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The Hurdles to a Digital-Only Future - Two Left Sticks
Xbox One, PS4

The Hurdles to a Digital-Only Future

Online connectivity is the life-force of the 8th generation consoles. Downloading games, patches, and add-on content is the basis of much of the Xbox One and PS4 ecosystem. As time goes on, it is becoming more and more evident that the digital-only future is on the horizon.

Some have not waited for this future to be thrust upon them unwillingly, instead choosing to make the leap in their own timing — this is where I fall. Yet, some still have not fully-embraced this future. But why? It turns out there is no shortage of roadblocks standing in the way of where gaming stands today and the digital-only future that so many involved in the industry envision.

Where the Digital-Only Future has Crept In

Physical discs still exist for all of the major publishers. Games such as Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Madden, and other juggernauts in the industry release their games on the traditional Blu-Ray disc. These will be the last to transition as much of their profit is still found in people driving to a retailer and picking up their copy. And sure, there are plenty of people still making most of their purchases exclusively in brick-and-mortar retailers. However, it is important to look at where the digital-only future has already crept into our gaming culture.

Xbox Live and PSN are loaded with a plethora of games that can only be purchased digitally. Check out this list of download-only PS4 games compared to the list of PS4 games released on disc. The fact of the matter is most of the PS4’s library can only be purchased via the PSN store.

games with gold, digital-only

Both companies’ respective free games programs (Xbox Live Games with Gold and PS+ Instant Games Collection) can only be taken advantage of via digital download.

With most AAA games a player is required to go onto the Xbox Store or PSN Store in order to download content to receive the full experience.

Each day we get all-the-more acclimated to navigating the digital store fronts, entering codes, placing our card info on file, and downloading content. It’s intentional. It’s conditioning. It’s the stepping-stone to a future where this is the only way we can purchase our games.

There is still no shortage of roadblocks standing in the way of where we stand now as a gaming culture and the digital-only future that so many in the industry envision. Below are some of the issues that will need to be sorted out before many people


The definition of ownership has changed since the advent of digital media, and that definition grows grayer and grayer the more voluminous our digital storehouses grow. According to most services terms and conditions, — you know, those pages and pages of legalese we all lie about reading — the owner of the account simply owns the rights to access the content and does not own the content itself. The “buy” button on your Kindle or iPhone would be better represented as a “license” button, and that license extension is subject to a bevy of restrictions and limitations. Worse yet, if a user breaches the terms and conditions — whether or not he or she was aware — the license can be revoked without warning.

PSN Xbox Live

Horror stories that follow that arc are all-too-common in the world of gaming. While some find resolution in the end, the fact that the situations were created in the first place is enough to generate pause for some looking to make the leap to digital-only.

Earlier this year, Sony banned a user for using the name Jihad in the username. However, the username was created due to its owner being named Jihad Khalid Almofadda. For a short time, Almofadda’s account was banned, his licenses revoked, and trophies/friends lost. After his story went viral, Sony decided to reinstate Almofadda’s account in full.

Shadier yet, are some of the rules and restrictions Sony has placed into their EULA. In 2015, a Redditor going by the username Kadjar posted his story in the /r/gaming subreddit.

According to Kadjar and multiple sites reporting on the incident, his account was hacked, deactivated, and his card was charged for over $600. Initially, Kadjar was told that he could at best be refunded $150, his account could not be reactivated on his console for 6 months, and if he tried to issue a chargeback on his credit card, his account would be permanently banned resulting in the loss of all trophies and purchases.

After pressure from both the PlayStation community and gaming media, Sony decided to fully refund and restore Kadjar’s account. They also later implemented a two-step authentication process, making incidents such as these harder to find yourself in.

However, while Kadjar’s issue was fully-resolved in the end and policy changes were made, other less-than-attractive policies remain intact. Sony will still ban an account if the user tries to issue a chargeback on a card that has been compromised, virtually eliminating the biggest safeguard against fraudulent charges on the card.

There needs to be more transparency about ownership within these license agreements, and more of a sense of ownership for the products themselves. Many users who feel any sense of uncertainty about whether or not they actually own their product will likely continue to go the more certain route of purchasing their games physically.

Refund Policies

Personal anecdote time: Homefront the Revolution sucked. That’s not a personal take, that is just objective fact, but this isn’t the space for a full-on review, but I purchased the game at launch because I liked the concept. The game was a bug-ridden disaster on day one. Frame-rates dropping to single digits, textures and other assets appearing distorted, and other build issues made the game almost unplayable at times. I felt cheated out of $60.

