In 2015, The New York Times declared that the gaming industry had reached a “turning point” after downloads finally outstripped physical sales. Citing falling earning by retailers such as GameStop in the lead-up to Christmas 2015 and developers like Electronic Arts (EA) reporting 20% of its new games are now downloaded, it was easy to sympathize with the somber tone.
However, as with all live vs. online battles, the argument isn’t always that simple. In reality, it’s fair to say that the “physical” aspects of gaming are gradually being eroded by downloads. Having to blow the dust off a cartridge before physically inserting it into a console and waiting for it to load is now a dying art. Downloads have not only made it easier and cheaper to purchase the latest games, but it’s made the playing process a lot more efficient. Indeed, once you’ve downloaded the content, the game is always there at a click of a button.
In fact, the movement towards ease and efficiency is one that’s spread through the entire gaming industry. Away from console gaming, it now seems that more people are turning to online casino-style games rather than visiting their local casino. As reported by the UK Gambling Commission, online gaming outstripped live gaming revenue between April 2015 and March 2016. Through a combination of casino, poker, lottery and bingo, operators raked in £4.5 billion ($5.6 billion) which was £1 billion ($1.24 billion) more than betting shops and the national lottery.
So why would people prefer to bet online rather than live? Well, the obvious answer is ease. Take, for instance, bingo. In years gone by, bingo was seen as a fairly mundane game reserved for people over 50. Today, however, it’s a mix of high-octane action, themed games and big-money jackpots. For example, at one of the leading online bingo sites, Sun Bingo, the Showboat Room is a place where games take less than five minutes to complete.
Accessible via desktop and mobile, these essentially allow players to buy a ticket and play extremely efficiently. Contrast this with a live game of bingo where you have to travel to a venue, wait for the game to start and then sit through a game for upwards of 15 minutes and it’s easy to see why more people now prefer to ante up online.
However, even if iGaming is now bringing in the big bucks, it hasn’t stopped people from travelling to Las Vegas. In fact, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) reported a record number of visitors to Sin City in 2016. Although not all of the 42.9 million tourists were there solely to gamble, a large percentage did which suggests there’s still something to be said for the physical side of gaming.
Now, if we bring it back to our side of the gaming world, there’s undoubtedly a nostalgia attached to conventional games that just can’t be denied. In fact, evidence for this came to the fore at the close of 2016 with the release of Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini. After selling out in stores around the world (1.5 million units were released), Nintendo has increased production in order to satisfy demand. Although the mini console doesn’t come equipped with dozens of cartridges (the games are preloaded), the fact people are clamoring to “go retro” with their gaming experience suggests that we’re not quite over the old school just yet.
If we look beyond the undeniable nostalgia physical games conjure up, there’s also the issue of reliability. Yes a CD can get scratched and cartridges used to pick up more dust than a vacuum cleaner, but at least the product was there at all times. Although online servers are extremely powerful, they’re not immune to outages.
Indeed, the leading mobile game of 2016, Pokémon Go, has seen its servers go down a number of times. The most recent global outage was confirmed by developer Niantic, but the underlying issue was never made public. These sorts of issues can often interrupt your gaming experience and would suggest that online services aren’t the answer to all your gaming needs.
Of course, if we’re realistic about it, the best way forward for everyone is to have a solution that sits somewhere in the middle. Having something to cling onto, a physical token you can feel, look at and actually get excited about is something we’ll always cherish as gamers. However, we’re also tech fans and we know the best way to get the latest content most efficiently is to make it available online.
With this in mind, it seems the current culture of using physical gaming hardware as a portal to a world of additional online content is the way forward. However, try as we might, it’s unlikely it will stay that way forever. The New York Times was right about downloadable content moving into a dominant position and with mobile gaming revenue now higher than console earnings, it’s unlikely we’ll stay “physical” for much longer.