The disc-free revolution is coming, like it or not

See kids, there was a time, way back before you were born when we used to buy our music on cassette tapes. Heck, some of us bought vinyl records, not because it was hipster but because that was literally the only means available to play the music. We’d buy these hubcap-sized discs that played 15 minutes of music before you had to flip it over to play another 15 minutes. Later on we evolved to the CD and we would store them in portable cases as thick as a Tolstoy novel, flipping through the pages in order to find that one disc that we’d put in our car so we could play TLC’s Waterfalls. Just Waterfalls. Then we’d eject the disc and go hunting for another one.

Like savages.

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And then, one glorious day, everything changed. For the low low price of FOUR HUNDRED CLAMS Apple sold us a 5GB loaf of bread that could store between 500-1000 songs (depending on if your library was more “Led Zeppelin” or more “The Clash”). Gone were the days of fumbling through tapes or blowing hot air on a CD and rubbing it on your boob to buff out the scratches. Now all you needed was a flick of your thumb and you could listen to any music you legally purchased from authorized retailers at full price.

What a world was opened to us!

Meanwhile, gamers were still buying individual discs in order to enjoy their 10-40 hour (depending on if your library was more “Naughty Dog” or more “Square”) video games. At the same time, cinephiles were likewise flipping through their collection of movies, first with bulky video tapes and later with DVD cases. If you wanted to play Final Fantasy X you had to sort through your shelf to find the disc. If you wanted to watch Gladiator you had to sort through your other shelf to find the disc. If you didn’t have it, you could always get in your car and drive to Blockbuster, pay them ten bucks and rent the movie/game for the weekend.

Like savages.

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Then along came Netflix. And with it a subscription based service that sent the DVDs of your favorite movies right to your front door. Later a little company called GameFly came along and did the same with video games. It truly was the future. Or so we thought. Turns out it was just a stopgap on our way to the real future.

Before we had time to properly enjoy our Netflix subscriptions, high speed internet reached the boonies and everyone, everywhere (except for the few poor souls out in the very very middle of nowhere) had access to internet speeds that loaded websites in the blink of an eye and streamed YouTube videos in realtime.

Again, for you young people, you have to imagine what it was like to have the internet but not actually “have” the internet. When I was a kid—around 15 maybe—our family finally got “dial up” internet. It was incredible. I remember logging-on on a Saturday morning and being blown away by yahoo.com. YAHOO.com blew me away. I signed up for email (the same email I still use today), and then discovered starwars.com. By the time I’d done those three things it was time for bed.

I used to have a notebook and pen next to the keyboard so that after I hit “enter” and started loading a site I could doodle pictures for the literal half-an-hour it took to browse anything. Dial-up internet was a tease.

But high speed internet was the future.

Once DSL became the standard, the Netflix model changed from mailing discs to streaming videos. But where Netflix pioneered the streaming movie service, video games have yet to embrace a similar format.

Video games in general have a long history with regards to storage. The early games for the Atari, Sega and Nintendo used the cartridge as its standard. Though some tried to jump ahead to CD’s, the cost of the disc drives was too high; Neo Geo was priced right out of the market and Sega’s CD-add on for the Genesis felt like a too-expensive accessory for a too-old machine. The Playstation came along at just the right time to introduce CD gaming to the mainstream. Sega’s Saturn and Atari’s Jaguar soon followed.

Nintendo of course continued with the cartridge, favoring reduced load times over bigger capacity.

One video game generation followed another and though the specs got more impressive, and the games more immersive, the one thing that didn’t change was the reliance on physical media. Whether it was a cart, a card, a CD, a DVD, a mini-DVD, or a blu ray, all the various consoles relied on some form of material object that had to be purchased from a store.

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With the advent of high speed internet an alternative was offered: You could now buy the next Metal Gear Solid game online and download to your Playstation. You could now buy the next Madden online and download to your Xbox. Even Nintendo—slow and stubborn Nintendo—allowed you to buy games online and download them to your Wii. At first it was old games such as Super Mario World and Ocarina of Time, but later—with the Wii U—new releases can be downloaded directly to your system.

It seems like the future is here, but it isn’t. This era is a stopgap. The real future is in an entirely disc-free world.

