Digital downloads and the death of the physical format

More and more of us are downloading our entertainment, and with the decline of HMV and Blockbuster there are yet fewer places to buy DVDs, CDs, and games on the high street. Could this be the end of the physical format?

There's a school of thought that says that things in life are slow to change. That's not always true. Sometimes you can see change coming towards you like a runaway train. You can run from it, you can try to avoid it - but sooner or later it's going to hit. And you need to be ready when it does.

If you're a music lover, film fan or gamer, you know this better than most. Until recently, entertainment came primarily on physical formats - CDs and DVD, for example. However, the last few years have seen an enormous shift in the landscape of these industries, with more people turning to the internet to buy, download, watch or otherwise consume their entertainment.

In short, physical formats are declining, and digital downloads are on the rise. According to the Entertainment Retailers Association, at least a quarter of the market is now digital, and, despite an increase in overall sales, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays and boxed video games sales fell by nearly 17%.

Decline of the high street

The effect of this is certainly being felt by retailers. The closure of Blockbuster, the disintegration of GAME, and HMV entering administration mean there are few options left on the high street if you want to get your hands on a copy of the latest Bond film or Tomb Raider title. In fact, outside supermarkets and electronics chains - where product selection tends to be extremely limited - and the odd independent store, there's really only one option; the internet.

Many people will, of course, continue to buy physical media through online retailers like Amazon, but with people forced online it only makes sense that digital versions will continue to grab market share. After all, why wait two or three days for your game or movie to arrive by mail, when it can be downloaded and running in just a few hours, or, in the case of streaming movies, seconds?

Gaming the system

Games console manufacturers understand this. Consoles have evolved from simple game machines to multimedia hubs, providing movies, music, social media and more in addition to traditional interactive experiences. A broadband connection is advisable to get the most out of these current gen devices, but with the Playstation 4 (PS4) and next Xbox just around the corner, it's about to become essential.

Matthew Reynolds, gaming editor for Digital Spy agrees: "Broadband and internet connectivity will be vital in the next generation of systems. Aside from the rumoured online-only next Xbox, both systems will be fully engineered to take advantage of online services and features.

"While the PS3 and Xbox 360 relied on these in a major way, neither was fully designed with it in mind. For example, the Xbox Live Arcade service - which focused on arcade ports and had capped game sizes - showed Microsoft had no idea how big or important digital distribution would become. New consoles will have the internet at the core, and the PS4's streaming and sharing underline this."

When Sony announced the PS4 a few weeks ago, it was keen to emphasise those features. Players will be able to stream a game over the internet - much in the same way you watch an episode on BBC iPlayer, and game footage can be captured at any time and shared with friends online. It's unclear what data demands this will all have, but it's entirely possible that an package will be advisable. If most gamers are using unlimited broadband, downloadable versions of titles start to look rather attractive.

What's holding downloads back?

But downloadable versions of titles have been around for years now, and while they're gathering steam, why haven't they truly taken off? According to Reynolds, it's partly knowledge - or a lack of it.

"A small segment of savvy consumers will probably switch to digital editions, but I think several factors make the adoption of digital downloads difficult," he explains. "Many users don't even know how they can download full games on their systems. Plus, limited hard drive space in certain current generation console models might make the switch from retail to full digital impossible in some cases."

There's also the problem of Britain's broadband infrastructure. Parts of the country continue to struggle with , or in some places no access at all. The problem isn't being ignored - the government is investing millions in deploying fibre broadband across the land, but as it stands right now, many areas - particularly rural ones - are underserved.

"Downloading games isn't as convenient as many hoped it would be, especially with slow download speeds," says Reynolds. "Especially if you're grabbing a Blu-Ray sized game from the Playstation network."

So perhaps Britain isn't ready for things to go fully digital just yet, and perhaps it will take games longer to adapt to the digital world than other formats. But as the rise of streaming movies, music and TV services has shown, once an industry adapts, there's no looking back. Change is there, coming down the tracks. Are you ready to jump on board?

Have you ever bought a digital version of a movie, song or game? Do you stick to physical formats, and if so, why? Let us know in the comments.

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