker – Staff Writer

I’m going to purchase retail copies once I get an Xbox One. I enjoy having physical copies because I like being able to look at and touch them. I have a collector’s soul. Also, digital copies take up way too much room on a hard drive, and consoles are not yet at a point where they can sufficiently store multiple games. It’s cool to have different options, but I’ll always prefer having a disc nearby.


Brian O’Donnell – SpawnCast/Creative Co-Director

I like the idea of digital copies. I originally didn’t, but ever since I’ve joined SpawnFirst and have received digital review copies,…well… now I’m mostly sold on it. I love not having to get up and swap disks when I want to change games (#Lazy). There are 2 reasons I’m not 100% sold on it yet. The first is: why is a DD game the same price as its physical copy? I mean, I’m just paying for the game; not the box, disk, and manual that comes with it. That should knock $10 off the price MINIMUM. Second, what if I run out of hard drive space? As a moron who bought the 4GB Xbox 360, I have a ghetto set up where I have an external hard drive and a flash drive plugged into my 360 to handle all my memory issues. Now, granted, the Xbox One will come with a larger HD and will allow external storage without a cap, but I hate that after a year or 2, I will need to either delete my digital games, or buy another external drive to handle everything. Also, when I do save to the external HD, I lose some abilities that I normally would not have a problem with doing on the console’s internal drive. For example, I just downloaded Halo 3 and wanted to play an online campaign with Chris (Velluci) but the game wouldn’t let me because it needed to save to the internal drive. That SHOULD NOT happen. So until these problems are resolved, I’m going to stick with physical copies.


Justin Celani – Video Content Director

To retail or not to retail? That is the question. I’ve always felt that having an only online library, just never quite satisfied that collector side of me. Yet then every time I move house, I moan about moving my entire library of games, let alone the rest of my belongings. I’ve sat and thought about the whole digital versus physical argument many times over, and ultimately, if games were $10 to $15 dollars cheaper on some digital games versus their physical versions, I’d be inclined to try out more games that I normally wouldn’t at regular retail prices. This would ensure that I end up with either A: a bunch of games I’m now stuck with forever digitally, that aren’t very good, or B: playing some games I’d have normally never given the chance simple due to the price. As it stands, I think I fit somewhere comfortably in the middle. I love physical copies, especially that new game smell (mmmmm) and watching my collection grow, but I have also come to appreciate my digital library as well.


Fraser McIntyre – Staff Writer

To be honest, I see the merit of DD copies and find that their practicality is evidently more important than the nostalgic feeling of taking games over to a friend’s house to play. I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I am pretty much 100% in favour of DD. It keeps all my games in one place and I don’t need to worry about losing them or getting them scratched. As a fervent Steam user, DD is a massive part of gaming for me nowadays, and if you know where to look, you need not pay top dollar for titles on any platform. So when I get a next gen console (by that I mean a PS4), I’ll probably be forgoing any kind of hard copies for games.


Chris Velluci – SpawnCast/Creative Co-Director

This is always a tough decision.  With digital copies, stores like GameStop will cease to exist where I can get money for my used games, that then allow me to purchase new games for “less”.  Also, unless my console’s HDD is removable, I won’t be able to bring over my new title to a friend’s house without having to bring the entire console. And there’s nothing like opening a new game on the drive home at the first red-light I come upon, just because the game’s so fresh. I love seeing the titles and lining them up on my shelf and awing at them. However, I would also enjoy digitally downloading a new title while at work, knowing I won’t have to make an extra stop on my way home. Had you asked me a few years ago I’d have said “no” because I love the pamphlets that enhance the story and gameplay. However, those days have passed and now all you find is a warning label or advertisement. But if the prices remain the same, I will opt for the physical copy. Why is digital $59.99 when there’s no manufacturing or transporting of physical goods?


Intervention time…


Chris West – Staff Writer

I myself tend to be old school as I still prefer to have a physical copy. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s preferences, there will come a day where all forms of media will be in a digital-only format. There is nothing wrong with preferring physical copies over digital, but everyone will eventually have to get used to the perpetual cycle of technology. Just like the change from VCR to DVD or from floppy to disk, this is essentially the same situation. At the moment, I feel physical copies will remain superior until pricing changes for digital and there are guidelines and rules set that will benefit for both developers, retailers, and consumers.  In short, a great amount of work needs to be done before the big change.  For now, I’ll stick with my physical copies


Vernon Gomes – PR and Marketing Manager

As the resident PC Gamer, I love the idea of digital distribution, with one caveat: it needs to be executed well. My favorite game distribution service is Steam, as Valve has done an excellent job of streamlining it since it first came out. The Steam Store always has games that are on sale, often does free weekends of particular games, and then offers that said game on sale during that time period, and let’s not forget about the season sales! However, two PC distribution services that are truly lacking in the PC gaming world are: EA’s Origin and Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live. (Incidentally, Microsoft Game for Windows Live will be shutting down in 2014)


However, that being said, on the PC, digital distribution services are quite convenient for both PC and console gamers alike.  My favorite is never having to worry about a scratched disc! My only issue with such a service on the Xbox One and PS4, is the extra space required to store these games. At least on the PS3 and PS4, upgrading your HD is standard fare that doesn’t void your warranty, but Microsoft definitely price gouges the consumer for upgraded hard drive options. And with the fiasco of the Xbox One not initially supporting external drives, the big guys are still adamant against change (and lightening their own wallets). Another loss with digital distribution is the inability to sell your game if you don’t like the game, or are finished with it, or the ability to “trade” games with your friends, which I think is reason enough to not charge MSRP for a digital copy. Since digital games are bound to your account, you would have to give your login and password to your friend, if that feature’s not already limited to only a few console profile-switches as it is


Karam Elahi – Founder/Editor-in-Chief

Everyone above me just about covered every aspect of this debate, but I’ll go ahead and put in my two cents. It’s very simple. Make digital distribution titles cheaper than their physical counterparts. Publishers save a ton of money on manufacturing, distribution, and retailer cuts by offering digital content. Sure they’re probably paying a certain percentage of the profits to Sony, MS, and Nintendo for the convenience of channeling their content through the big guns, but overall, DD titles are pretty profitable. So why not pass at least some of the savings onto the customer?

And which do I prefer? Physical copies. Nothing beats being able to swap out one game for another in a few seconds, as opposed to re-downloading an older title to play again, just because you previously cleared it out from your already bursting hard drive. I might consider going through that trouble, if say, the DD copy I bought was about $10 – $20 cheaper than its physical counterpart. And that’s a pretty big IF. Until Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and publishers wise up, I’m sticking to my game cases and smelling my manuals (or what’s left of them) ‘till the walking stick arrives.

What about you? What are your thoughts on this whole digital vs physical debate, especially considering the new consoles coming out? Chime in below!