IMHO – physical media in gaming is doomed

With Apple's new iPad, the PS Vita and OnLive driving gamers away from physical discs, is physical media a thing of the past for games? And is that a good thing?

Physical media has been a major part of gaming since the days when you’d whack a cassette tape in your C64 and subject your lugholes to ten minutes of horrific screeching in order to play Dizzy. DVD and Blu-ray means we’re well past that stage now – and amen to that – but increasingly we’re getting the feeling that the future of gaming, even the near future, resides away from physical media.

The signs are all there. Game, for so long gaming’s primary representative on the high street, is staring down the barrel of the administration gun. The PlayStation Vita has ditched discs, with games supplied on solid state storage or via download. And the Xbox 720 may follow suit and do away with the optical disc drive.

Valve’s Steam service, providing game downloads for PC and Mac, is so popular that founder Gabe Newell is a billionaire – and Valve may yet make its move into gaming hardware. Microsoft and Sony seem ever more keen to get gamers shopping for games and DLC through their online stores.

Meanwhile the app-driven iPad, along with other mobile devices, is now in a position to challenge consoles as a gaming device – though we feel that Apple needs to up its game to appeal to hardcore gamers. Then there’s OnLive, a cloud games console that streams games through your broadband connection.

It makes perfect sense, if you’re a games developer, to want to distribute all your games through downloads. Why? Well, it effectively kills off the second-hand market – meaning that rather than pick up games through eBay, from friends or from bricks and mortar shops like GAME, gamers will have to buy new games all the time. The publisher gets paid top dollar for each new purchase – and online activation also makes piracy trickier.

What’s good for the publisher isn’t necessarily good for the gamer, though.

One reason the shift hasn’t happened sooner is the state of broadband worldwide. Even in countries where fast broadband is prevalent, such as the UK and US, not enough people have fast broadband to make downloads a universal possibility. And then there are countries like New Zealand where fast broadband is a rarity.

As soon as broadband gets where the publishers want it to be, the gaming world could see all physical media become as distant a memory as those creaky old cassette tapes. And we, the consumers, might wish it was still around.

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