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Will the Next Console Generation Use Physical Media?

by Joey Davidson | July 13, 2011July 13, 2011 6:00 am PDT

The TechnoBuffalo staff meets and talks a lot. Conference calls of the weekly variety are a constant. The doughnuts promised by a certain Noah Kravitz, however, are not. More than that, though, are all of the interactions that go on every day. We chat with one another all the time.  It was in one of these discussions that Sean Aune pitched me an idea for editorialization. Will the next generation of gaming consoles ditch physical media for an entirely digital distribution platform?

The simple, entirely too brief answer for my argument? No.

Before I go down the road of defending myself, understand that I’m not considering the Wii U as a part of the next console generation. I know, I know, grab the torches and pitchforks, this writer’s due for a deliriously angry mob.

Face it, the Wii U is Nintendo’s attempt to refresh their platform between now and when Sony and Microsoft are ready to release their next console iterations. The Wii U, while not entirely revealed, has already been declared only marginally more powerful than the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. Better looking, yes, but not enough to justify a five year span.

I’ll finish dismissing the Wii U from this discussion with this: Gearbox Software’s Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer Brian Martel detailed the new console’s purpose brilliantly.

“Right now we’re still finding out what kind of final tech specs the Wii U is going to have…But we like the system a lot; we think it’s going to be a really cool stop-gap in between this generation and the next generation.”

It’s a stop-gap. Simple.

So, why should physical media stick around for the next console generation?

There’s no denying that the digital platforms have been doing extremely well in recent years. On the PC side of gaming, places like Steam and Direct2Drive have carved out massive chunks of the market for themselves. Steam in particular has done Valve all kinds of wonderful work towards reeling in a giant profit stream.

On the console side, the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and Nintendo 3DS have all built up solid digital marketplaces. Both Sony and Microsoft have gone so far as offering several full retail games for download from their services in addition to the weekly releases of arcade titles and DLC packs.

Add Apple and Google’s Android to the pile of fantastic digital distribution because of the way both platforms handle application sales. Both companies have built huge marketplaces entirely around digital sales that have made fortunes for developers around the world.

So, while I don’t think that physical media will be ditched completely, I do think that digital distribution will be ramped up even further than it currently is in the console gaming space. The PSN and XBLA of the next generation will absolutely feature more full, retail games on their virtual shelves. As the storage capacity for the hardware improves, it makes sense that both companies would offer a ton of games and content to make use of the space.

The Xbox 360 started at 20 gigabytes. Now? It sits at 250 GB with a bunch of content capable of filling it to capacity. Why would Microsoft build a SKU with that kind of hard drive if they didn’t intend to do a lot with the digital sales space?

However, physical media will not evaporate. I have a few reasons to justify my side of the argument, but I’m almost certain that you’d be able to hammer out a several that I’ve either missed or left out on purpose.

Consider gamers that don’t connect their consoles to the internet for whatever reason. Maybe it’s children whose parents don’t want them gaming online, or maybe it’s folks that suffer a terrible Internet connection in some rural place in the world. These potential customers would disappear from the marketplace if platforms went entirely digital.

Take Sony, for instance. At the PlayStation meeting that went down towards the end of January of this year, Sony announced that more than 80% of PlayStation 3s were connected to the internet. That’s a great stat, absolutely. But roughly 20% of consumers don’t even have their consoles hooked up for Internet access. And of the 80% that have gone online with their PS3s, what percentage do you think buys content on the PlayStation Store? Oh, sure, it’s high, but it’s not all 80%.

Do you think that Sony would be willing to lose the 20% of consumers that aren’t connecting their hardware to the net?

What about weird people like me? I obsess over having a nice gaming collection on my shelves. I love buying a collector’s edition of a game and walking out of the store with a hefty, five pound game case packed with art books, lithographs, collector’s tins and an action figure. That would disappear in an age without physical sales. What, EA’s going to sell me the collector’s edition of Mass Effect 6 because of the really sweet computer wallpapers it comes with? No. Pass.

Finally, consoles have become a massive piece of the entertainment center in most of the homes that they occupy. Especially the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. Sony, in particular, has spent a lot of money to ensure that their machine sports the latest and greatest physical media drive. Remember when the PlayStation 3 was part of the lineup pushing the Blu-ray medium over HD DVD? And now that they’ve eliminated their competition and made Blu-ray the current preferred movie format, will they really opt to scratch a Blu-ray drive from the PS4?

No way.

But I will say this: two, three and four console generations from now, we may finally start to see the evaporation of physical gaming media all together. For now? No. Physical media will absolutely be part of the next console generation. More digital content will come, but discs won’t leave.


Joey Davidson

Joey Davidson leads the gaming department here on TechnoBuffalo. He's been covering games online for more than 10 years, and he's a lover of all...

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