Physical Discs vs. Digital Downloads: How Do You Like To Own Your Games?

This year has been a bit of a dry spell for me when it comes to finding video games I want to purchase and play. Then, there has been a gradual increase in games I really wanted to have when I heard the latest new releases that hit in June. Whenever there’s a new game I want to play, the question I now find myself asking is in what form should I buy it as? Physical game disc or digital download?

When I became a gamer, buying physical discs or game cartridges of the latest and biggest name titles were still largely the way to go and digital downloads didn’t quite become as big and as commonplace as they are now. At least as far as I’m aware of. With every major console—Nintendo, Xbox, Playstation—now having the option to purchase and download digital versions of their games from their online stores to compete with the likes of Steam, suddenly more choices have opened up to gamers on how they prefer to own and access their games.

I’m very old school in how I consume or store my media in the age of new technology. I prefer buying physical books over downloading e-books onto an e-reader device. I carry around a traditional point and shoot camera on my trips rather than take all my travel photos on a cell phone. And as for my video games? It depends.

There are pros and cons to owning your video game in either form. Physical discs come in a box with the cover art, which let’s you take the time to really appreciate the details that went into illustrating the world and characters you’re about to embark on a journey with for the next several weeks, months, or even years. I don’t know about you, but I really like examining the images studios choose to represent and market their games. Packaging is often one of the first things that will draw you into picking up the game at a store before you read the short description on the back of the box to decide if the game you’re holding is one you’ll want to play. This may not seem like a pro to owning a game on a physical disc, but for me personally, I still like being able to hold and touch my games. I like opening up a box and seeing the disc safely tucked inside just waiting for me to take it out and slip it into my console. And while the instruction booklets that come inside those game boxes aren’t as detailed as they used to be, except to print the obligatory health warnings and any other additional warnings a buyer needs to be aware of, I like opening them up to see if there’s some extra art lingering in there somewhere. If you own older games, the instruction booklet is not only packed with tips on how the control scheme and game mechanics work but they sometimes include fun little extras, like character overviews or story related tidbits. Physical games are easier to loan to friends, and they are also great for displaying proudly in your room or home.

I bought Final Fantasy XV the first day it came out and I love admiring the cover art from time to time.
The booklets you would find in most video game boxes, which are pretty thin compared to what they used to be.
The first booklet has the warning descriptions and the second booklet from the above photo included a nice thank you message with all the signatures of the people involved with the game. A great little extra you won’t find in a digital download.
The Nintendo 3DS’s Theatrhythm Final Fantasy has box cover art that’s pretty creative and packaged nicely.
Since this game came out in 2012, this is one of the older games to have a full booklet you can flip and read through with fun character overviews and game control guidance.

The downsides of owning physical games include the potential for the disc or cartridge getting damaged overtime or running out of shelf or storage space in your home. Like almost anything we own, it gets worn, scratched, bent, or broken with age. When that happens to a physical game it will most likely leave the game inoperable and unplayable, which would mean having to buy a replacement or kissing that game goodbye forever. And the more stuff you accumulate, the more space gets limited or tricky to find spots to store the over 30 or 50 games you bought, played, or have yet to play. This is when going digital may be your best option.

The pros of going digital are obvious from the start. Not only are you able to download it to your console or handheld device, but it’s instant gratification at its finest. You can play the game as soon as it’s done downloading or when it’s halfway downloaded. Digital games are stored on the device itself, which frees up extra space in your home to be used for other things. It’s also easy to access without having to bother with opening a box, taking a disc out, and loading it into your console. You can live your best coach potato life! Depending on what console you own, you can take advantage of free monthly downloads on select games or the occasional sales that might have a better deal than what you would find at your local GameStop or Amazon.

Digital downloads, however, do have their share of issues. Similar to the space problem with physical games, internal storage on a console or handheld does eventually reach its full capacity. Once it does, you either have to delete or uninstall some games to make space or buy an external hard drive or SD card to transfer some of that extra data elsewhere. Devices can break or data can get corrupted and lost. If your digital downloads aren’t backed up someplace and accessible through other means, you won’t be able to play your copy of the game until you replace your console or handheld. However, most digital downloads of games are never really lost or gone for good since there’s a way to re-download these games on a new device, as a lot of digital content are linked to your account. The issue really lies with your save files getting lost unless you take measures to save it on the cloud or on an external hard drive. Digital downloads sometimes don’t have the special edition versions and extras physical games are released or re-released with. You may be downloading just the game without all the extra goodies hardcore gamers and collectors will want to own.

I often find myself having a mixture of both physical game discs and digital downloads. Sometimes I like the convenience a digital download offers me and other times I’m after the Day 1 exclusive bonuses the physical game releases have. Or in some cases there’s no real choice to choose between either one because the game is only available in one particular format. For example, last month it was announced that Square Enix’s Nier Automata, the Playstation exclusive, is now available to play on Xbox One. The only way to purchase and play the game is by downloading it digitally through the Xbox Store. The only physical copy of the game is still solely for the PS4. Since I’ve been wanting to play Nier Automata but don’t own a PS4, now is a good time as any to finally get the game with this surprising announcement. Sometimes, it’s good to be old school while still getting with the times.

