Are physical games dying? No, but they’re slowly killing us

The emergence of downloadable or streamable alternatives to traditional media has inspired countless articles proclaiming that physical games should be bygones, that it’s curtains for the compact disc or time for the paperback to pass on. 

In the video games industry, digital video game downloads have, for some time now, been the preferred format for the majority of consumers: You’d have to go back to 2012 for the last time that physical video game sales outperformed digital downloads in the US. 

Screenshot of Steam store home page
Steam is one of the most popular services for downloading digital video games.

The vast catalog of games available for instant purchase and download, not to mention subscription services like Microsoft’s Game Pass and Sony’s PlayStation Plus, has no doubt contributed to the steadily shrinking number of unique video game titles that get a physical release in the US.

So why not just give up on producing physical copies altogether?

Not only are they less convenient but, with all that plastic packaging and the added environmental costs of delivery, they’re also one of the more obvious symbols of the gaming industry’s suspect sustainability credentials (especially the Nintendo Switch cases that are laughably large relative to the size of the game card).

Well, for all their plus points (including that downloadable free and free-to-play games have also made gaming far more accessible than ever before), digital games are far from perfect.

For example, digital-only distribution causes issues when access to the platform on which games can be downloaded or streamed becomes unavailable. 

When Nintendo discontinues its Wii U and 3DS online store in 2023, 1799 titles will no longer be available. That’s a nightmare for game preservation given that a large chunk of these games never had a physical release.

The size of some game downloads also means that for some devices, like the Switch, storage is a real problem. Space can easily be filled by three or four large games, meaning playing anything else requires archiving or deleting content that you’ll have to redownload again (if it’s still available) when you want to play it later.  

Digital disadvantages aside, it’s also important to put the decreasing market share of physical games into perspective: Physical game sales are still expected to be worth almost $4bn in the US in 2022. They may only contribute a slender sliver of the revenue pie, but that’s an enormous pie. 

Custom-made proportional area chart showing estimated US physical game sales in 2022 vs estimated US Esports industry size in 2022
Physical game sales still contribute significantly more to the wider US video games industry than all esports activity combined.

So, physical games are not going anywhere anytime soon, meaning plastic packaging is also here to stay. Another item in the long list of avoidable ways that we are slowly wrecking our own futures.

So what are the alternatives?

The simplest solution is one that has been used perfectly successfully in the games industry for literally decades – cardboard. One reason for the continued use of plastic for game cases is almost certainly durability. Still, physical game purchasers will hardly struggle to keep a well-made heavy-duty cardboard case in good condition.

There are other interesting materials that our best and brightest are working on, too. Natural fiber-reinforced composites – biodegradable, lightweight materials made from organic resources – could be used in conjunction with or even as a replacement for traditional polymers. 

As is the case with many other environmental issues solvable on a technical level, it’s difficult not to conclude that the main barrier to the widespread adoption of green video game packaging is cost. 

Image showing selection of carboard video game boxes for SNES, game boy advance, n64 and PC
Cardboard packaging used to be far more prevalent in the video game industry.

Studios like Sports Interactive, which has made a concerted effort to switch to greener materials, reported that their new recyclable packing is 30% more expensive than regular plastic cases. Not all stakeholders in a physical video game’s journey from concept to customer will be willing to take that hit.

Even if they care little for our environmental common goods, one way to encourage decision-makers to move away from cheap plastic cases and towards more expensive but more environmentally friendly alternatives could be to re-position physical games as a ‘premium’ product versus the digital download. 

After all, another big reason for the continued popularity of physical sales is their almost ornamental characteristic and value as collectibles (I love to see a neat bookshelf full of game cases). 

That would, of course, open the door to a hike in the price of the games but if the whole industry committed to a greener solution then economies of scale would help keep costs down.

Video game companies are fast running out of valid (moral) reasons to be pumping out plastic physical releases. With some good PR, big studios would even benefit from a boost in positive coverage if they made a wholesale move away from polymer packaging.

The solutions are obvious – all that’s lacking is the will.