The PS5, Xbox All-Digital, and the Future of Physical Media

Physical media is doomed. That’s a reality I recently came to terms with. It doesn’t matter how hard I kick and scream. Within the next decade, the gaming industry will entirely shift to a digital platform. Thanks to services like Steam, PCs have already made the move. I can’t even think of the last PC game that received an actual physical release. And I fear the same future for console gaming.

The positive is it’s the environment-friendly choice. Cutting the disc from the industry means less pollution and e-waste.

My concern? When you buy a physical game, you physically control the license. You can sell, transfer, or even destroy the game. A shift to digital-only services would be the end to all of that. With digital-only services, control is out of your hands. If a digital service decides you can’t sell or transfer your license, then tough. Even worse, if the digital service fails, you could lose access to an entire library of games.

It’s clear that the industry wants to move to digital-only platforms. Telling signs include news that Xbox Live will soon be available on the Nintendo Switch, the quick adoption of the Epic Games Store, and the announcement of Stadia, Google’s upcoming gaming service. Digital platforms give developers further reach on more devices. The money is there too. Just last year EA posted a $1.29 billion Q2 revenue, 61% of which was from digital sales. The industry also perceives gamers to find digital gaming more convenient and affordable.

But Blu-ray discs aren’t going to disappear just yet. Sony’s next-generation PlayStation (presumably called the PS5) will still use physical media. In a WIRED article published April 16th, 2019, Mark Cerny, Sony’s Lead Systems Architect, said:

For example, the next-gen console will still accept physical media; it won’t be a download-only machine. Because it’s based in part on the PS4’s architecture, it will also be backward-compatible with games for that console.

This decision isn’t surprising. Sony has been under the gun to include backward compatibility since removing PS2 compatibility from the PS3. But after Microsoft’s blunderous 2013 E3 conference where they announced that the Xbox One would require an online connection and that gamers would have to pay a license fee to give another gamer a used copy of a game, Sony won some points by appearing friendly towards the used game market. (They even took a jab at Microsoft’s blunder shortly afterward.) So it’s no wonder that Sony would keep fans happy by sticking to a proven system.

Conversely, Microsoft does appear to be moving forward with digital-only services. Microsoft announced the Xbox One S All-Digital, also on April 16th. As the name implies, this new version will be ditching physical media. The disc-drive is gone making for a slimmer, cheaper machine. This new console isn’t Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox. Instead, it’s a more affordable alternative. Still, it’s telling where Microsoft’s head is at.

Microsoft will be delivering their E3 2019 Briefing on June 9th. With Sony turning up the next-gen heat, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Microsoft spilled the beans on the coming generation. Has Microsoft been prepping their fans for an all-digital next-gen machine or will they follow Sony in sticking with a traditional disc-drive? We’ll have to wait till June to find out.

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