When I was a kid, buying video games was an incredibly stressful process. In the late ’80s, I was too young to buy magazines to find out what games deserved my hard-earned pocket-money. So, in an experience all too familiar to many millennial gamers, I used my (poor) intuition to look at the box art to decide what to bring home.
At the time, a console title cost something in the realm of $100 in today’s dollars (or over €85-95), which made each game purchase an investment requiring long consideration and thoughtful planning. At that price, every game needed to last weeks, if not months, to justify the investment. Most games achieved this with the good old “Nintendo-hard” philosophy: Brutal challenges make a relative dearth of original content last longer.
In those days, buying a game felt like being given rare access to a magical kingdom, paying a dear price for access behind golden gates instead of trying to catch a glimpse from the outside. Getting a game was an all-too-sacred ritual involving a mystical and intimate relationship with store owners who, on average, were just interested in duping naive children into buying whatever leftover stock the store had lying around.
While it was easy to be let down by individual purchases, the core holiness of the process could never be entirely stripped away. That excitement of seeing a wall full of unknown possibilities and enticing box art that beckoned to you was always there. Eventually, my local shop charged customers $12 (~€10) per month to receive an SMS alert when a copy of the game you ordered was available. But I would pay them, happily. Retail shops were the gateway to the gaming world, and conforming was the only way.
For the foreseeable future, it will be possible to still buy physical copies of games in stores, just as vinyl record releases have held on in the era of music streaming. Yet, with the game industry and consumers increasingly moving away from games on discs and toward all-inclusive subscriptions, that unique experience of “buying” physical games in a physical store may become increasingly niche.
The rise of downloads
By the early ’90s, the rise of PC shareware began to change the dynamic of physical game stores. Free or cheap game demos could be purchased by sending cash through the mail, a process that went around the brick-and-mortar stores entirely. Still, even for PC titles, caveat emptor was the ruling philosophy. Trusting magazine reviews was often akin to a round of roulette: sometimes they were spot-on, other times they’d conveniently forget to mention that a game would not last more than five hours.
In the new millennium, the landscape began to change, thanks largely to the rise of online stores that might have a much larger selection than your local game shop. These online shops were also often a cheaper alternative to a local brick-and-mortar store, but you would have to be ready for items lost in the mail or taking weeks to arrive.
By the mid-’00s, direct game downloads rose in prominence with Xbox Live Marketplace first debuting in 2005, then the Playstation Store and Nintendo Wii Shop Channel following in 2006 (on PC, Valve’s Steam would also start selling games from outside developers in 2005).
At first, digital storefronts seemed to be less of a revolution and more of a convenient alternative to physical games. Downloadable catalogs were initially dominated by low-budget indie games or remasters of older titles—games that usually didn’t make financial sense to distribute in a physical format. But the big-budget, high-priced console games still demanded a release on a physical disc in those days.
In the 2010s, that slow migration process began to speed up with the launch of monthly services—first with PlayStation Plus in 2010 and Microsoft’s Games with Gold in 2013, then the Humble Choice subscription in 2015 and Xbox Game Pass in 2017, among others. All these services deliver a monthly selection of “free” games with a subscription, either via a rotating catalog or permanent addition to one’s online account. Starting with the Wii U, console-makers also started releasing every single physical game in a purely downloadable format as well, meaning console players could join their PC brethren in ignoring game discs entirely.
An embarrassment of riches
The rise of downloadable game options has been a veritable bonanza for consumers, with a practically infinite library of games at one’s fingertips and easy-to-access crowdsourced review systems separating the wheat from the chaff. Players today can get a lot more for their money, too. The money you’d spend to purchase a single monthly game in the ’90s can now provide access to multiple subscription services with hundreds of games each, with some money left over for additional purchases. And that doesn’t even get into the free-to-play titles with frequently updated online content or the frequent steep sales on many digital storefronts.
But the rise in the number of games available and the drop in their respective prices brings its own set of problems. While subscription services can feature hundreds of games at relatively low prices, they’re also bloated with filler content that most players will ignore. These services can also lead to perverse incentives for developers, who may be paid based on how often their subscription game is played rather than for creating a satisfying but short experience.
Then there are issues of conservation. For most storefronts (except for DRM-free platforms like GoG) there is no guarantee the titles won’t one day be delisted, removed, or just plain altered due to licensing requirements or unilateral publisher decisions.
And while downloading a huge library of non-physical games does feel efficient, the whole buying interaction seems to have lost all its mystique. Buying a game is now a mere online transaction involving packets of data sent on the platform of choice. It’s a purely utilitarian process, without any of that thrill of seeing a wall of boxes at your local store.