Weighing the Pros and Cons of Digital Downloads vs Physical Copies

dig vs phys title

Invariably, when a video game console announces that it will be digital-only, all hell breaks loose on the internet. The vast majority of vocal gamers seem to loathe the idea of digital downloads. People generally allow exceptions when it comes to smart phones or tablets, but in regards to nearly every other venue, people come out on the side of physical copies.

Understanding why they have this reaction isn’t hard. I am firmly a member of the pro-physical camp. In fact, I own hundreds of copies of old cartridge games despite their rampantly free availability as ROMs online.

Despite my inexorable personal stance on digital games, I still happen to purchase digital copies surprisingly frequently. In fact, in the past year I have likely purchased many more digital games than physical ones.

Why have I done this in flagrant disregard of my on-paper principles? Why even have a stance against digital downloads of games at all? The sheer ambivalence of this discussion warrants laying some home truths out in the open. Doing so takes an explicit comparison between both the good and bad qualities of each medium…




The physical copy camp rightfully emphasizes how important it is to fully own your game. You get to see it sitting on your shelf. You could lend it to a friend. You could even resell it if you get tired of it.

Digital copies, on the other hand, only exist as ones and zeros. You are generally required to log in to use them. Either that, or they are stuck on one console unless you go through a complicated transfer procedure, like on the Wii. You have no hope of lending that game to a friend, and if anyone else in the house wants to play your downloaded copy, they have to inconveniently log in as you.

Some digital copies also have draconian DRM restrictions. For platforms like PC, this is largely irrelevant seeing as most disc copies have the same restrictions. Many companies are also deviating towards “always-on” confirmation no matter the game’s medium.

Usually, this announcement for a game meets with backlash, like when Diablo III stated that internet connections would be a requirement, even for single player. There has even been debacles like EA releasing copies of the new Sim City game that no one could play for months at a time.

You also own digital copies forever. There is no such thing as digital resale.

That being said, you can “lug” them with you on your account wherever you go. My Xbox360 broke and I waited a solid five years before jumping back into contemporary gaming. As soon as I got all the installs and updates done, I went and downloaded Geometry Wars 2. It was like I had never left.

GTA 4 and Fallout 3, on the other other hand, I had sold a year after my first 360 broke. The games were lying around reminding me of their potential value while wasting space. Which brings me to my next point…



Storage and Access

Storing physical games honestly feels like a minor point. Their boxes don’t take up much room, and most games I took the trouble of buying I proudly display somewhere out in the open.

The only problem stems from physical games that somehow become lost or damaged. This occurrence is a rarity in my experience, but it does happen. A digital copy is largely not at risk of siappearing unless it is tied to the console like the Wii.

As for hard drive storage, I find this to not really be an issue only because I happen to keep a limited amount of digital files actually downloaded. I have lots of titles on Steam that I got as part of a bundle, but I only downloaded and played the ones I was interested in. I also delete any games sitting around on my 360’s hard drive if I’m not going to play them anytime soon. Even if I didn’t, 150GB is a lot of room for most downloadable games.

Hard drive space gripes also become more irrelevant now that Xbox Ones and PS4’s require installs with nearly every game. Annoying or not, it’s a fact.

As for access, while I like the tactile sensation of switching cartridges or discs, I also find it neat to press a few buttons on my Xbox to start playing a completely different game. This capability feels very futuristic to me, and it makes me understand why Microsoft wanted to emphasize the media versatility of the Xbone at press conferences.

Overall, loading up games from your couch is a nifty gimmick, but definitely not a deal breaker.



Buying Experience

This topic is a major sticking point for both camps. I honestly see pros on either side.

With physical copies, you get to cruise around in a store and look at their selection. They could have a rare gem, or they could have something you haven’t played yet and want to try. Midnight releases also seem exciting. While I’ve never been to one I also haven’t camped out in front of Steam the night of a game’s release either.

All in all, I love the purchase experience of buying a game at a local store or on eBay. You know who your money is changing hands to.

On the other hand, the video game store isn’t open at three in the morning when you’re slightly drunk and want to play something you don’t own yet. I’ve ventured onto the XBLA store several times out of sheer boredom and curiosity.

