We’ve written about digital games before. Generally, it’s about things like internet infrastructure issues, ownership rights, and that sort of thing. We tend to lean on the skeptic side, the side that isn’t so sure if we’re ready for the purported “digital-only future” we hear so much about. But, regardless of our feelings on it or yours, the future is coming faster than it may have seemed before.
In 2018, something significant happened. For big games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, FIFA 19, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, and Soulcalibur VI, press releases would go out not long after launch day touting record sales. In the case of the UK, we get actual sales numbers, to an extent. But regardless of the records being broken or approached, games have been selling great in general this year. But one number has been dropping.
That number is physical sales. This year has seen a huge decrease in the number of physical sales for the biggest, AAA games. Well, of course, the ones that are parts of long-running franchises that can be tracked against their previous iterations. In some cases, like Soulcalibur VI, it makes more sense to see that number drop, as the previous game was so long ago. But with the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty, there are definitely movements happening on the consumer side of things. People are embracing digital sales at a high rate of speed.
Physical sales aren’t being erased . Retail is too important still to the overall sales equation, and you still have plenty of people that don’t have a choice, who can’t handle enormous downloads. Hell, Red Dead Redemption 2 is an unprecedented two-disc release, because that game is so huge and Rockstar Games doesn’t want to alienate that part of its userbase. But other things are starting to happen to alongside digital sales, that I think are a sign of fast progress in the digital direction.
I got into Google’s Project Stream beta test, which is Google’s testing phase for not necessarily an outright platform, but it seems presented right now as a technological proof of concept. Either way, I was able to boot up Google Chrome, the internet browser, and get freakin’ Assassin’s Creed Odyssey running on that thing. All I needed was an ethernet cable and a USB controller, and I was good. And let me be the first to say, my laptop is not a high-end gaming device, yet there I was playing this brand new game at high settings in my browser.
NVIDIA has its own service it has been quietly running in beta as well, that also shows how far streaming technology has come since the unfortunate launch of PlayStation Now, and dead services from years past. It’s not browser-based, so it’s a bit less immediately impressive compared to Project Stream, but it still runs great, as long as your internet connection is solid enough. It even goes through your own Steam account, while we still don’t know what Google has up its sleeve in terms of ownership.
So what I’m looking at here is a landscape that has long been rumored, and is very quickly coming true as time passes. Customers themselves are speaking with their wallets, and their wallets are saying that digital game sales are often preferable to physical copies. Of course, physical copies are becoming more of a boutique collector’s space at the same time, with more physical releases of games coming with extra goodies and shelf doodads than before. So between the hard sales numbers, the rise of streaming (Microsoft is cooking something up as well!), and things like special physical editions, the answer is that there is still room for everyone, but the landscape is shifting, and digital is likely going to become the new default sooner than you might have expected.