At GDC 2018, Nintendo revealed that the sales trends for the North American eShop show that Switch and 3DS owners in the region prefer digital purchases over physical. While there are many passionate fans of physical collections out there, the digital scene has been advancing across all of media over the past few years. Things are clearly no different for Nintendo.
The main reason why digital media is increasingly becoming more popular over its physical counterpart is because of convenience. The advancement of technology has arguably made many in society a lot more impatient and crave convenience more than ever. Buying a physical item requires someone to leave their house, go to a store, and bring that item back. If they order it online, they still have to wait for the delivery, which could take days or even weeks in some cases. When it comes to any digital purchase, however, the consumer gains access to it immediately (minus the time it takes for downloading). In addition to this, digital media is convenient because it doesn’t create any tangible bulk.
While some people like physical goods because they are tangible, it becomes a pain anytime transport is involved. Since the Switch and 3DS are designed with portability in mind, it’s a big deal to a lot of people to keep the amount of bulk as light as possible. Taking these two factors into consideration, it’s no wonder why the eShop business has been booming. But, there’s something else consider: sales and pricing.
The amount of sales I’ve seen on the Switch eShop since launch has been surprisingly high, much higher than during the Wii U era. This mirrors what we’ve been seeing for years on other digital stores like Steam and the PlayStation/Xbox Stores. This benefits consumers not just due to savings, but also because of availability. For consumers that live in areas where stores may not offer discounts very often, this is a big plus. Also, if a game isn’t available in any local stores at all, there’s always the option to get it from the eShop. Back when I lived the Bahamas, it was a real bother to get any new games physically, not to mention they were quite expensive ($70 – $80). Thus, having the ability to just buy digitally really came in handy. The same holds true now that I’m down in South America. Digital media also benefits developers/publishers too since digital distribution is a lot cheaper and easier than physical.
Digital distribution has a lot of benefits over physical distribution, and Nintendo is making advancements in this field faster than ever before.
With Switch Online launching later this year, it’s almost guaranteed that Nintendo will be ramping up its presence in the digital world. We have two early signs of this. We already know that subscribers will get exclusive discounts on the eShop. In addition to this, the My Nintendo rewards system was also recently implemented in the Switch eShop which gives buyers a small bit of virtual credit back for every eligible purchase. These incentives, combined with improvements made to the eShop, (which will Nintendo confirmed will be coming) create a strong magnet that attracts new eShop visitors and turning them into frequent customers. As Nintendo’s digital business continues to grow, this will only drive the company to constantly improve the quality to keep customers engaged, which in turn benefits the customers directly.
Indeed, digital distribution has quite a lot of benefits. That’s why it isn’t surprising that it’s been a hot topic of discussion over the past few years the continued growth of digital media will eventually cause physical media to be phased out entirely. We’ve already seen it happen in other sectors of entertainment like music and movies. When was the last time you bought an audio CD or a DVD/Blu-Ray copy of a movie, rather than getting either digitally? Many people will answer: “It’s been years.” The same situation has been playing out in the gaming world too (no pun intended). So, will that really happen: will we ever see Nintendo (and the other console manufacturers) make a digital-only system?
Well, despite all these benefits that digital media has, there are some valid arguments that can be brought against it in favor of its physical counterpart. One con I see brought up constantly is that a physical item gives the buyer a real sense of ownership. The owner can trade, sell or lend their copy out. Not only can’t you do this with digital media, but if there’s ever an instance where a product is no longer digitally distributed, any remaining owners must make sure the existing files are never erased from their device. Although it must be mentioned that physical items can be lost or damaged, so this point is pretty much neutral on both sides.
The Switch’s portable design is the perfect fit for digital media.
Clearly there are pros and cons to both sides, but digital distribution is still arguably the better option. The convenience and ease it offers both consumers and manufacturers simply make it more attractive. The only thing that’s really been stopping it from completely taking over is that Internet access is not available to any and everyone. Although most of developed society is in the technological age, there are still many parts of the world where the standards haven’t caught up to the norm. As a result, there are people who don’t necessarily prefer physical goods, but rather they completely rely on it. As long as this continues to be the case, digital and physical distribution will coexist. But, it’s only a matter of time before digital really does take over.
If Nintendo does turn the Switch’s hybrid functionality into a new recurring standard, it’s likely this may play a big part in the advancement of digital distribution in the gaming world. Think about other mobile devices similar to the Switch: laptops, smartphones and tablets. Most modern laptops have completely ditched disc trays.
Tablets and smartphones of course never had them, but they’ve also never had a cartridge slot like the Switch does. People have become quite accustomed to not using physical media due to these devices, and the Switch could add to this should Nintendo ever decide to release a model (whether revised or a potential successor) that drops the cartridge slot. As the eShop continues to grow, the potential of this happening grows ever more likely.