Boxed Games Going Dodo

I’m old enough to remember when computer games came in boxes the size of a textbook and had up to ten (sometimes more) floppy disks inside.  Then came the smaller, no longer floppy, floppy disks, then CDs and now DVDs.  Boxes have shrunk in size as well, but they’re still available.  Walk into any game store and you’ll still see them.  For now.

More and more, however, we’re starting to see a new trend.  Games are releasing in downloadable form before they get to the box on the shelf.  The trend now is for digital downloads to be close to equal or even the majority of a game’s sales.

In fact, with free to play (F2P) becoming the norm, boxed versions of games are becoming a cost factor that many gamers are not interested in paying.  Why buy the game at the store when you can just download it for free?

Of course, with a physical box, there are advantages.  You can include other things like collectible plastic hoo-has and printed maps and whatever in “special edition” or “limited edition” boxed sets and then charge a lot more for the extra gear.

Still, we’re moving into a digital dimension wherein goods are becoming virtual.  The music industry is (slowly) grasping this as digital sales outpace physical CDs – much to the record exec’s chagrin.

With games, the transition is a little more obvious.  I’ve been playing games for two decades or more (see above example, only us fogeys remember 5-1/4″ floppies) and I can tell you.. it’s been years – literally more than two years – since I’ve purchased a game in the store.  I think the last game I purchased in the store was Lord of the Rings Online when it first released (pre-Angmar).

Most people I know who are gamers have become the same way.  We want our gratification now and aren’t interested in waiting for the box release or in going somewhere to pick it up.  We shop online, reading forums and blogs, and learn what games are coming out and are cool.  Then we go download them and find out for ourselves.

Electronic Arts revealed in its conference call to investors last week that the company’s revenue from digital-only sales exceeded $1 billion in 2011.  That includes both Origin downloads, social and casual games, and big-time releases like Star Wars: The Old Republic.  SWTOR, according to EA, has 1.7 million paying subscribers now.

New companies like BigPoint and Zynga are becoming some of the fastest-growing and most profitable gaming companies in the world and those companies don’t sell a single physical product.

Once the game is downloaded, digital sales continue with in-game purchases now often exceeding core game or expansion purchases in dollar figures for many developers.

Of course, console games aren’t likely to follow this trend for some time.  Most are still CD/DVD-dependent, but in the world of PC and mobile games, download is becoming king.  Even for them, though, it’s changing.

Console gamers are finding it easier and more convenient than ever to buy games digitally through the online stores of their favorite consoles.  PlayStation, Xbox, and Wii (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo respectively) all have online stores through which gamers can purchase console-based games as downloadable products.

It’s obvious that the days of the boxed game are dying out fast.

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