Critical Intel

Full Steam Ahead: How Digital Will Kill the Disc


This week was the first time I paid serious attention to a Steam Sale. I’m an analog guy. Let me choose my poison and I’ll buy discs not downloads, paper books instead of PDFs. For an absurdly long time, I still bought CDs and DVDs rather than switching to iTunes and Netflix. I clung to the hard copy because I could sell and lend it. Having a game disc made me feel like I’d bought something tangible, not just the digital rights to consume a piece of media. I liked game stores – yes, even GameStop – because I could browse the shelves at my leisure and talk to the employees about what they’ve liked recently. Steam sales passed me by without notice.

That’s changed. I’ve transformed from a store-and-disc man to a frothing, banner-wielding digital revolutionary ready to tear down the system. And my sudden radicalization was for a completely unexpected reason: floorspace.

I’ve always felt digital game downloads were the future, but to me that horizon was several miles distant. We’d need better internet infrastructure and release management, I reasoned – imagine the server snarls from everyone downloading the new Call of Duty at the same time. Consumers would also need some sort of price incentive to walk away from the return on investment they get from game trades and resale. Console manufacturers would need to put their shoulders behind phasing out discs; all the while placating the demographic that enjoys Collector’s Editions. That’s all still true, but recent events in my own life have made me understand what’s really going to drive the change is urbanization and our shrinking dwellings, not to mention web-connected toddlers.

When my wife accepted a job in Hong Kong, we suddenly found ourselves facing the reality of living in a world city. Sure, a young couple can’t exactly afford a mansion in Austin, Texas, but moving into one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world – without blowing our housing stipend – meant sizing down to about half the square footage we’re used to. I tried to think of it like cropping a photo, figuring out what most important and shearing off the rest. We winnowed down everything we planned to ship to about 120 cubic feet. Purged every book that wasn’t work-related or written by a friend and bought Kindles instead. Then, of course, there were the games.

My games and DVDs amounted to about three medium-sized boxes. They’d have cost somewhere around $90 to ship, and on arrival, shelving them would’ve taken up valuable floor space. Realizing that the majority of the bulk was from material that weren’t the games themselves, I ditched the cases and rehoused the whole collection in a CD folder. I hated to do it. The act went against my usual aesthetic sense. There’s a satisfaction that comes from seeing your collection all lined up on a shelf. A certain romance to selecting a title from your game library, looking at the box art and hearing the little pop as you open the case. But what’s more important, I reasoned, looking at a game, or playing it? The answer is playing it. A box is just a box – it’s what’s inside that counts. And in a rental market that charges $7 per square foot you have to weigh the costs of all those pretty boxes, since bookshelf with a 6″ x 24″ base will run you $84 a year in rent.

I couldn’t help but think that if I’d downloaded all these games, storage space and shipping would cost me $0.

I’ll be the first to admit that my case is a little extreme, but it’s also more common than you might think. People living in small spaces, from New York apartments to dorm rooms to bunks on aircraft carriers, already embrace the CD case method as a way to keep down their clutter. Eventually, when the infrastructure allows it, these people will likely switch to digital as a storage solution. And they won’t be the only ones. Demographically we’re likely to start living in smaller and smaller spaces, necessitating compact media storage that travels with us.

In 1927, when my grandmother was a little girl, the world population was two billion. Today, it’s seven billion. I’m only twenty-nine, and the population has already jumped two billion in my lifetime. Most projections suggest that there will be eight billion of us by 2030 and nine, or even ten billion by 2050. Now we’re talking long-term population trends here, not something that’ll necessarily come into play with next generation consoles, but the fact is housing will increasingly become a premium and dwelling spaces in cities will likely shrink. We’re already seeing this in some real estate markets that are desirable because of job opportunities or quality of life. My own recently departed home of Austin, Texas grew by 51.1% between 2000 and 2010. That created a crazy rental market – higher prices, smaller units, 98% occupancy. That’s the story in many cities, and we’re not even discussing a truly insane market like Manhattan, where people will charge $300 for a breakfast nook with a bed in it.

Hong Kong Skyline

People are willing to pay more for less space so they can be where the jobs are, and right now the jobs are in cities. According to the latest census, more than 80% of Americans now live in urban areas, meaning we’re concentrating our population around city centers and with that increased density comes a decrease in home size. The trend toward smaller living space is especially strong among Millenials, who’ve settled for smaller apartments or living with family to tighten their belts after getting hit hard in the recession – a situation that will likely continue as they spend the next few decades paying down student debt. In other words, cities are getting more populous, housing more expensive, and floor space is where we cut costs. Suddenly, romantic notions about media libraries start to fall away and digital goods make a lot of sense.

Added to that, digital media is easy to transport, which is an important factor for our increasingly mobile workforce. Twenty years ago workers only changed cities if their company transferred them or they heard of an open position through connections, but with the advent of the internet, job seekers can look for openings across the country and may move twice or more every decade. This is particularly the case for younger workers who have yet to settle down and start families – the demographic that videogames target the most. Physical discs cost money and time to box up and move across state lines, while downloads ride as carry-on baggage. Things get even more tempting when you consider the ramifications for people that live and work globally. It’s common these days for people to live abroad for part of their lives. Newly minted graduates head off to teach English in China. Software companies send their brightest to conduct training at a satellite office in Mumbai. Aircraft manufacturers send engineers to oversee component production in Italy or Korea. Some postings only last six months, others last years, but in both cases physical media is more trouble than it’s worth. In addition to transportation costs, overseas workers struggle with region lock and localized versions – both problems that can, or could be, avoided by going digital. You can access your Steam account overseas, for instance, though you need a workaround to purchase anything from a foreign IP. Once that problem’s solved, you can purchase games without worrying about whether they’re compatible with your hardware. The service isn’t really there for consoles yet – only this year did Xbox provide tools to easily migrate Live accounts to another country – but it’s easy to imagine game companies embracing Amazon’s model and letting people access their account from anywhere with minimal fuss. After all, it would be good for them too, since digital downloads may stem the temptation to pick up cheap foreign bootlegs.

However, the thing that makes the switch to digital almost inevitable is a generation of children raised on smartphones and tablet computers. These kids grew up reading Goodnight Moon on iPad, and their childhood gaming memories aren’t going to be about Mario and Link, they’ll be about the Angry Birds and Swampy from Where’s My Water? Downloading games won’t seem odd or different to them, since unlike us, digital ownership and physical ownership will be the same thing in their minds. They’ll probably remember GameStop the way we remember Blockbuster and Tower Records – dinosaurs killed by new distribution. Microsoft is one of the companies that’s preparing for that possibility in the near future, since the Xbox One was designed as a hybrid machine where you install games off the disc before playing them, which is likely a baby step toward wholly or partially phasing out discs over the next half a decade.

Things aren’t going to change overnight. There are still significant hurdles to overcome with digital distribution of games, the largest being that most gamers still like the freedom to lend, trade and sell their discs. However, as consumers warm to the convenience of purchasing and storing digital media and console manufacturers decide to put their weight behind the idea – preferably with price incentives to sweeten the deal for late adopters, or smaller, cheaper downloadable titles like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – digital sales both on PC and console will gain ground until they overtake the market. Eventually, discs will exist only in the realm of serious collectors, the vinyl of videogames.

So start cultivating your air of too-cool detachment, because you’ll need it in a few years when you sniff, adjust your boxy glasses and say: “Halo 5? It plays better on disc.”

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher who lives at the bottom of the Pacific, occasionally arising to ravage the coast. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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