The Future of Physical Media in a Digital World

It used to be that buying a new movie or video game meant you had to run out to the store to grab a physical copy or buy it online and wait days or even weeks for it to arrive. All that changed once it became practical to stream and download digital content across all our various entertainment devices. Nowadays, we can rent a movie, stream a television series, or download a video game without so much as getting up off the couch. As digital forms of delivering content become more prevalent, the question arises of whether or not there will always be a place for physical media in an increasingly digital world.

The very fact that physical media is, well, physical is simultaneously its biggest blessing and curse. Media like DVDs and especially Blu-rays can last for an indefinite amount of time if taken care of properly, but they are still likely to accumulate scratches and scuffs over time, even if you’re careful. The discs themselves and their respective cases also eat up precious space, which can gradually add up until you’re swamped in plastic cases and are having to consider throwing a garage sale. Conversely, collectors may actually enjoy amassing physical copies of their favorite pieces of media even if it consumes numerous bookcases and shelves.

That’s a big part of the beauty of digital content. You can store dozens of movies or hundreds of television episodes on a hard drive no bigger than one or two movie cases. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens to the company you buy it from, and you don’t lose access to your account, digital media lasts essentially forever. The movies you buy today will be there in fifty years, and you can delete and re-download them as many times as you want. You never have to worry about losing them, and you can download them anywhere you want and on any device. Better yet, you might even be able to get them for lower prices than the same pieces of physical media.

Some companies like Microsoft gouge for digital copies of media, but others like Sony have made forgoing physical copies a very appealing proposition. Although Sony is often lax in updating the prices of digital content to reflect price drops, they’ve made going digital a lot more appealing through their Playstation Plus service. For $50 a year, subscribers get a variety of digital goodies that range from additional discounts on sale titles to even free games. Since they don’t have to worry about shipping or manufacturing costs, Sony regularly treats subscribers to free game downloads that range from popular games like Bioshock Infinite or DMC to niche titles like Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. It’s the perfect combination of discounts, freebies and convenience – or at least it sounds like it.

Downloading all those free and discounted games starts to lose some of its appeal when you realize that many of those games are carving out gargantuan chunks of your console’s hard disk space. Once you reach your hard disk’s limit, you either shell out for a new hard drive or start deleting things. It’s the same for other mediums as well. There’s a reason why your favorite television box set probably comes with a bazillion disks – those things take a lot of storage space, especially when you start talking about high-definition video and beyond.

Hard disks and memory cards will get bigger, but content will get bigger too. Movies and television will eventually shift from Blu-Ray to the ridiculously huge 4K format. Video games will get bigger and more graphically detailed (For example, Sony’s PS4 launch title Killzone: Shadowfall took up a whopping 38 gigabytes). Additionally, with America’s mediocre internet infrastructure, massive downloads like Killzone: Shadowfall isn’t practical or even convenient for many people with data caps or slower connections.

For digital media to have a shot at completely displacing physical media, we’ll need a much stronger internet infrastructure. Once we have that, it’s tough to say what will happen next. The general public has fallen in love with the convenience of digital content, as evidenced by the popularity of services like Netflix, but it’s tough to imagine a future where physical content completely dies out. There is a certain appeal to having a tactile good that you can treasure, but there’s also a lot to be said for the sheer convenience of digital content. I’d love to see a future where both are viable options, but it all depends on where consumers will want to put their wallets.

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