We’ve got all digital editions for the next-gen Xbox and PlayStation coming, but all-digital platforms have always had some issues popping up that prevented widespread success. The topic is a bit of a complicated one depending on how you define “digital platforms,” but to simplify, this isn’t talking about MMOs or digital distribution platforms like Steam or GOG. This is more about the consoles lacking the use of physical media and the game streaming programs, for which we’ve had and currently have multiple – including PS Now, xCloud, and Stadia to name a few.
Now, before I get into the meat of the subject, I wanted to acknowledge one thing. While there were flaws that kept and still do keep all-digital platforms from being viable for a lot of people, things have gotten better in some ways. We do have more people with reliable Internet than we did while some of these platforms were launching. Even though it is still a big limiter, it’s something that is becoming wider spread, even as some libraries have started loaning out hotspots. Sometimes the biggest failing of some of these platforms isn’t solely the Internet issue. It was a problem with the marketing, which made it harder to find its audience. For all-digital platforms, there were also DRM issues, which made you unable to access content you bought if you happened to lose your internet connectivity, and storage space issues. Things are getting better and going all digital is the future. It even has its space right now, but there’s still work that needs to be done.
In terms of the console end, the pickings for “all-digital” consoles are sparse. Part of the reason is that they’ve always been a bit of a gamble that has never paid off on the investment. The first example is the PSP Go. It was a decent idea, but also had some major shortcomings. While the internet connection was an issue that could be kind of be worked around by downloading to a computer or a PS3, it was still a problem making the PSP Go not a commercially viable option. The other thing holding it back was the fact that, even with expandable memory, it was limited to a max of about 32GB of storage space and the proprietary M2 memory sticks were more expensive than the already proprietary memory sticks of the standard PSP. The other notable case was the Xbox One SAD. While it didn’t necessarily have the storage space issue that the PSP Go had and the Internet access situation had improved since 2009, there were a couple of issues with this release. In this case, it was mostly an issue with the marketing, timing, and DRM. The marketing and timing were issues with the SAD coming out way too late in the console’s lifecycle, needing to be discontinued to try to limit the amount of confusion regarding the next generation in a little more than a year. The value also wasn’t really communicated. While the storage wasn’t an issue, it could’ve still be doubled. And then there was the DRM, which if you lost internet connectivity, you’d be blocked off from even the digital games that you purchased because the system wasn’t able to verify whether you own the digital content. That meant that while your Internet connection was out, you would have trouble even accessing the games that you purchased.
It’s when we get into the streaming/cloud gaming platforms where things get packed, but also there were a lot of the same problems. For pretty much all the platforms, one of the big issues has always been latency and lag. Part of this still depended on some of the hardware you were dealing with. For example, with xCloud, if you’re using a 2.4GHz wireless connection, it becomes unplayable. PS Now and Stadia require a stable connection. And, for Stadia, if something goes screwy with your connection, your access to what you’re paying for or already paid for could suffer.
Another issue that’s popping up are just issues with communication or finding support and content. Stadia, while improving, had a pretty dismal launch. Aside from obvious issues with things not being properly communicated regarding performance, available features, and available games. The launch of the closed beta for xCloud had close to double the games that Stadia had at commercial launch. It was also more demanding than Stadia, but even just the fact that a beta had more content than a commercial launch says something. There’s also the struggles of nVidia’s GeForce Now. While technically a good service, there have been publishers and developers that were pulling support because you can import your Steam library into the system. So, basically publishers took support because of the lack of ways for them to fully monetize gamer use on there.
Digital will be the future and we will get there. There just needs to be more work done. The demands of major companies diving into the digital gaming space, which now also includes Amazon with Luna, could lead to increasing the quality and reliability of internet connectivity. Coupled with that increased quality and reliability of connections, the increased demand for service could expand the broadband and fiber infrastructure while driving down costs. It’ll just take a little time our communication infrastructure, quality of service, and DRM standards in a place with all-digital gaming will be regularly viable.