Are PC Game Discs In North America Really Dead?

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I’ve made a couple posts in the past year or so complaining about the state of physical PC games in North America. Most people seem assume it completely died out years ago, or are on the opposite end of the spectrum and get surprised by recent revelations like Titanfall 2 on PC no longer being shipped on a physical disc. I think I can at least clarify most of the current status of North American physical PC game distribution for anyone still trying to shop for PC games at a store. I’ve been paying fairly close attention to it for the last several years.

Is physical distribution of PC games 100 percent dead in North America? Not quite, but it’s pretty much on its last legs. The PC section at Best Buy or GameStop these days is mostly Steam cards and maybe some accessories like Steam Controllers and mechanical keyboards. I think the Best Buy I live near is one of the larger ones that can fit a bit more than most.

Retailers have almost completely given up on actual game discs, but every PC gamer doesn’t have gigabit internet or even 100mbps internet. I think retailers still recognize this in Europe which is why a lot more PC games still get physical distribution over there compared to North America, despite the United States lagging behind a lot of European countries in internet infrastructure. It’s probably one of the main reasons most console users still buy their games on discs.

Generally speaking, only the most surefire big sellers get shipped on discs for PC in North America these days. It’s on a publisher by publisher basis, and I’ve watched as more and more have ended the practice since the start of the current console generation.

The last publishers whose PC discs I can reliably find in a store are Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, and Take Two Interactive which owns 2K Games and Rockstar. All of them now require online activation on whatever game client each publisher prefers: UPlay for Ubisoft, Battle.Net for Blizzard, Rockstar Social Club for Rockstar, and Steam for Activision and 2K games. In every case you get discs containing all the game data without any patches, as well as a code you use to register the game and if you want, simply download it through the client. That’s how it’s been done pretty much since Half-life 2 back in 2004.

Blizzard is of course the given. I think that’s the one company people expect to see represented in the PC section of a Wal-Mart these days because its games can still sell tens of millions on PC alone. Overwatch is no exception to that retail rule, though I don’t actually know what’s in the box for that game. I suspect it’s multiple DVD-ROMs which activate on Battle.Net like with the other publishers.

When I say “Activision” I really mean Call of Duty. The latest ones all the way up to Black Ops III are available on discs for PC. I don’t know on how many discs, but I remember seeing a picture of an Advanced Warfare box containing six discs that activate on Steam, so I would presume at least that many for the games following it.

I haven’t actually looked inside any recenet Ubisoft PC game boxes but I would presume it’s the same story. If it was just a download code or something I imagine the boxes would say that on the front (I’ll get to why below). Games as recent as Far Cry 4Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and Far Cry Primal are available for PC on discs.

From what I can tell I think Take-Two’s PC physical release policy is less uniform. Its recent shining example of a retail PC release is Grand Theft Auto V, which comes in an elaborate box containing seven neatly-organized discs. After that as of this writing you still have to download probably over 10 gigs of updates from Rockstar Social Club. Just looking at my copy makes me miss the old days of massive PC game boxes. I guess you can do that though when your game sells 65 million copies. Most of what 2K Games sells on PC you can still get on discs, including games like EvolveBattlebornCivilizationBorderlands, and XCOM. I don’t know about the 2K sports games now but I’ve seen previous years of NBA 2K at retail.

Oh, technically one last one is CDProjekt RED, which did release The Witcher 3 for PC on discs in North America, and it made a big point about not being tied to any DRM. The last time  I got to look at the box in a store it said something like “activation required, internet connection NOT required to play game.” I wouldn’t be surprised if it activated on GOG which is DRM-free anyway. I just don’t really count CDPR since it releases games so infrequently.

There are other publishers that recently stopped doing PC discs or at least ones that contain the actual full game.

Titanfall 2’s being download-only on PC seems like a shock to some but I think Battlefield Hardline was the last game EA released on a disc for PC. You can still find copies of the standard edition of Dragon Age Inquisition but not Game of the Year EditionStar Wars Battlefront was when EA started the policy of shipping boxes with “DOWNLOAD ONLY. NO DISC INCLUDED.” clearly printed on the front.

As I previously noted, Bethesda started another policy with Fallout 4. Now all its games just come on one disc with about 5 gigabytes of data, forcing you to download the rest over Steam. The last Bethesda game with a full physical PC release in North America was Wolfenstein: the New Order which shipped on four discs.

People think it was Steam that killed PC retail, but that was just the first step. I think what did more damage was the move to Blu-Ray ROMs. During the last console generation most major games were optimized for the Xbox 360 which forced developers to fit the data onto DVDs. Publishers like Square Enix, EA, Bethesda, or Capcom could easily just do the same thing for the PC version. Now consoles have completely adopted Blu-Ray. But Blu-Ray drives for PCs never really caught on, probably due to Blu-Ray itself never reaching the same market penetration as DVD, as well as some kind of DRM forcing people to buy extra software to watch Blu-Ray movies on PCs. After a while, video distribution on PC accepted digital as its future, and gaming followed. The only Blu-Ray ROM game I remember being made was GTA IV.

If internet infrastructure was better in North America this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Hopefully something comes of Netflix’s call to the FCC to do something about data caps and usage-based-billing.

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