Is Digital-Only Console Gaming the Way of the Future?

With the details of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 now out in the wild, players finally have the information they need to consider their next console of choice. Rather than a simple advance in basic processing technologies as with the last generation, the new systems have stood out as offering true generational leaps. The most pronounced of these leaps is unquestionably seen in storage media.

Moving from mechanical drives to cutting-edge solid-state solutions means loading tens of times faster than what the Xbox One and PS4 could offer. Rather than focus on this aspect alone, we want to look at the implications this could have for discless gaming in the new generation. Why does this make sense in the current tech environment, and why is discless gaming more likely than ever as we head into the future?

Setting the Stage

Before delving into reasons and statistics, it’s important to note that Sony has already officially announced a version of the PS5 sans optical drive. Named the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, this system is otherwise functionally identical to the base PS5 model. The obvious target of this system are users who rely on digital purchases, who also have little interest in video media from DVDs or Blu-Rays.

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By the Numbers

The answer to why manufacturers are looking towards the digital is multifaceted and requires investigating both the current world of digital entertainment, and the trajectory we are likely to follow in the future. For a start, a predictive measure might be found in the global patterns of digital delivery methods. From 2009 to 2018, the total proportion of games acquired digitally rose from 20% to 83%. Though, it should be noted that this takes into account all video games, including those which only offer digital means of access, such as mobiles games. For consoles, these proportions aren’t as pronounced, but they still follow an upward digital trend. Statistics on sales are cards that are often played close to console developer’s chests, but what we do know is that for PlayStation in June of 2019, online sales accounted for more than physical sales for the first time. At 53%, the jump here marked 10% growth on the prior year. Interestingly, these proportions vary heavily by company, with some of the industry’s biggest names like Capcom boasting around 80% in online sales with games like Resident Evil 3 and Monster Hunter World. In this case, however, achieving these numbers has been a deliberate target, as Capcom is attempting to hit their objective of a 90% digital share.

Of course, it’s not just straight video gaming that has been moving towards digital delivery systems, as similar developments have been seen in entertainment like television, film, and online casinos. Many of our readers might remember the death of Blockbuster, the former movie rental service. Due to newer online replacements such as Hulu and Netflix, older physical rental systems simply became obsolete. Contrastingly, modern online casinos manage to exist in tandem with brick-and-mortar establishments, although the success of online casinos seems to have come through greater convenience, with users able to partake in an immersive experience of “taking a seat” at the poker or roulette table, but from home. All these digital systems are constantly seeing their popularity and offerings develop, with newer services continuously raising the bar.

Looking back at these statistics and examples, the question becomes where could console gaming eventually lie? Which are the most important components of going digital, and which could be less significant than we might think?


The Question of Why

When discussing why digital-only systems might by the way of the future, the most common idea we see floated is that of manufacturing cost. Previous consoles have released with smaller HDD versions at cheaper prices after all, and it is often thought that discless systems follow the same path. In the modern age, we believe this is unlikely. When Blu-ray players first appeared on the market around 2006, they cost around US $2,000. Around three-quarters of that cost went into the drive, as the core component. Today, a consumer can expect to pay less than $30 for the drive itself. Given that console developers can acquire these en-masse and far cheaper than a consumer could, their cost per drive would be much lower. In other words, the removal of an optical drive solely to save cost alone is unlikely.

What is more likely is that Sony is seeing the way the winds are blowing. More people are turning to digital-only systems for other entertainment, so introducing moving parts to a system that doesn’t require them only creates useless points of potential failure. While not yet announced, we would put money on Microsoft following suit, as they’ve already delved into this space with their discless Xbox One S.

There are also elements which need to be addressed in terms of data realities and raw physics. As a starting point, the vast differences in speeds between optical drives and SSDs means that next-gen games will often not be able to be run directly off of discs. The data-transmission rates here are just too slow to load game data in real-time. This means that optical media could be useful for installation, but even this idea is flawed. The rapid release of large patches of games is now effectively guaranteed, meaning that no matter the game players are going to have to spend time downloading anyway. Since high-speed internet like fibre is increasingly ubiquitous, and data-preloads for gaming are now standard, discs offer very little over alternative methods.

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Room Enough for Both

Make no mistake, the console environment of tomorrow is going to be one with a much greater emphasis on digital delivery than ever before. It will not, however, become gaming’s totality. Even in the most developed countries and cities, the unreliability and unavailability of the internet is always going to be a mitigating factor.

Fans of physical gaming collections can rest easy; your hobby won’t be going away anytime soon. The world of tomorrow will, quite simply, be one with more options and more convenience. As for exactly how much the digital form could yet spread, that much remains to be seen.