The gaming world is going all-digital and trying its hand at streaming services. With Microsoft’s recent announcement of an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (coming later this year) and an Xbox One S All-Digital Edition (available now), all signs point to the gaming industry moving away from physical discs.
For $250, the Xbox One S All-Digital is nearly identical to the Xbox One S except for its lack of a disc drive. Not only does this mean you can’t play any physical copies of your games, but it means you also lose the ability to play 4K Blu-rays or DVDs — one of our favorite Xbox features in our review of the Best Video Game Consoles for Kids. Instead, you’ll need to purchase games from the online Microsoft store or from a retailer that sells download codes.
The Game Pass Ultimate is a combination of Xbox Live Gold (access to online co-op) and the current Game Pass download service. For $15 per month, you’ll have access to over 100 games, have the ability to download a free game each month from four options via Games with Gold, get 20% off Xbox One game purchases, and get 10% off any add-ons for Game Pass games. While its library features some impressive titles like Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3, Lego Batman, and Minecraft, you may still have to purchase some of Xbox’s best titles separately. It’s important to distinguish that you won’t actually own any games that you play via Game Pass (except for the free Games with Gold download). If you ever cancel your subscription, you’d no longer have access to those games.
The shift to digital also means you can’t share games with friends or resell them when you’ve played it through or simply don’t like the game. Digital-only consoles will render used games useless, which The Motley Fool reports is GameStop’s worst nightmare. Used games are its bread and butter: “In the third quarter, GameStop’s pre-owned and value video game segment enjoyed a gross margin of 43.1%.”
But even without Microsoft’s all-digital experiment, physical video game sales have been on a steady decline. Statista reports that in 2017, 79% of game sales were digital.
Xbox competitors have similar online gaming subscriptions but can’t match the breadth of perks and games that Game Pass Ultimate will offer. Nintendo Switch Online has a smaller library made up of retro Nintendo Entertainment System games ($4 per month). PlayStation Now touts a library of over 750 games from older systems like the PS3 and PS2, but it’ll cost you $20 per month and you’ll still need to purchase a separate $10 per month PlayStation Plus membership for playing online multiplayer games. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate rolls all of these features into one service for $15 per month.
In an interesting turn of events, Microsoft and Sony have announced a potential partnership on the development of cloud-based game technology and streaming services. The exact details of the deal haven’t been revealed, but future cloud-based gaming services could more closely resemble something like Netflix. Rather than being tied to a console, you could play across devices like PCs and phones, while progress is saved to the cloud.
One of the biggest roadblocks will be internet access. Not everyone has access to fast and reliable internet service, and especially at the kinds of speeds that make downloading and streaming games with minimal lag or latency possible. Gamers are likely to be concerned about their existing collection of physical discs, too, and how all-digital consoles will render it useless. Backward compatibility has always been an important feature for players, and many are hoping there’s an opportunity to exchange physical copies for digital codes, but no official word yet.
There are a lot of positives about this new way to game, too, including less waste (manufacturing, storing, shipping discs) and more efficiency (you can just download and play all on your console). There’s also more reason to try games outside of your comfort zone when you have access to such a variety of genres without committing to the larger purchase of the entire game. Matt Percy, head of planning for Game Pass at Microsoft, told the Sydney Morning Herald that “players’ game time generally increases 20 percent once they join Game Pass, and the number of different games they play goes up by 40 percent.” Players are discovering new games and more indie titles as a result.
We’re likely to hear more about the future of game streaming at next month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) — the video game industry’s largest annual event.