A recent controversy regarding Starfield is prompting a considerable shift in the conversation. The gaming giant appears to be veering towards digital-only releases, leaving some in the gaming community feeling as though they've been left in the dark.
A recent tweet, now deleted, from Bethesda’s customer support account announced Starfield's physical editions will simply "include a code for the chosen platform", alluding to the absence of physical discs. This statement from the official account caused quite a stir among fans, leading to a multitude of questions and backlash from a significant segment of the gaming populace.
The primary concern is the perceived loss of ownership, at least in a traditional sense. Discs have traditionally represented a certain degree of autonomy for gamers – an artifact of the game in their hands that they "own". In addition to this, gamers can trade, resell, or lend physical discs, representing a form of value not matched by digital downloads. The recent trend of digital-only releases diminishes these freedoms, disallowing gamers from obtaining cheaper used game discs or preserving certain games for future play.
¡Hola compañeros! Depende de la edición. Por ejemplo, la estándar tiene disco, mientras que la Edición Constelación trae un código grabado en un ítem de coleccionista, que podéis ver en la imagen 👇 pic.twitter.com/RrpjbYYYk7
— Bethesda Español (@bethesda_ESP) June 13, 2023
There are plenty of examples of games that can no longer be bought online after being removed from online stores and subscription services. The only way to play them now is with a physical disc - a rarity after being discontinued.
However, the picture isn't entirely grim for Bethesda and digital game sales. Digital distribution offers tangible benefits for game publishers and console platform owners alike, most notably in financial terms. The typical revenue split for a digital game sees 70% going to the publisher and 30% to the console platform. For Microsoft, owning Bethesda means collecting 100% of Starfield’s digital revenue. Compared to physical sales, which involve license fees, manufacturing costs, and retail store cuts, the financial incentive to lean towards digital sales is considerable.
Bethesda has since clarified the situation, revealing that while the standard edition of Starfield will come with a disc, both of the premium and Constellation editions will not. The Constellation Edition, for instance, will feature a code engraved on a collector's item.
This discrepancy between the different Starfield editions has done little to alleviate concerns, with critics pointing out the incongruity of a steel book display case – usually reserved for physical discs – housing nothing but a digital download code.
Given the increasing prominence of digital distribution in the gaming industry, Bethesda's move is not entirely surprising. The trend towards digital releases has been steadily increasing, with consoles like the all-digital PS5 and the all-digital Xbox Series S signaling a shift in the industry's status quo. This shift, however, might be a double-edged sword, as it risks leaving certain gamers disenfranchised.
Despite the apparent backlash, it's important to recognize the context of these changes. The price of video games has risen minimally over the past three generations of consoles, while the costs of production have skyrocketed. Furthermore, digital games provide players with a different form of ownership – a purchase linked to a user account, stored on secure servers, and accessible anytime.
While this doesn't assuage concerns over potential server shutdowns or digital rights management, it provides a modicum of convenience that physical discs cannot offer.
Ultimately, only time will tell if gamers and publishers alike are ready for such a future.
But, it is apparent that Starfield continues to generate conversations online - both positive and negative. After drawing a lot of flack for its decision to lock the FPS of the game on consoles, its digital-only release might not be the last time we'll see a swath of gamers passionately discussing what's best for the game and the industry, as a whole.