A Question of Value



I don’t trust digital downloads when it comes to buying games. It’s not the convenience or anything like that, but rather this idea that I’ve never been able to shake, or rather a question: “If you don’t have a physical copy: a disk, cartridge, or whatever else you could put a game on, can you really call it yours?” It’s never felt right, especially now after Microsoft’s attempt to redefine games as a paid service rather than a product one buys and owns.

I’ts not a question of format however, but one of value. I love digital streaming services like Netflix, VUDU, and Hulu because they offer value. For about $7 month I get access to all the TV and movies I could ever want to watch, for $3 I can rent something that just came out. There’s real value to be found in these services.

Games are different though aren’t they? The cost for a game isn’t a few bucks a month, but rather $40 or $50 for each one. If you put that kind of money down on something, wouldn’t you like to think that it would be at your disposal indefinitely? It just doesn’t seem right to pay that much for a game when there’s the possibility that the service that provided it could either discontinue support or go out of business and take that game with it. It would feel like a waste, and that’s not even counting all the time and energy put into playing the game.

But what if the cost weren’t so high? What if the normal cost of a digital download of a game were closer to what we see in Steam sales? I’m not saying I’d be happy to see physical copies of games go or anything (far from it), but if the trade-off was realizing the true cost-reducing potential of digital distribution, I’d have to say that I’d have a lot less to complain about. If games cost a fraction of what they do now, would any of us have much reason to complain?

If this were to happen and we lost physical copies of games, I suppose it would be very easy to redefine gaming as a service rather than a product. It would be easier to think of games as a service rather than a product.

Would such an arrangement provide the same kind of value for the average gamer’s buck though? Can we attribute value to games in the same way we do with movies and television?

I’m thinking that perhaps it could, but it would be value drawn squarely from the reduced cost rather than the freedom of use we currently enjoy with physical copies.

The question I put to you is this: Would the trade-off be worth it? Would fully-realized digital distribution usher in a new and better era of gaming, or would we lose something of what made games valuable in the first place?

14 thoughts on “A Question of Value”

  1. I personally believe that the distinction between physical game packages or digital downloads is becoming quite blurry, when games also include servers that we (the gamers) cannot control and own. Think about the latest Sim City: even excluding the DRM, if its servers would be shut down, you would be left with a very different game than the one you bought, one in which you cannot interact with your friends’ cities (and whatever else); having a physical copy would help you very little in preserving your original gaming experience.

    This said, I share renxkyoko opinion above: there is something extremely satisfactory in holding a box, a manual, game discs and so on. This is even more true if we go back a few years to when game box formats and contents where not standardized…

    1. You make a good point, nowadays we’re seeing more and more game functionality getting tied into the internet. It would be difficult to consider a game yours if so much of it is tied up on servers that you have no influence over.

      As for game boxes, are there any in particular that stand out in your mind? When I think of unusual boxes, the first thing that comes to mind is the one for Earthbound.

      1. When it comes to boxes, nothing beats the old, huge and luxuriously painted Psygnosis Amiga game boxes with art by Roger Dean – Shadow Of The Beast II is my absolute favourite.

        When it comes to overall content, SSI’s Gold Box games are also fantastic, with lots of material that sucks you in the game world… And the game box is gold-coloured, golden boxes are cool!

  2. Speaking personally as a non-collector, I’m in favor of digital distribution, though I think the process is too young to evaluate as being better or worse physical disks. (That said, it does seem to be the way the industry is headed, whether we like it or not.) I have an downloaded copy of Skyrim that plays just as well as it does on disk, and I don’t miss the case, manual, etc. The game doesn’t feel any less valuable to me because it’s not on my shelf. I place more value on the experience of playing than on the experience of having the thing in hand. But…that probably places me in a minority of gamers as most I know tend to want to hold onto their games.

    Speaking from the historian’s point of view, I don’t want to see physical games go the way of the dodo by any means. They need to be preserved, and are no less worthy of this than fine art. Though once a game is turned into an artifact, its value evolves from that of use to that of memory. It become a thing to be gazed upon, to learn about, to hold in esteem. The joy and happiness we associate with games is what makes them valuable; and those feelings are more accessible while looking at a shelf of boxes rather than a screen of choices.

    1. That’s an interesting perspective Cary. In fact, I think you just defined (at least in part) how nostalgia works when it comes to games. Now that I think about it, I actually have a couple of games that I have, and think fondly of when I see them, but only rarely play. It’s an odd process isn’t it?

  3. I personally prefer to own the physical copy. While I do see the value in having a digital download being much cheaper than the physical copy and it saves on space in your room, I tend to get a bit paranoid about losing the copy completely or somehow companies will, as you said, not let players have full ownership of a game they paid for.

    1. Well, it is hard to place your trust in the game companies when one of the larger ones tries to revoke some of the ownership rights we’ve always enjoyed when it come to our games.

  4. If console games were available for Steam Sale prices I’m sure we’d all be converts, though newly launching games are still being sold at retail price on the service.

    The problem is with the perceived value loss. At the same price point for a new game, digital downloading means you lose the manual (admittedly declining in quality over the years), a box that adds allure to collectors or shelvers, and the freedom of a game disc, which carries with it freedom to share, play at another location and even sell back. The only real benefits of digital are convenience of not having to go to a store to purchase and that older games are cheaper than alternative options.

    If digital gaming was available like the above-mentioned Netflix or Hulu, as a service that allowed for multiple games to be played for one set price, I’d be having a very different response. Until then, if I’m paying $60 for a new game either way, I’d like the physical copy because it gives more.

    1. I guess Cary had it right in their comment: the technology and infrastructure is still too young. It would definitely be more worth our while if digital copies offered more than simple convenience. Still, even if that were the case I don’t see anything making up for the freedom of the physical copy.

  5. I prefer hard copies. I like to feel like I own my games and can play whenever I like (I don’t want to get deeply attached to a game, as I often do, but know someday I can never play it again). It also doesn’t feel “official” having a digital copy, even if it’s the same exact game. I could have downloaded “FFVII” for $10, but instead I spent a great deal more buying a PS1 copy to play on my PS2 (plus, my only option at the time for download was onto a tiny PSP screen). If games cost less, I would certainly be less upset about games being digital only, for the reasons you said. I am not spending $50 for something I can only have temporarily. Especially with games, which I like to replay over the years. I don’t play them just once, unless I dislike them, which in that case, who cares what happens to them. But, I still won’t be happy games are digital, no matter how little they cost.

    1. That’s the real problem isn’t it? The expiration date. It doesn’t matter how far off into the future it is, just knowing that one day you won’t be able to go back to it really kills any appeal digital games have.

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