The Physical Box - Gaming's Legacy & Future

Digital gaming is the future. I know this. You know this. The writing has been on the wall for years now. Physical distribution is going away completely, leaving us all to our instant-access online-only futures.

Or is it?

While digital gaming offers an array of practical benefits - the convenience of never having to leave your couch, for instance - many gamers still hold a special place in their hearts (and houses) for old-school boxed copies of video games. Even as the AAA industry continues to sell more and more of their major releases digitally, the last few years has seen a rumble from within the indie space to continue the tradition of hard cases, manuals and physical games disks. I recently had a chance to chat with a few key players in this space about the resurgence of physical games media, and what it means for the future of our industry.

For those who are unaware, a quick run down - over the passed year in particular, a number of distributors have popped up, all of which have been working to bring small print runs of physical copies of indie games into the world. Arguably the largest (or, at the very least, the fastest growing) of which is aptly named Limited Run Games. An offshoot of the development studio Mighty Rabbit, LRG first began with selling a limited batch of 1500 copies of their own PlayStation Vita game, Breach & Clear. In the year or so since the site has been running, the website has seen nearly a dozen more games pass through the store across PS4 and Vita - with runs as high as 7000 copies and showing no signs of slowing down.

In the PS4 and Vita spheres alone, several other companies have decided to join the fray - both Fangamer and iam8bit have recently announced preorders for Shovel Knight for Vita and Rez Infinite for PS4 respectively, while development studio Vblank Entertainment has just released a second physical run of it’s first game while preparing for the initial release of it’s second in 2017. Away from the Sony space, IndieBox, now a several year old company with multiple employees, has been a large proponent of physical PC games - offering a monthly subscription service for some sweet bundles of great indie games.

All of these companies have one thing in common - the love of holding a boxed copy of a video game in their own hands.

Fangamer, having been created in 2007 by a group of individuals who ran the fan site starmen.net (centered around the cult Nintendo classic Earthbound) has in recent years become known as a digital space for selling physical gaming products - and more recently, physical copies of the games themselves. While they haven’t made the transition to full fledged publisher as yet, the storefront that carries Undertale t-shirts and Axiom Verge posters has already provided a space for indie developers to sell their own games of the real-world variety - something that, as fans of physical media, Fangamer was happy to provide.

“We do support physical releases,” Charlie Verdin, General Manager of Fangamer, recently said via email interview. "I personally love my library of physical games; a physical representation of my collection, complete with each game's lovely cover artwork . . . I think there will always be a number of people who like to have something they can hold and see outside of their Steam library.”

Through my discussions with Charlie I wondered if pure nostalgia was the reason gamers still cling to physical media, but he didn’t think that was the case. "Nostalgia is certainly a powerful force today, and no doubt there are people who take advantage of it to make a quick buck. However, to really make an impact, it's not enough to simply say, 'hey, look at this thing! Doesn't this feel so familiar?' If you look at Shovel Knight or Stranger Things or Star Wars The Force Awakens you'll see how the creators simply used nostalgia as a springboard into something entirely different and unique; yes, nostalgia was a factor, but in the end those works managed to transcend the nostalgia and become something more than a reference to something past."

It isn’t just nostalgia at play here either - physical copies of games can connect gamers, helping to grow bonds between 2 otherwise seperate players. "It also makes for a good conversation piece,” Charlie mentioned. "For instance, if I have guests over, they might see my copy of Dark Souls on my shelf and say, 'Oh man, how many times did you have to fight the Taurus Demon before you beat him for the first time?' We can then swap stories about our experiences. You might not get that opportunity if your only copy of the game is sitting in your Steam library."

But when video games are both cheaper and easier to access digitally, why bother with a physical copy of a game at all? "It's true that digital games are super convenient in many ways, and I think digital games will increasingly dominate the market, especially as internet access becomes more ubiquitous.” while that may sound all doom and gloom, Charlie believes there will likely always be a market out there for physical games. “To some degree it's precisely that rarity that created a market for these physical releases; exclusivity is its own reward. Out of all of the billions of people in the world, you get to be one of the lucky few thousand people who owns a physical copy of that game."

That collectors mentality was one particular crux I kept coming back to when delving into this resurgence of physical games. Video games have, much like every other entertainment medium, held a subsection of hardcore collectors. While there are definitely a few scalpers - people who buy multiple copies of a product only to sell them later at inflated prices, a practice generally looked down upon by the community - I’ve found that most fans who follow these websites and make these purchases are a great group of people. The small community that has formed around this niche practice, in particular the forums on the Limited Run Games website, are all more than happy to chat about past and upcoming releases - even going so far as to help each other get a hold of games fellow collectors might be after. Everyone here holds a common purpose and joy, bringing similar people together under the one ideal.