Everyone has that experience with a game at some point, whether it was Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Assassin’s Creed Unity, or any other game that was broken beyond recognition at launch. When you purchase those games digitally from PSN or Xbox Live, you are stuck with them.

Sony’s return policy on games reads as such, “Digital content that you have started downloading, streaming and in-game consumables that have been delivered, are not eligible for a refund unless the content is faulty.”

And Xbox: “No. You can’t return a digital game and receive a refund or credit. However, if you have a damaged or corrupted digital game, you can receive credit.”

There have been exceptions made for games that are broken, but if you don’t like the game you’ve downloaded, you are out of luck. At least with physical merchandise for a game you don’t like there is resale value in the copy of the game. Not so with digital games.


Adopting a refund policy more like Steam would go a long way in creating a more welcoming environment for those wishing to make the leap into the digital-only future. Their refund policy leaves space for users who purchase a game that is broken, accidentally buy the wrong version of a game, and purchase a game that they simply don’t like.

You can request a refund for nearly any purchase on Steam—for any reason. Maybe your PC doesn’t meet the hardware requirements; maybe you bought a game by mistake; maybe you played the title for an hour and just didn’t like it.

It doesn’t matter. Valve will, upon request via help.steampowered.com, issue a refund for any reason, if the request is made within fourteen days of purchase, and the title has been played for less than two hours. There are more details below, but even if you fall outside of the refund rules we’ve described, you can ask for a refund anyway and we’ll take a look.

You will be issued a full refund of your purchase within a week of approval. You will receive the refund in Steam Wallet funds or through the same payment method you used to make the purchase. If, for any reason, Steam is unable to issue a refund via your initial payment method, your Steam Wallet will be credited the full amount.

Internet Limitations

This is perhaps the most difficult hurdle standing in the way of a digital-only future. Downloading games and other content from online stores requires internet that is at least moderately fast, but according to a recent report from the FCC, 6% of Americans don’t have access to 10/Mbps download and 1/Mbps upload internet. That means that almost 20 million Americans have no way of getting high-speed internet.

For these 20 million customers, a digital-only future is at best an exercise in patience and at worst a pipe dream.

That is just counting the number of users who don’t have any reasonable means to access the internet. This doesn’t account for the third of this country that doesn’t have in-home broadband. According to research from Pew released in 2015, only 67% of Americans have in-home internet. Going digital-only would alienate roughly 106 million Americans, and even more people across the world.That is no insignificant chunk of the population, and is part of the reason Xbox’s initiative with the launch of the One involved so much backtracking. 106 million users were effectively told they were unfit to move forward with console gaming when former Xbox Chief, Don Mattrick, said “we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity, it’s called Xbox 360,” in an interview after the reveal of the Xbox One.

Not to mention the fact that the American install base ranks 30th in the world in internet speed, and many rural areas that have access to high-speed internet still lack the level of online stability that would make downloading games enjoyable or even reasonable.

Retailer Relationships

There is a level of convenience with digital games that has yet to be replicated by physical merchandise. With digital content there is no waiting around for the game you’ve purchased to arrive, no running out of product, no fighting crowds at midnight launches, and no need to switch discs when you want to move onto another game. While some users would still prefer to have a physical disc in their hands, the convenience of a digital-only future has attracted many converts.

best buy, digital-only, retailer

The fact still remains that while a user can purchase a game from a digital-store front, there is no option to download a console or a controller. Because of this, first-party publishers have their hands firmly tied from making a concerted effort to push forward on making the digital-only future a reality.

Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo still rely heavily on brick-and-mortar stores to sell hardware. Alienating these retailers by eliminating physical software would mean fewer retailers carrying the hardware that makes software sales possible.

Microsoft and Sony already felt pushback from Gamestop in September 2015 when the gaming-retailer refused to sell any console bundles that contained digital download codes. The first-party and partnering publishers obliged to the request replacing all of the packaged codes with physical discs.

As time goes on, people will grow more and more comfortable ordering their physical merchandise from large online retailers who don’t rely nearly as heavily on the ability to sell disc-based games.

The digital-only future is most certainly on the way, but the speed at which it gets here will certainly be dictated by the above factors. Have you made the jump, yet? If not, what has been your biggest hangup?

Lucas Croft
Editor-in-Chief and creator of Two Left Sticks. Host of the Player 3 Podcast. Memorizer of far too many NBA contract details. Purchaser of 3 Vitas.

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