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

Releasing <em>Alan Wake 2</em> 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?

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Anyone who pays attention to the game industry knows that the segment of players buying games on physical discs has been becoming less and less important as physical releases themselves 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 does note, 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 still 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.

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.

A look back at a time when discs ruled the earth.
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 themselves 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 decide to 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 in order 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 these days. Still, most disc-based games ship in a form that’s still 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.

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