While these trips never resulted in an impulse sale, the potential did entice me. There is a huge variety of games available that would be neat to own like Earthworm Jim HD or Costume Quest, even if I didn’t want to commit to purchasing them.

In fact, games like these wouldn’t exist without online game content providers, something well worth noting.




How much games cost is my major reason for waffling on the digital vs physical debate. For the most part, digital games are too damn expensive. The lack of resale capability means that the content providers got you by the balls. Games like Minecraft stay the same price for years because no one is around to drive prices down after they get tired of it. The PC version has actually increased in price several times.

Minecraft might be a horrible example because the game is constantly being improved and updated. It exists in a weird flux. A version of the game from over a year ago is completely unlike what people play now.

However, Minecraft for the 360 recently came out on disc. You can update it whenever you like. This odd combo status makes Minecraft an interesting case study: no definitive version of the game exists, yet you can go out and buy a disc of it.

Physical game prices almost always go down, by comparison. There are tons of original NES titles available on the Virtual Console that cost less than $5 online, and even less than that when bought in bulk or at a flea market. Buying and selling physical copies of SNES, NES, N64, and any other old-school games can be a fun, multi-faceted experience, with some great games occasionally turning up dirt cheap.

Nintendo has an iron-tight grip on their digital IP, though, making collecting digital copies of their classics much less budget-friendly than their vintage counterparts. Yet, there are many exceptions. If you do not want to pay close to 40 bucks for Super Metroid, you can buy it on the Virtual Console for only $7.99. The only trade-off is you do not have the beauty of having an actual cartridge of the game in your house.


Super Metroid - Game


There is one other glaring exception when it comes to digital prices: sales. Digital games can pop up for dirt cheap on Steam, XBLA or anywhere online every once in a blue moon. I’ve bought six of the last ten Humble Indie Bundles for this reason, and I also recently grabbed copies of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City for five bucks each.

After downloading both of the Arkham games, I looked up their prices online, which were only a few bucks cheaper. I was remiss at not having a case or a manual, but I was also pleased at buying them on a whim at one in the morning. I got to play them right then and there instead of having to wait for some dill-hole to ship them five days later.



The Takeaway

Overall, I still prefer physical copies. Unless its a digital game that’s on sale or that I can’t get anywhere else, I’ll usually opt for the disc or cartridge.

In contrast to what I might have said a few years ago, I have begun to come around to digital games. My Humble Bundles total to over fifty games together, and while I’ve only played a handful of them I can download the others at any time and give them a try. It redefines ownership, and not necessarily in a bad way.

In the end, I will always buy copies of games that I care about. I’ll keep adding to my classic Nintendo collection. Every Xbox GTA and Bethesda title will sit upon my shelf for all to see.

My $3.99 copy of Ride to Hell: Retribution, however, can stay on the damn server where it belongs.

What does everyone else think? I’m sure there’s a lot I forgot to mention. Let’s beat a dead horse and mull it over in the comments below.



Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English alumnus and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and once lied about owning Ride to Hell: Retribution as a cheap punch line.

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  1. It’s been years since I’ve purchased the physical disk for a video game. The convenience of digital downloads is just to much to pass up on.

    More and more you can’t even say that owning a physical disk is owning the game in any more of a sense than owning the digital version. So many games nowadays requires that you be connected to a server to play, and in order to connect to that server you agree to the companies terms–which they will not hesitate to ban you for violating. I own a physical copy of Chromehounds for the 360 for all the good it does me since they shut the servers down several years ago. You don’t even necessarily fully own the console you are playing it on.

    I think the debate is more often one of a fear of change. If console gamers who have never experienced the joy that is a Steam sale had access to such, I think many pro-disk minds will be swayed away.

  2. Definitely in the physical copies camp (I’m the same with movies). I have started to download a lot more games because of the Xbox live free game downloads twice a month (which is more than paying for the cost of Xbox live). While it’s nice to have all of the games downloaded on my console, the price point for most games and the inability to loan them out are deal breakers for me.

