As technology advances, we start to wonder exactly what should carry over from previous generations. Most recently, this has begun to manifest in potential future console designs. As we grow weary of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, we turn to the sparkling horizon of whatever the future may bring. But one thing that's on everyone's minds, perhaps more a console's look, controller's shape, or price point, is if the system will have a disc drive. The humble disc has been with us through much of gaming's past. But is that loyalty coming to an end?
There are rumors flying that the PlayStation 5 and next-gen Xbox console might ship without a disc drive. This is all hearsay and is always subject to change. Think of it like the Xbox One “releasing” with a necessary Kinect. Yeah, that didn't last long, did it? Even if the big boys decide that they want to try a console without a disc drive, player and consumer sentiment could change their minds in the final hour. But what if that really is the future of console gaming?
PC gamers have already largely made the (once considered bizarre or insane) switch to digital game purchases. Platforms like Steam, Origin, GOG, and Humble all provide access to their games whenever they want them. There's no need to keep CD albums full of discs, no shelf space required to hold game boxes, and more options for playing. Have multiple PCs or laptops? No problem! With your digital accounts, you can generally download and install multiple copies of your favorite game, just like you would with a disc. But there's no necessary searching through 18 different drawers or boxes in the back of your closet to find the one you want to play. Just put in a few search terms, and there's that retro classic you were hoping to enjoy. If PC gamers can make the switch to digital and enjoy it as much as they do, it's possible for console fans to do the same.
There's also the fact that discs really do just come with extra problems. Not only do you have to worry about where to store them and how to find them later, you have to keep them safe. Discs that get scratched, dirty, or otherwise tainted and damaged might not work anymore. If you have a digital copy of a game, you only have to worry about an Internet connection. And if something goes wrong with your digital game, you have avenues you can explore to get it replaced (or at the least discover a patch that fixes your problem immediately). We don't have as many options with a physical disc, especially those that are old and hard to find. I'm not going to be able to just step out my door and find a copy of The Legend of Dragoon if something happened to the fictional copy I currently own.
This isn't just limited to older games and discs either though. I ran into the physical versus digital problem just recently. I felt a hankering to play a The Witcher game, so I grabbed my copy of the The Witcher 3 and popped it into my PlayStation 4. I watched through the lengthy opening cinematic sequence, got super hyped, and was looking forward to getting into it. I paused the game to check something online really quick and was very soon after presented with the dreaded error screen. “The disc is unreadable.” Fudge! I took it out to make sure there weren't any visible problems with it, cleaned it off a bit, and tried again. This time I made it all the way through the cinematic yet again, only to have the error appear after the main menu. A further attempt later led to the error in the middle of the opening sequence. I'd had it. A few other disc tests later to make sure my PS4 wasn't the problem, and I realized I had a dead disc that couldn't be returned.
This isn't to say that digital doesn't come without its own problems. We have to make sure our systems have a reasonable amount of storage space. No one likes having to delete three or four smaller games (or a couple large ones) to download a brand new exciting title. As storage capabilities get better and better (and cloud-based gaming improves), this will become less of a problem. There is also the concern that licenses may expire, items may be delisted, and things will become permanently unavailable. But the technology just isn't really there yet.
So will the PlayStation 5 and next Xbox lack a disc drive? My guess is probably no. It's just not an entirely viable and convenient option for gamers yet. But it's nice to imagine a world where this might be possible in the future.