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Wave goodbye to physical games

RetailThe future of games

Take a look at the games in your collection. How many of those will you never play again? Half? Three quarters? What eventually happens to all the games that sit on our shelves? We either bin them or sell them on to someone else who still wants to play them. If you don’t throw them in the trash, someone else eventually will. Maybe they might be lucky enough to end up in a collection or in storage where they’ll sit for years, but their fate is ultimately sealed. Most of all the videogames ever produced are probably in landfill right now, and it wasn’t just Atari that put them there.

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Before games arrive at your house, they have to get there. They begin their journey at the manufacturing plant, which is usually in the continent that they’re being sold. If you buy your games in the UK, for instance, they usually come with “Made in Europe” on the back of the box. This isn’t too bad, since they’re not coming all the way from Southeast Asia, but they still have to go to distribution depots, central retailer warehouses and to individual shops. Whether you buy online or go into a shop to buy it, your game still has to travel the distance, which usually works out to be hundreds or thousands of miles in total.

Your videogames have a comfortable ride though. Take a look at the standard DVD and Blu-ray cases that most games come in these days; they’re huge! Given the amount of space that a disc occupies, the size of the boxes that they are sold in is far too big. Imagine all the oil that could be saved from not producing the excess plastic that goes into making oversized videogame cases. Consider all of the manufacturing that went into the production of the each manual, all of which is totally unnecessary.

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Videogame packaging could be substantially reduced and the benefits of doing so are good for everyone. If games are smaller, you can fit more of them into trucks and on to planes. Fewer vehicles transporting our games means few emissions and lower shipping costs for manufacturers. This is something Apple has been doing over the last few years to great effect, so why can’t the games industry do the same?

There is one very obvious answer to these problems and it’s already here: digital downloads. When games only exist in the form of bits in memory, there is almost zero manufacturing and transportation costs. There’s nothing going into landfill and the only emissions are from the electricity that you were using anyway. Digital downloads reduce costs for videogame producers, make piracy prevention easier and cut out the second hand market, where publishers and developers see no returns. For the customer, games can be accessed almost instantly and never take up excess space in our homes.

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Of course, this is already happening. Steam has been a major success on the PC, as has the App Store on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Smaller games and updates can be downloaded on all three consoles and Sony’s PSP Go was released with no UMD drive. The move to digital downloads is a trend that’s been coming for a long time and having a similar effect on the music and film industries. So what’s the problem here?

The next generation. The vast majority of the games we buy are on the main three consoles and when their replacements arrive in two or three years, Internet speeds may not be quick enough to handle the size of games. At the moment, dual-layer discs can contain 8.5GB and 50GB on the Xbox 360 and PS3 respectively. While a 10Mbps connection could download an Xbox 360 game in around 2 hours, it could take up to 11 hours for a PS3 game if it used the full capacity. If next-generation games need to use close to the full capacity of a Blu-ray disc or even more, then most Internet connections would struggle to cope. It would be quicker to just go and buy a physical disc than to wait for the download.

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The videogames industry is already one of the most sustainable. Although the three main console manufacturers repeatedly score low in Greenpeace environmental surveys (especially Nintendo), these don’t take into account the fact that many consoles have a lifespan of 4-5 years. If they’re built well, then you only need to buy one per generation. This lifespan is in stark contrast to most consumer electronics such as computers, phones and music players, which are often replaced every couple of years.

More can be done though. Videogames are one of many products that have no need to physically exist. Replacing discs with digital downloads is beneficial for consumers, publishers, developers and manufacturers. It may seem like a trivial issue, but we’re soon going to be living in a world, if we aren’t already, where these issues really matter. The sooner that physical games can be consigned to the history books, the better.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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