How do you like owning your games? Physical game discs, digital downloads, or both? Why do you prefer one over the other?

Special thanks goes to my best friend Setsuna Setsunai, who suggested and is the inspiration behind this post!

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15 thoughts on “Physical Discs vs. Digital Downloads: How Do You Like To Own Your Games?

  1. For the most part, physical. I like having a physical copy around and you get extra goodies with it. Also it keeps people employed in the factories. Digital is the ultimate convenience. I don’t mind it, however it lacks any tangible form. Plus I agree with what you said about digital.

    1. You make a good point about buying physical games over digital because it keeps the factory workers who produce and package everything in business. I also think physical games will always have an edge over digital when it comes to extras and special editions that may come with a game.

  2. Physical for major and mid-tier games, digital for smaller indie games. Also digital in general when buying anything on PC. I enjoy the security and convenience of physical games. I also enjoy packaging too. It’s just fun to look at and think about the experiences had with the game. Little design tricks like the one you display here are really fun too.

    1. I agree! I love when they present the game in really fun and creative packaging. Not that it’s necessary to have, but it’s a nice added bonus when you open a box up. You really get the sense that their marketing team really took the time to put some thought into how they want to sell their game.

      I think for the most part I approach owning my games the same way. I still prefer to own the physical disc for big titles, but totally fine with downloading a game as digital, especially when more indie games thrive in digital form anyway.

  3. As you know I’m not really gaming anymore, but if I was still gaming, I would still go for the physical games. There are sometimes very beautiful editions with some cool stuff in them, and that for me would be one of the main reasons 😊

  4. I used to be all physical, but then Steam happened and I slowly just got rid of all my physical PC discs and bought all digital. However, for consoles, I prefer physical. Generally bc it takes forever to download a title these days given the size and also the need to have more and more internal storage or having to delete then re download (which is an issue from above).

    1. I think a lot of gamers who divide their time between console and PC gaming tend to do a balance of both. At least that’s something I know from talking to my friends about it. Installing games on a console does take time and I agree that there’s an advantage to purchasing these games as a physical copy than a digital one in these instances. I also find myself kinda unwilling to uninstall a game from my system once it’s there, even when I know I need the extra space. I guess it’s as you said, you have to go through the trouble of re-downloading and installing everything again. That also takes away from precious game time!

  5. I’ll always be a physical guy, my collection is a reflection of me and digital downloads could never replicate that. I do understand why people go digital, though. I’ve also been continually let down (mostly by the Switch) with how little effort goes into the box – empty plastic cases with no paperwork whatsoever is definitely a bummer. Although publishers like Niantic do some great work that put the others to shame! (Ittle Dew 2+, Cave Story+)

    1. That’s interesting. I don’t own a Switch at the moment, so I don’t know how the games are packaged when you buy physical copies. I do appreciate when the studio’s marketing department also takes the time to consider how to package their games. I definitely think the effort and thought they put into something as seemingly insignificant should be recognized by dishing out the extra cash to buy the physical game.

      1. I’d easily pay more for physical versions, I just wish they’d show a little more pride by adding even a little booklet or something!

  6. Count me in the “mixed bag,” as well. Until recently, I had been pretty much in the PC = digital and console = physical, but then I started getting into playing more games on the PS3 and Xbox 360. While it’s super easy to find physical copies of games for those systems online super cheap, I don’t necessarily need to reform these libraries in my house. Both companies have enough regular sales on digital downloads that it’s much more attractive to go all-digital with those older games. As far as the new systems go, a lot depends on if *both* me and my husband are interested in a particular game. If so, then we’ll likely get the physical copy.

    1. You bring up a good point! I think in instances where you want to play older titles, digital is easier. Sometimes I find it more difficult to track down older games as a physical disc rather than a digital one. Not to mention that older games on discs tend to cost so much money when you find it through a third-party seller. The rarer it is, the more expensive it gets! At the end of the day, deciding how you want to own your games really depends on what’s more practical and needed for each individual person at the time.

  7. You are not taking into account the environmental hazard linked to owning too many things. I prefer the digital version for games but for books it’s a bit of a problem because my eyesight needs a break from the screen every now and then. However, physical books = damaged trees so I’m trying to switch to digital audio books instead: good for both me eyesight and the environment! Last but not least, I’ m a minimalist, I live in one room studio, where am I going to put all that stuff that I can so comfortably store on a laptop or even a USB?

    1. You make a good point. I never thought about going digital from an environmental perspective. On one hand, I’m all about saving space but then on the other, there’s still a part of me that likes to own the physical copies. At this point, I’ve been balancing both—going digital and sometimes owning the physical copies.

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