Get ready. It’s coming.

Microsoft almost launched the Xbox One without a disc drive. Odds are good the next Xbox will actually do it.

Nintendo recently filed a patent for a console that used no disc drive (though one could be added on as an accessory). Speculation abounds as to whether or not this is just patent-making for the sake of it (which Nintendo has done before) or if they are looking at such a venue for their next console (code-named “NX”).

At this, many fans are up in arms. Granted, a disc-less/internet-reliant console would require a lot of bandwidth and a lot of storage space, it would also require the owner to have (and be able to maintain) a high speed internet connection. But by 2017 is that really a substantial amount of people? Considering the direction of TV and film is toward more streaming and less physical media, and the fact that blu ray did not take the world by storm the way DVDs did as a replacement for VHS tapes, it would be surprising if the next generation of content we consume isn’t almost entirely streamed.

What would that mean for gaming? There are positives and negatives so let’s run through them…

PROS

All of your games will be instantly accessible, no need to switch discs. You can play whatever you want at the push of a button. That’s already how it is with the PS4, Xbox One and even Wii U, but in those cases that’s an optional feature. Not everyone is taking advantage of the lazy joy that is “changing games without getting up.”

The ability to have multiple titles paused and ready to be resumed at your leisure, the same way Netflix and other streaming services operate, is a revelation for those of us who grew up with 20-digit passwords needed to pick up where we left off playing Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the NES. The “pause” button is already becoming obsolete; “saving” is soon to follow.

A more robust online experience can be had on a disc-less console. Right now publishers have to create games that are offline-oriented with online-features. A disc-free console is online 24/7 and thus the entire gaming experience is online with it. A lot of fans are upset that the new Star Wars Battlefront game (set to release this November) has no single-player campaign, but instead focuses on online missions played alongside other competitors. As someone who has spent hours on end playing Splatoon for the WiiU this isn’t a big deal to me; I haven’t spent more than 2 minutes playing the offline portion of that game. A disc-free system doesn’t mean the end of single player gaming or the end of private “solo” gaming. It just means the freedom that being online brings will be the standard and that will free developers up to explore new gameplay mechanics. The sort of online games that developers are wary of attempting will be tried. Entirely new genres of games can be discovered. In an era today where games seem more derivative than ever, that’s an exciting prospect.

A disc-free medium opens up the potential for a streaming service that allows you to play any game from the publisher’s library for a flat rate. This may not be a “pro” to some, but for those of us who still keep our Nintendo consoles humming, the idea that we could pay The Big N $15 a month with the freedom to play anything, past-present-future…it makes me light headed just thinking about it.

on the other hand…

CONS

For one thing, it would mean more money for developers/publishers and less money for retailers. If you buy Metal Gear Solid V from Best Buy, the store is getting half the money you paid for the game, the other half goes to the publisher (who disperses the money to the developer according to the terms of their partnership). Buying a game directly from the publisher means they get all of the money and Best Buy of course gets none. That means more money can be spent on the games because the return on the investment automatically increases 50%. Retailers aren’t going to like that, but publishers will make it up to them with greatly increased prices on controllers, chargers, headsets, and even the consoles themselves. Everything that you can’t simply download is going to get a lot more expensive.

At the same time, publishers are greedy, so don’t expect a price drop on “complete” games. Right now I have to pay $60 to enjoy Super Mario Maker, even though I bought the game online through the Nintendo eShop (I buy all my games online and download them to my consoles). Had I bought it at Wal-Mart…well first I’d have to set foot inside a Wal-Mart, and I’m sure not going to do that, but let’s just pretend: Had I bought it there Nintendo would only have gotten around $30 dollars. What incentive do they have to sell me an eShop game on the NX for $30 when I’m already used to paying $60?

On the other hand, you can probably say goodbye (for the most part) to buying completed games. That’s already pretty much the way of the video game world today anyway, with DLC and day-one patches taking the place of a finished and bug-tested game. Publishers are already squeezing every dollar they can out of buyers, but once everything goes totally digital, things will really change: Instead of buying a 30-hour Metal Gear Solid VI for $60, you’ll by a 15-hour MGS VI for $35, and then in six months you’ll buy a 15-hour MGS VI.2 for another $35. Bandwidth and storage. Bandwidth and storage. They can’t have their servers clogged up with people trying to download the whole game, so they will only release half (or maybe a third) at a time.

