Sony is no stranger to thinking outside the box. Even back in the days of the walkman or even betamax, they’ve been trying out new things for better and for worse. Sometimes they work out like the former and sometimes they get left in the dust, but Sony knows, perhaps more than any other electronics company, that occasional failures are part of the price of success. Even within the Playstation brand, Sony applies this mentality. From the eye toy, to the sixaxis controller, to the Cell processor, and PS VR, Sony is more than willing to take big leaps into the unknown for a shot at striking oil despite it often not totally panning out. Sony’s not alone though. PlayStation’s direct competitors also understand this at least to some degree.
Nintendo has taken a wild stab at portable console and home console hybridization while Microsoft is leaning heavily into blending their PC and console ecosystems, both approaches seem to come from a place of preparing for a future where the traditional dividing lines and rules of gaming and consoles no longer exist. Going into the next console generation though, one might take a look at what we currently know about Sony’s PS5 and think that we’re seeing a more conservative Sony this time around. Some might even say they’re lagging behind in terms of innovation.
That’s not quite the case though. While it is true that Sony definitely isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel this time around- there’s no major peripherals or new services announced so far- Sony has taken a firm step in the direction of finally acknowledging that the eventual future of games is likely a digital one. While physical versions of games are still selling well, the ceiling for them has been hit.
There’s nowhere to go from here but down for physical sales. On the flip side, the peak interest in digital sales is still something we aren’t even close to seeing yet. With the success of gaming clients like Steam and services like Game Pass, that’s pretty hard to ignore. While Sony hasn’t jumped into this future with both feet quite yet, the addition of a digital version of the PlayStation 5 is an incredibly smart move that will serve PlayStation and their customers quite well going forward.
For those of us who grew up in the age of tube TV’s and RCA cables, acknowledging the inevitability of a fully digital gaming landscape is a bit like acknowledging a huge meteor heading towards earth. It might be far away and it might seem like no big deal for those who are ready for it, but it’s definitely coming regardless of what anyone thinks and there will be no turning back. While Microsoft got the memo on this last gen, it didn’t really pay off for them stupendously well… but that wasn’t the idea’s fault.
Microsoft’s Xbox One family pretty much spent the entire generation in damage control mode after the absolute wallop they received from Sony and Nintendo. By being in a fairly distant third place for several years, it’s hard to measure the success of anything they did since every move they made was watered down by the fact that they just didn’t have the install base their competitors had.
But this generation is a different story. While Sony is likely to retain some of their edge from the previous generation, Xbox has come back in a big way with their backwards compatibility, major studio acquisitions, Game Pass, and several other measures they’ve taken while Nintendo has severely cut into PlayStation’s japanese market by creating a much friendlier atmosphere for more niche games from that region. If Sony’s not careful, they could find themselves outflanked in the west and in the east if these trends continue. However, as small as it may seem, a digital version of the PS5 will likely be enough to hold on to much of their market share without having to do much else.
A digital console brings a lot of advantages to the table. As a guy who will always grab the physical version of a game when I can, even I can admit this. Most immediately it lowers the cost of production, as the motors, lasers, and other parts needed to accept, read, and spit discs back out are no longer necessary. And these savings in production cost will almost certainly be passed on to the consumers in one way or another. Whether that be in the form of a price reduction of the machine itself, Sony being more liberal with including free games, or both, somehow that benefit of buying a digital console will be felt at the point of purchase for those who buy one.
That is a great thing for Sony, as gamers who were on the fence before the announcement of a digital PS5, now have just that much more of a reason to jump over to Sony’s side. While I may never understand why a gamer would want to spend their hard-earned money on an entire library of games that they’ll never be able to hold, trade, or sell, those gamers are out there. In fact, according to a Nielson study, while 66% of console gamers still prefer their physical copies, 34% do not.
That’s over a third of console gamers who just plain don’t want to fool with cases, booklets, and all that jazz. It’s also important to remember, that study was from 2018 so the number is likely higher today and will be even higher later. For Sony to miss out on- or at least jeopardize their relationship with- a third of console gamers would have been a grave mistake. For their sake, and for the sake of the gaming landscape as we know it, having a digital version of the PS5 was just as smart as it was unavoidable.
Another major factor that we simply can’t overlook is the amount of temperature management this next round of consoles will have to contend with. You don’t push 4K video of Kratos chopping off heads at 60 frames a second without generating a fair amount of heat. Thankfully consoles have ways to deal with that, but as many PS4 gamers know, sometimes that system struggles to maintain safe temperatures without sounding like a space shuttle taking off to go to the moon.
We now know, Sony has definitely heard those criticisms and they’re taking steps to mitigate that for the PS5. Using liquid metal thermal paste for both versions of the console will likely work quite well, but it’s also true that the extra heat generated from spinning the disc and all the parts associate with that action being vulnerable to said heat as time passes is something that physical game lovers like myself will have to risk more and more as consoles get more powerful.
I’m personally fine with taking that risk myself, but I can totally understand why plenty of people might not be. The truth is, the digital version of the PS5 will generate less heat, and therefore handle heat better, and therefore, last longer. While the lifespan of a console is not something that a company like Sony directly benefits from right away, it does ultimately help build towards a reputation that companies like Sony definitely want, and need, to hang on to their customers for the next round of consoles.
That being the case, Sony producing digital versions of the PS5 that lack the moving parts that disc drives require will probably bring them much longer life spans for their consoles, and thus, more long-time gamers who feel they can trust the brand that much more. That particular angle is a long-term strategy but it pays off in big ways down the road.
Keeping the PlayStation brand grounded in its roots of being the standard bearer for home console gaming is definitely important to Sony- as it should be- but the addition of this digital version also shows an awareness and flexibility on Sony’s part that bodes well for the future of the ecosystem. And that is good news for everyone.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.