Press "Enter" to skip to content

Alan Wake 2 and the death of disc-based video games

Alan Wake 2 on pre-shredded discs would probably just add insult to injury, right?”>
Enlarge / Releasing Alan Wake 2 on pre-shredded discs would probably just add insult to injury, right?
Getty Images

Anyone who pays attention to the game industry knows that the segment of players buying games on physical discs has been becoming less important as physical releases become more and more niche. Still, even in recent years, you could usually count on big-budget console games from major studios to receive at least a perfunctory disc release to fill up the dwindling GameStop shelves.

So it was a bit of a surprise that yesterday’s release date announcement for Alan Wake 2 came alongside news that developer Remedy Entertainment and publisher Epic Games currently have “no plans to release Alan Wake 2 on disc,” as they put it in a new FAQ. When you look a little deeper, though, what might be more surprising is that there haven’t been more major console publishers willing to give up on discs completely.

The rainbow of their reasons

The Alan Wake 2 FAQ notes, correctly, that “it is not uncommon to release modern games as digital-only.” In fact, measured on a per-title basis, the vast majority of console games are now not available on disc at all. Still, such disc-free releases are relatively rare when it comes to the kinds of major games that dominate the console charts.

Looking at the top-20 bestselling PlayStation titles listed on Sony’s official store page, for instance, brings up only two “discount” titles released without a disc-based option: $30 PSVR port Red Matter 2 and $22 boomer shooter Warhammer 40K: Boltgun. If you limit that list to games costing $60 or more, it becomes practically impossible to find a PlayStation bestseller that isn’t available as a disc as well as a download.

Just came in:  Bitcoin Price and Ethereum Prediction: BTC and ETH Experience Nearly 2% Spike; Is More Upside Ahead?

Remedy and Epic actually cite pricing concerns as one of the reasons they wanted to avoid a disc-based release this time around. “Not releasing a disc helps keep the price of the game at $59.99 / €59.99 and the PC version at $49.99 / €49.99,” they write in the FAQ.

Enlarge / A look back at a time when discs ruled the earth.

PC/console pricing discrepancies aside, it’s not an awful point. While game discs are incredibly cheap to produce, overhead costs like packaging, shipping/distribution, and warehousing/retail space cut into the margins a developer can expect from a $60 disc game. That’s especially true as inflation and higher gas prices have contributed to more and more high-end games bumping their asking price to $70.

While publishers could offer digital versions at a lower price than their physical counterparts, in practice, most publishers keep prices consistent across different distribution methods (occasional digital clearance sales notwithstanding).

One of the oddest arguments Remedy makes against a disc-based Alan Wake 2 release, though, is that the developers “did not want to ship a disc product and have it require a download for the game—we do not think this would make for a great experience either.” This statement is thrown off as an aside, as if requiring a download to play a disc-based game is simply a law of the Universe.

Sure, day-one patches are an incredibly common way to fix late-breaking bugs during the game development process. Still, most disc-based games ship in a form that’s at least playable using nothing but the data on that disc (with some notable exceptions). Saying that a download would be “required” for a theoretical disc-based Alan Wake 2 implies that Remedy is already anticipating the day-one release to be literally unplayable without such a patch.

Just came in:  HK Police Launch CyberDefender to Help Protect Citizens in the Metaverse

Brave new disc-free world

Enlarge / Selling console games on discs seems less important when many consoles don’t even have a disc drive.

Other arguments aside, the primary reason Remedy doesn’t feel the need to release a disc-based version is relatively high up in the FAQ: “A large number of [players] have shifted to digital only.”

That “large number” of players has been widely apparent across the industry for a while. EA has made most of its money from digital game sales for over a decade. Destiny 2 was making a majority of its launch window sales from digital downloads in 2017. Capcom said in 2021 that a full 80 percent of its new game sales were digital downloads, while Sony’s 2020 fiscal year results showed a majority of PlayStation full game sales were coming as digital downloads.

If anything, publishers’ physical game sales ratios have only decreased since those numbers were released, as COVID shutdowns led to huge spikes in digital game sales. We have to imagine that 2020’s brief GameStop shutdown convinced at least a few hesitant disc-based hangers-on to move over to downloads, at least temporarily.

But even as physical game sales become a smaller and smaller portion of major publishers’ bottom lines, few, if any, have been willing to completely give up on the shrinking segment of the console market that still prefers their games on discs. If a disc-free Alan Wake 2 succeeds, it could be an inflection point that convinces other console game makers that it’s finally time to fully transition to the disc-free world that PC gamers have been part of for years.

Just came in:  I don’t think Apple’s Reality Pro ambitions are rooted in reality

That would have serious implications for those who want to preserve their game libraries for years, not to mention those with limited Internet access. But at this point, consumer patterns and business realities may make it inevitable.

Who knows, in a few years, the idea of releasing even major console games on disc could seem as weird as Microsoft’s recent 10-DVD release of Flight Simulator on PC. If that happens, Alan Wake 2 will at least be partially responsible for the final death knell of disc-based gaming.