Console gaming is at a crossroads


Sony and Microsoft have been walking the same path for nearly 20 years, when it comes to gaming hardware. Instead of leaves, shiny silver game discs dangle from the trees, while black and white boxes of varying sizes line the underbrush, covered in decades of debris and Doritos dust. Both companies know this trail well — but it’s about to split in two.

Microsoft is taking the right fork. This one doesn’t have game discs at all: The latest Xbox, revealed just this week, is called the One S All-Digital Edition and it’s designed for online, download-centric gaming. It doesn’t have an optical drive.

Sony, meanwhile, is staying the course. The path forward is clear and well-trod, but it’s also slightly brighter and more crisp than the road behind. The next PlayStation, known as the PlayStation 5 for now, is an upgraded version of its existing hardware, promising to run faster and smoother than the PlayStation 4 Pro, with support for 8K graphics and 3D audio. It has an optical disc drive.

Physically, the optical drive is a small feature, but it represents a gigantic shift in the video game ecosystem. Streaming video games are on their way, whether established broadband networks are ready or not, and the industry is moving toward a borderless, cross-platform, digital-focused marketplace.

Sales of physical media have been steadily declining for the past decade, according to Statista. In 2009, 80 percent of all game sales came from physical discs and cartridges, and just 20 percent was digital. By 2017, those figures had swapped, with 80 percent of the industry’s software sales stemming from digital transactions. Even Nintendo, a company that’s been historically reluctant to add online features to its games and consoles, has finally embraced modernity with the Switch, allowing cross-platform play, adding online features and building out its digital store.

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