Our Relationship With Physical Media Is About to Change

Patrick Klepek

When I buy a video game in a box these days, it's because of one reason: this game means enough to me that I want it taking up precious space in my apartment. I want it to exist outside of a hard drive. That feels real.

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The death of physical media is coming, and not limited to games. It will impact every medium, and nothing can stop it. But death is such a hyperbolic term. It makes a good headline, it might underscore the broader trend, but it's also untrue. It's simply changing.

There might be a day when physical media ceases to exist, but I doubt it. What's released, however, might become more selective, targeting collectors and the nostalgic. Physical will become a premium that specific consumers pay for, and the rest move on. How do you explain the rising sales of vinyl music?

In the coming years, most of us will redefine our relationship with physical media. It's going to become more important. What we physically own will come to represent us in a brand-new way. It's no longer about access. The same way posters, action figures, and other accents are strategically placed in our apartments to materially represent our interests and values, physical media is joining that club.

The launch of EA Access, a new subscription service from the company that loves angering people with new subscription services, might be the company's most interesting offer yet. It doesn't offer anything I'd be willing to pay for, but as a thought experiment, it's fascinating. For a monthly ($4.99) or annual ($29.99) fee, subscribers gain access to The Vault, a selection of EA games currently limited to Battlefield 4, Peggle 2, FIFA 14, and Madden NFL 25. It's slim pickings at the moment, given EA's immense back catalog, but the The Vault's currently limited to what EA's published on Xbox One. That means no Dungeon Keeper or Wing Commander.

While I'd love a Netflix for games, we're years away from that, and individual publishers are probably not our best route there. Who wants to subscribe to a Universal Pictures subscription service? It's more likely EA Access provides a template for broader services, ones Sony is currently experimenting with through PlayStation Now. Only a few publishers could get away with charging individual subscriptions. The only one might be Nintendo. It's easier to imagine paying for a subscription with a rotating lineup (i.e. Netflix/PlayStation Now), and spending more to play what you want, when you want (i.e. PlayStation Network/iTunes).

I don't own many video games anymore, but that depends on our definition of ownership. Even though I've purchased numerous games on Steam, Xbox Live, and PSN, I don't own them. I've purchased a license to play them, a license that won't necessarily last forever, and nothing guarantees my previous purchases will work when the next wave of hardware arrives. That's been more and more true as hardware's grown more complex.

With the exception of media no longer working on new hardware, a situation more frequent for games, this paragraph could be rephrased to reflect the vast majority of my purchases today.

  • I don't own many movies anymore because I'm streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.
  • I don't own many books anymore because I'm buying digitally from Amazon and iTunes.
  • I don't own many albums anymore because I'm streaming on Spotify and Pandora.

Each of these services are riddled with DRM, but it doesn't bother me. I get what I want at really great prices.

Here's a look at the shelf above my TV.

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There's one other shelf in my home that has a stack of boxes. It's mostly horror and TV.

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Both of those shelves are really important to me. It represents so much about me and my wife. There's limited space, which means what's there has importance. It's not the newest purchase, it's not a random selection, they're my favorites. If you look through that shelf, you can glean an idea of my tastes and values, and get a small understanding of who I am. Over time, that's where physical media is going: representing personality.

Puppet Master, Upright Citizens Brigade, Friday the 13th, X-Files, Futurama. That's me.

Catherine, BioShock, Prince of Persia (2008!!), Klonoa, Mirror's Edge, Dark Souls. That's me.

It's not a perfect system, of course. There are scads of digital games, books, and movies that I "own" not represented. Sometimes, I mull printing out box art, so games like Super Meat Boy or Journey can join them.

When I originally moved to San Francisco, most of my games were removed from cases, shoved into a binder, and thrown under a couch. Know how many times I opened up that binder? Probably twice. This wasn't a back catalog, it was diary of abandoned purchases, one I trimmed every time my wife and I moved. As we'd pack boxes, I'd look through our shelves, comb through the binder, and toss what I hadn't seen, played, or listened to. If I really wanted to play that copy of Viva Pinata that I'd been telling myself I'd eventually play, I'll buy it again.

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This isn't everyone, of course. I'm painting with a broad brush. Lots of people like having collections. That's not me. That's OK! And there are reasons, even for me, to have small collections. I'm tired of purchasing Super Mario Bros. for every new platform Nintendo puts out, for example, so I'm happy to have a CRT with a bunch of old consoles hooked up to it. Sony and Microsoft are only going to port a handful of games from PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 onto the new platforms, so I'll need to keep them around, in case I want to play You Don't Know Jack.

I'm conveniently looking at the upside, but maybe that's because this transition already happened with books, movies, and music, while games lag behind. Specifically, it's console games. How many Steam users are upset over the death of the box? PC gaming used to be dying, now it's bigger than ever. Do you want a box or hundreds, if not thousands, of games for way cheaper? Give a little, gain a lot. It means the publishers gain more control, but consumers have benefited, too. Steam is DRM, but most are happy. The benefits of Steam have not totally trickled down to consoles, but it's coming. PlayStation Plus was the first sign, and Microsoft soon followed with Games with Gold. There will be much more of that.

Or maybe not. Maybe we'll give up control, games will be ruined, and we're all screwed. I'm an optimist!

The question is whether Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and publishers like EA can provide better reasons to choose digital. It has to be more than convenience. That's not much of a carrot anymore. EA Access provides a hint of where we're going. We'll see how quickly that happens, but we're marching (dragging?) in that direction.

In the meantime, I just looked at my shelf. Who wants a copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl? I don't need it.