You wouldn’t have seen the news on PlayStation LifeStyle, but Microsoft is getting ready to launch a discless Xbox One S called the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition that runs entirely on digital media. Windows Central reported on the all-digital console that’s coming in the next couple of months, and it got me thinking about the rise of digital media and how quickly it’s completely overtaken my own life.
I used to be a die hard physical media fan. I loved the feel of unwrapping new packaging, smelling the new plastic box and paper manual inside, the excitement of putting the disc in, pressing start, and playing the game. I had 40 billion CDs, 132 million DVDs, and approximately 417 trillion Blu-rays and games. But times are a’changin’.
Music was the first to go for me. Who the hell wants to carry around a CD player or deal with switching out discs in your car. I digitized my entire music library and even now I pretty much exclusively listen to Spotify or Google Music. The next thing was all of my movies, and that took a little more convincing. The simple fact is I just don’t rewatch that much stuff. There’s too much to play, read, and watch to have things on repeat like when I was younger and would watch the full Lord of the Rings extended editions once a week, as well as rewatching the entire series of LOST once every four to six months. I realized that an entire bookcase of dusty old DVDs wasn’t getting me anywhere and I got rid of all but a few of my absolute favorites.
Games were the last holdout, and I largely blame the move that publishers made to review codes rather than sending physical copies. Occasionally I’ll still get a physical game that shows up at my doorstep, but the excitement of physical just isn’t there for me anymore. In a lot of cases, buying a physical game becomes a nuisance. I only recently started playing Kingdom Hearts 3 because I bought a physical copy and never bothered to open it. The vast majority of my games library is no entirely digitized, and I really prefer the sheer convenience I’m afforded by that option. Disc-based games still have to install and download updates anyway, so it’s not like popping in a disc is any faster. There’s still hard drive space considerations to make too, and when physical media is also taking up valuable physical space, I have to make concessions.
That’s not even considering mechanical failures associated with physical media. Disc drives are usually the first component to break down on a console. In fact, my current PS4 still runs great (needs a light cleaning, but whose doesn’t?), but the mechanism that loads the discs seems like it’s wearing out. It loads and ejects discs slower than the AI companions in any game’s escort missions, and one of these days I’m worried that it will simply stop. I either won’t be able to load in new games in, or I’ll be stuck with whatever disc I have in there. The laser also has a number of faulty points as it reads the discs. Discs themselves can also get damaged. I treat my property nicely, but accidents do happen. It’s just one more variable in the physical media equation.
On the flip side, my digital library is safe and secure. Even if my whole console goes out, I simply log into my account to download it. My saves are automatically backed up to the cloud. Everything follows my account around and doesn’t rely on mechanical parts to read or play (especially true if you’re running games off of a solid state hard drive).
Will the Rise of Digital Kill Physical Media?
Nope. While I and many like me love the conveniences afforded by digital media and streaming solutions, there will always be a demand for physical. The only thing I can see really impacting the physical market to the verge of “killing” it would be adoption of digital rental strategies. People love using Redbox and Gamefly because they don’t need to purchase a game or worry about selling the used copy once they are finished with it. The pick it up, hold onto it as long as they want to play it, and return it when they are done. That’s not quite possible yet in a digital environment, though that’s not for lack of services like PS Now and Xbox Game Pass trying. With the release of the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, Microsoft is clearly pushing towards the all-digital future, which is another thing that could kill physical.
Manufacturers often set the tone for moving things forward. Get in many modern cars and look around for a CD player. Mine doesn’t have one, but it instantly connects to the phone in my pocket and starts up Spotify. Similarly, if console manufacturers determine that the age of the disc is done, all they have to do is make consoles without a disc drive. They’ll be cheaper to manufacturer and would push the digital connected future that Microsoft originally tried to launch with its initial plans for the Xbox One. I don’t see the next generation of consoles being exclusively all-digital quite yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if both Sony and Microsoft offered discless skus for cheaper than the ones with a disc drive.
The truth is that physical media will always have a place. Just look at the resurgence of vinyl records for music as a collectible item and something to listen to in a very specific way. Likewise, companies like Limited Run Games fill the desire that many have for physical copies of traditionally digital-only games, and they succeed because the market is there. I’m sure that Sony and Microsoft see this, and they probably have all sorts of metrics on number of people playing games digitally versus disc. If the rumors are true, Microsoft obviously thinks the digital market share is big enough to at least offer an all-digital option.
Digital itself won’t be the thing that kills physical media, but hardware manufactures could determine the fate of the disc over the next decade or so. If they decide that their strategies and investments are better poured into digital, streaming, and cloud options, we could see compatibility with physical media dwindle. There will inevitably be an outcry when it happens, but technology moves faced and people would quickly adapt and learn to embrace a digital-only future. We’re already halfway there. My guess is it wouldn’t be that drastic of a change for most.
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