  3. For years I was a console gamer and obviously during that time I was also entirely a physical game owner.

    First off, I see many say that you don’t own digital games. Well, you don’t really own the game either on discs. Rather you own the disc itself. When I first built my pc, I bought a few games physically because I had no intention of buying digitally. But the reality of it was that when I put in the disc, what ended up happening was that they all just gave me a key for steam and a few could be used as a install source. The nonsteam games were used as keys, you needed the disc in the drive to play, but not because the data was read from the disc, because it had already been unpacked and installed, rather it used it as an authenticator.

    Back when the Xbox One was announced, one of the hated features was that discs would be basically just installers. People flipped their S**t because essentially that would have pretty much negated the benefits of buying physical copies. It was a change that showed just how easy it is to negate ownership with physical as it is digitally.

    These same people don’t truly understand that they don’t own their games any more than people who buy digitally. Rather, they just own the disc. Said disc can be lost, stolen, damaged as well. Had the XBONE gone the direction it was at first, then nothing would have changed. You still own the disc, only the distinction is that you can still lose access to the game even with the disc. And as somebody has mentioned below, this could easily also occur if you needed online access and some account to play anyway.

    So how does one be secure in their access. Well, the people that go on all of the time about the evil publishers taking away access to digital games, seem more than willing to trust them with physical media. It is apparently through their goodwill I guess that you can still play many games through physical media.

    I don’t believe that of course. Now, I don’t assume every business is evil and out to screw customers. This is why there are so few stories of people losing access to all of their games. Businesses are businesses, they react to market demands and incentives. If some publisher ever made it a habit of removing access, then they would be punished by the market due to people choosing not to buy from them anymore. Any market that rewarded such behavior deserved it.

    But there is another huge check on such behavior. The possibility to just pirate a game means that if some publisher did remove a game from somebody’s library, then that person might be able to just pirate it to regain access. Now, one might be very much against piracy itself. But imagine somebody stole your physical copy of a game and you knew who did it. Chances are you would go and get it back somehow. I see pirating a digital game after having it stolen from you to be in the same camp. Gaining the ability to do so is like arming myself against intruders.

    So many people are against even the possibility to do so in those situations as bad. But it’s like complaining that there are burglars in your area and choosing to do nothing about them. What’s more it is like giving the burglars all of your weapons in the hopes that they won’t rob you.

    Speaking of robbery. Have you ever lent a game out to a friend or family member and never gotten it back? What about actual robbery where somebody takes without permission one of your games. Barring getting it back from the one who stole it or the one who never gave it back, you are either out a game or the money to re-buy it. What about when the game is damaged or lost? Out the game or the money to re-buy it. I’ve had game consoles absolutely destroy games by causing them to get circular scratches. I’ve had to replace game consoles because their drives failed or were failing. I’ve bought games in cases that scratched them as well. All in all, I’ve spent several hundred dollars replacing systems or games to keep access. I’ve bought games on steam, gog, humble bundle, and a few other stores. I did once have to replace my hard drive and reinstall the OS (my imaging software didn’t work right for some reason) and when I reinstalled Steam, I did have to redownload a few, but most of my games I had installed had backups available. I have also had to replace the hard drive in my ps3 and many games need to install data to work so there’s really no difference there except it adds hardware that can screw up (the disc drive).

    As gaming is progressing, chances are discs are going to be discontinued. I’ve heard talk of using flash media, but that will probably drive up costs. Disc media, even blu-ray media is incredibly cheap everything considering. Even when you account for media quality and go for a good brand of media it costs a lot less for the same amount of space for flash. Does anybody really believe costs won’t go up (for customers) by moving to flash media? I certainly don’t.

  4. I know this article is a year old. I just did a search for Digital Vs Disc after being prompted with the choice. The main reason I buy Digital copies of a game is the savings benefit. Sure, the price is the same for most households. I own two PS4 consoles so my wife and I can play games together on two separate screens. If I buy digital, I can download the same game to both consoles and play them simultaneously on two accounts. Otherwise, I’d have to buy the physical copy twice to play video games with my wife.

  5. Why write a Pro/Con aritcle if you’re not even going to pretend to be interested in being objective. Why not just writer about an arictle about what you like and why it’s the best.

  6. Well, I just recently lost a ton of games on my iPad when I switched over to the new iOS system and that pretty much sealed the deal for me in preferring physical over digital- I paid good money for those games I still want to play and now it seems I may never get the chance to play them again- I think that’s pretty messed up!

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