Recently, on one of my many trips around the interwebs, I came across a juicy rumour for the PSP2. Namely, this rumour stated that the next generation of Sony's venerable portable hardware would eschew the standard UMD drive in favour of a strictly digital downloads for all games. This rumour seems to hand in hand with the general wisdom that the future of gaming distribution is through strictly digital channels.
If this is, in fact, the reality then this is a colossally idiotic manoeuvre on Sony's part.
So far in this hardware generation, there has been something of a harmony between physical media and downloadable content. How things are right now are how they should be. Despite all this belly-aching from the industry about losing revenue to the used games market and rhetoric about how digital downloads are the future, a strictly digital gaming industry is one that I don't want to have any part of. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a PSP2 that relies strictly on digital distribution would be the greatest hardware failure since the days of the Virtual Boy and the 32X.
Below I have stated several reasons why this movement is either supremely moronic and/or doomed to fail.
Massive Job Losses
Despite however you may feel about the service at your local EB games or GameStop, the fact remains that the employees there people too. They go to work, they pay their bills, and they have mouths to feed just like everyone else. If we were to eliminate physical media from the equation and relied solely on digital distribution, these stores would be going out of business in a hurry. Beyond the thousands upon thousands of retail jobs that would be lost due this paradigm shift in the industry, it would not only be retailers who would suffer a loss of revenue.
Think about the factories that manufacture the DVDs, cartridges, and Blu-Ray discs that games today come on. How would you explain this to someone who manufactures these physical mediums and has been laid off to make room for a digital gamespace? Even the people who manufacture the wonderful cases that these games come in would be found in the breadlines. What about the printers who make the inserts and instruction manuals? The job losses to such a shift would be catastrophic and unnecessary to an economy that is already dangling precariously close to a full blown depression.
Digital Distribution Makes a Parent's Job Harder
With all the hubbub about how video games are corrupting the youth of the nation, doesn't it make sense to put as many middle-men and women in between your child and that tantalizing copy of Grand Theft Auto 4? Being the parent of a gamer is hard, and keeping inappropriate content out of the hands of minor is a tough enough job as it is. With all the legal threats and rules that require retailers to ask for ID when selling M-rated games, it only makes sense to keep these people in the fold. If a child wants to download an M-rated game, it's only as far as a keyboard or a controller away.
Yes, I know there are many parental control functions in every system nowadays, but most parents never even think of investigating these functions. Even then, a password between a child and a violent video game is rarely much of a deterrent, especially when anybody can sign up a new Xbox Live silver or PlayStation Network ID for free.
The Used Game Market Makes Gaming Affordable
Let's face it, gaming is an expensive hobby. The used market is a great way to keep costs down and let you trade in an obsolete gaming experience for something new and fresh. Sure, trading in three or four games for a new copy of Call of Duty 48: Medieval Warfare or Ukulele Hero: Universe Tour doesn't always seem like a great deal, but if those games are gathering dust on your shelf, it beats paying the $69.99 sticker price. In a solely digital world, those games stay on your hard-drive or memory stick, untouched, unused, and forgotten. Their value to you as a customer is made nil as soon as the end credits roll.
As a side note, I'm getting sick of these game companies bitching and moaning about lost revenues due to the used game market. I say suck it up and get used to it. Movies, music, and books have thrived while maintaining an enormous second hand market. Why should games be immune?
Plus, having a physical medium for games means that you can rent and borrow games from others. The ability to swap games with my friends and local blockbuster is not a right that I'm prepared to give up so easily.
It's this simple. If I'm bored with a game or it outright sucks, I want a way to gain some sort of value from my investment. This is impossible in a digital space.
Physical Media is Collectible
This here is the nerd in me coming out, but I simply love having a bookshelf full of games to choose from. There's something fantastic about having a collection to display and show off to your friends. No one ever looked at a list of games on a screen and became green with envy. The collecting aspect of gaming is one that certainly should not be overlooked, especially when it comes to the hardcore market.
Besides, how would game makers suck a few extra bucks out of the hardcore without releasing a special edition of their next big game? It's for this very reason why DVDs and Blu-ray discs continue to sell like hotcakes despite the convenience of downloadable editions.
I don't know about you, but when I put my money down for entertainment of any media, I'd rather spend my tangible money on something tangible that I can hold and touch. Spending money on code being sent via the internet to my house just doesn't seem like the same value.
Digital Distribution is Far From a Proven Commodity
Hitching all your hopes on an unproven commodity is a recipe for disaster. The music industry not withstanding, how many true success stories have you heard about digital distribution? Movies? You've got to be kidding. I guarantee you that for every downloaded movie, there are five copies of the DVD or Blu-Ray sold. Books? When's the last time you downloaded a novel to read? Gaming is no different. Yes, it's been a success so far in terms of the Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade, but those systems don't require the downloading. It's an option that's there if you want it, and that's the way it should be.
Technology is Definitely Not Ready for an Entirely Digital Method of Distribution
Part of the reason you spent all that money on that shiny new console of yours is because its technology appealed to you, whether it's the Wii-mote or the high definition graphics of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The best experiences are made possible by having a physical medium of distribution. Would Metal Gear Solid 4 be what it is if it was a downloadable title? Not unless you were willing to download the 50 gigs that fills a standard Blu-Ray disc.
This leads to the next point, which is that internet infrastructure is simply not equipped to deal with the additional strain of an entirely digital distribution service. Most service providers in my area have instituted download caps and have begun charging exorbitant prices for going over that limit. Just average internet usage coupled with online gaming can sometimes be enough to go over such a limit. Expecting people to add several dozen gigs to this is sheer lunacy.
A Strictly Digital Space Means a Lot More Crap to Wade Through
The iPhone/iPod Touch market has ensured that since anyone can make an app and sell it, they will. Have you tried buying a new game on app store recently? It's maddening. There are thousands and thousands of titles to choose from, and 95% are beyond the worst kind of crap you'll find on a physical media. Digital distribution dilutes the quality of what is available. A great game stays on store shelves longer. A great downloadable game gets buried underneath a sea of crap that inevitably follows its release.
...and Finally, Tradition
Physical media is how I've always experienced gaming, and there are millions of you out there who are the same way. Yes, yes, I know all about how successful Steam has been, and the convenience of having a new release sitting on your hard drive, waiting to be unlocked at the stroke of midnight. Hell, I even love the fact that I can download classic games from my youth, long out of print. This is where downloadable content shines. However, that doesn't mean that I'm ready to give up the experience of heading over to my favourite games shop, chatting up the clerks, finding out what's selling well, and anticipating my playtime on the trip home.
It seems ironic in a hobby and industry that is heavily reliant on ever increasing technology that we're teetering precariously close to losing the human element of gaming. I pray I'm right when I predict that the first major dedicated gaming system (iPhone doesn't count since it's more of a phone/PDA than gaming system) to rely solely on digital distribution will crash and burn more spectacularly than any hardware to come before it. The 32X is counting on it.