Physical Console Game Releases Are on a Steady Decline

Image: PlayStation

Physical games have long been a thing of the past for PC gamers, but the console segment is slowly but surely heading down the same road, according to new data that demonstrates how discs and cartridges are steadily becoming more and more of a niche product.

As reported in an analysis by Ars Technica, physical releases of console games are getting rarer, a trend that’s apparent in new metrics sourced from NPD Game Pulse. The data service’s findings show that the number of games available in a physical format has decreased from 321 to 226 since 2018, a nearly 30 percent decline, while digital has increased from 1,362 to 2,182, a level of growth that should be of no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with the convenience, space savings, and other perks of the format.

Additional data from Game Pulse reveals that the decline in physical game releases is not consistent across platforms. While physical availability of PlayStation and Xbox games have dropped by over 30 percent (38 and nearly 31 percent, respectively) since 2018, Nintendo Switch only saw a relatively slight decline, with a decrease of less than 7 percent over the same period.

Image: Ars Technica

Physical console games are quickly becoming a relatively niche market (Ars Technica)

  • Looking solely at the number of unique titles released gives an incomplete picture of the console gaming market, of course. Games that merit a physical release tend to be some of the most popular titles of the year and probably attract more total sales than the vast majority of bottom-of-the-barrel digital releases. These release numbers also don’t give any visibility into what proportion of sales go to the physical versions of games that are available as both discs and downloads.
  • But data from elsewhere also supports the idea that games on physical media are quickly becoming a smaller and smaller part of the console market. Capcom said last year 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.
  • The decline in physical options is increasingly relevant to players given the limited life span of digital console game stores. The coming shutdown of the Wii U and 3DS eShops will mean hundreds of digital-only games on those platforms will no longer be available for purchase. If those games were also available on physical media, on the other hand, they would continue to live on in the secondary market.

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