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Michael Thomasson sold the biggest games collection in the world (verified by Guinness World Records) for $750,000 in an auction on GameGavel in 2014

I said all that and I didn’t even mention how the resale market dies instantly. Your games are tied to your account so even if you wanted to sell your console, you couldn’t sell your games (not even with your console), because those games are tied to a credit-card, email address, and other personal information. Once you buy the game you own it forever. On the other hand, to toss out one more “pro” and end on a good note: Without the ability to resell a game, buyers are going to be a lot pickier about the games they purchase. People are going to read a lot of reviews and watch lots of clips online. If game doesn’t have a good buzz, buyers aren’t going to take a chance; they simply won’t buy the game. That will lead to publishers putting out more demos, having better quality control, and working harder to ensure all their games are up to a higher standard.

~~~~~~

Microsoft was almost booed off the stage when they formally announced the Xbox One. The company’s initial idea of a system that required an online connection seemed a bridge too far. They eventually dropped that “feature” from the system, but make no mistake: They didn’t throw the idea away, they just delayed it.

Nintendo also seems eager to dip their toes in this pool. Though they have traditionally been a company hesitant to change and slow to adapt, they are also a company that needs to make money at a greater rate than Sony or Microsoft. Those companies are big multimedia corporations that can absorb some financial losses in their gaming departments. Nintendo simply is a gaming department, so if they see the possibility of selling a game for $60 and keeping all of the money for themselves, you better believe they’re going to jump on it.

Sony hasn’t really been mentioned. They are the current leaders of this gaming generation. One can imagine a scenario where they see the way Microsoft and Nintendo are headed and instead decide to go in a different direction. Sony might partner up with the retailers, offering a console exclusive to those stores that sells games on a physical media. If that happened, a video game war not seen since the 16-bit era would finally break out, as gamers would truly have some genuine differences in the competition to consider.

Either way, whether Sony gets in the game or not, whether Nintendo gets cold feet or not, and whether Microsoft has the moxie to finally go through with it or not, one thing is certain: Whatever your feelings on the issue are, the disc-less revolution is coming. Sooner or later.

Like it or not.

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  • Henry Higgins III

    That’s a very good read, but there is no way (at least for this or the next generation of consoles) that physical discs will be phased out completely.

    The online market doesn’t have as large a user-base as the physical one (a lot of that is down to younger gamers not having online accounts or the means to purchase games themselves) and there’s also the matter of storage.

    If discs are taken away completely, you either needs games stored on a cloud server or you will need to either continually purchase more / larger hard-drives or delete games to make space for new ones.

    The last point, which you touched upon, is the second-hand market. While publishers / developers would likely be happy to see this crumble, the second-hand market is HUGE and makes the game shops a good chunk of their revenue. At the moment, videogame developers / publishers still rely on actual stores (be it a shop like GAME or an online retailer like Amazon) to sell their products.

    A final issue that would need to be addressed is that of refunds. If you purchase a game online as a digital download and it’s essentially broken (Assassin’s Creed V, we’re looking in your direction), getting a refund for your broken game would be extremely difficult, whereas taking it back to the store is a relatively simple operation.

    Vinyl is making a comeback and being sold in stores again, DVDs and Blu-Rays still outstrip digital movie downloads (for ownership) and videogames will remain disc-based until the digital download solution is on the same level of user-service.

  • Hector Abad

    Disk-less is the way to go, especially with the game sharing features, right now we have two xbox ones, one is my nephews and one is mine his xbox is my home xbox so all digital content i download goes to his xbox, and when im logged in on my xbox i can access it as well, so we both can play games i buy on my account, if they continue this there is a benefit to digital because one could argue you are buying two disks for the price of one … Also I think that retailers should offer digital downloads with perks, case in point, I bought Halo 5 Legendary edition, it came with a digital download, no disk, but it brought all the perks and was well worth the $150 because i could download it for my xbox and my nephews xbox and we could play co-op that day I got all the perks of the legendary edition and we didnt have to shell out another $60 for a second disk to play together

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