Digital distribution of games and movies grows in popularity, which gives me hope that that it will one day replace physical distribution altogether. You can already access large libraries of games for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii and PC without buying a single disc. How soon will we see game systems that don't accept physical media at all? Imagine PCs and consoles that don't have disc drives; all software would be downloaded via the Internet. Eliminating disc drives would conserve the mineral and energy resources used to manufacture, transport, and operate them. In an online-only world, companies may need to buy more servers to store and distribute content and consumers may use more electricity to download the content; I think, however, that the resource savings from abandoning physical media would be very significant.
The next time you are at a retail store, look at the shelves of movie and game discs and imagine them disappearing. Imagine all the resources that would be conserved if you could get all your entertainment choices at home.
I've been wondering about the possibility of the next Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo console going media-less. (PCs, having much larger software libraries, would be slow to follow). But a recent episode of Cheap Ass Gamer's podcast forces me to realize the minuteness of this possibility. In CAGcast episode 157, at 1:53:10, Stewart "Wombat" Nacht responds to a listener's fear of a total movement to digital distribution (which he thinks would mean the end of money-saving clearances and coupons) with the following:
"It's not gonna happen! Everything isn't going to move to digital distribution. There's too much space set aside in these big-box retailers for video games and there's so much invested in it and there's so many marketing dollars that are pushed towards it. The companies want their consoles to be sold in these retail stores, where they would lose so much money if they got rid of the disc-based media that they would probably stop selling the consoles in those stores ... Yes, I understand the technology is there to do digital distribution. Yes, it can be done. But it won't be done, because too many companies would have to eat too much money for it to happen."
David "CheapyD" Abrams then points out how impulse buying, important to game sales, would go away if you no longer could browse shelves of video games while you're at Wal-Mart to buy toothpaste or a plunger. I see his point. Even though I rarely buy games these days, I often give game shelves a quick look before I leave a retail store. That, of course, leads me to browse other departments at the store, increasing the chance that I'll buy something. A complete switch to digital distribution would mean the loss of a wing of merchandise. Retailers would fight hard to prevent it.
Shopping at markets is an ancient practice we're not likely to give up soon, even for the very recent addition of video games. But the rise in digital distribution tells me that companies and consumers share an interest in convenience and cost-cutting. This shared interest will keep digital distribution going and growing.
Despite the well-reasoned doubts expressed on CAGcast, I think we'll switch completely to digital distribution someday. It might not happen in time for the Xbox 361, PlaySt4tion, or Wiii, but it will happen. We'll keep buying consoles and PCs at stores, but we'll also increase our acceptance and adoption of digital distribution. There will come a time, perhaps when digital distribution accounts for half of all revenue in software sales, when publishers suddenly become interested in going exclusively online. Will retailers let them? At first, they won't; then, they'll open their own digital storefronts to partake in online distribution so they won't get left behind. The concept of physical media will then go the way of the floppy.