For some, even the games themselves are almost secondary - the very idea of owning something that was part of a small print run is enough. Some members of the collecting community at large, be it ones aiming for a complete collection of all games released on every console down to those collecting only Limited Run releases, have their own goals of what they want to achieve. Much like playing any regular video game, that progression of working towards something drives collectors forward, and is simply what makes them happy.

Digital distribution has definitely helped the gaming industry expand in many ways we couldn’t have imagined even 10 years ago. But of course, owning every game in the world digitally is nowhere near as impressive as having a dedicated space to show off your entire physical collection - something often found in the world of boxed copies, beautiful art books and special edition statues. The cycle is starting to come full circle - more new and interesting games are being made and becoming popular through digital distribution, which in turn is allowing developers to release physical copies of their games for both their most ardent fans and collectors alike.

It’s no surprise that indie developers themselves love the idea of producing physical versions of their own games - it would be hard to find a developer today who didn’t grow up around their own physical collections. Brian Provinciano, solo developer of Vblank Entertainment and creator of Retro City Rampage, was one of the first indie developers to make the push into the physical realm. It’s thanks in large part to his push to create and self-publish physical copies of RCR that small print runs on Sony consoles are something that exists today.

"There were a lot more barriers initially,” Brian mentioned when talking of the work involved in creating his first print run for the Vita and PS4. "Sony's been fantastic, and I'm very thankful that they allow such small print runs. With any big company though, they’re normally used to dealing with other big companies staffed with separate employees for each aspect of the process. That all adds up to being a lot for one person to know.” In the end though, Brian found it was well worth the time and effort.

"I started working in the industry when physical releases were more common, and they were a great reward for me as a developer; A trophy to put on the wall (literally) when the project finally shipped . . . I really just wanted to have a physical copy to hold in my hands, and thought that if I could come close to at least breaking even, it would all be worth it."

Whether it’s because the ESRB hasn’t caught up to the times or they are more lenient when it comes to the internet, the current rules around ratings and regulations in the US aren’t as stringent online as they are in stores. This is what has allowed small batches of games to be produced and sold without developers jumping through (expensive) loops to get there - and precisely what gave Brian the loopholes he needed to blaze the path in this regard. "Ratings are separate for retail and digital, and in the case of retail and small print runs, substantially increase the effective per-unit cost. However, after talking with the ESRB, I was able to get confirmation that I could avoid getting one if I sold them directly to customers rather than in big box stores. There was still quite a bit of work getting internal Sony processes updated to allow this, but my account manager did some solid heavy lifting to make it happen. That was one of the biggest things, because if each retail game needed an ESRB rating, we'd see a lot less of these limited releases.” Hence why you’ll never see copies of these games at your local Target - and why several online stores have been taking advantage of this fact.

For James Morgan, co-founder and CEO of IndieBox, the reasoning behind building out a platform to sell physical games wasn’t just business - it was personal. "When we started IndieBox back in 2014, I was just getting back into the games industry. I left because of the instability and difficulties that arouse out of making games and trying to get a positive return on investment. I was working long hours and burnt out before my break. It just so happens that I went into an even worse (for me) industry - banking service software.” 

Switching from the video game industry to banking might sound ludicrous from the outside, but for developers who are all too familiar with the idea of crunch, the move to more a stable environment can be quite appealing. For those as passionate about our industry as James however, there was no denying where he wanted to be. "It took me less than a year to get out of that and want to go back into gaming, but with a different view. What could we do that would improve the chances of games being discovered? Could we provide additional revenue channels for developers? How could we bring back some of the feelings we had as gamers when we were younger that have been lost - such as game manuals and game boxes? These were all questions we asked ourselves when we were brainstorming what would eventually become IndieBox."

Having launched in the early months of 2014, IndieBox’s initial release garnered enough attention from fans that James and Co knew they were on the right path. "When we first launched, we actually opened up subscriptions for a month before even working on the product. We told all of our customers that when they subscribed, they would be receiving their product the following month - very different than the subscription landscape we have today where gamers can subscribe and get their game shipped in the same month. Luckily those first 150-ish customers help launch our company."

Several years on, the concept of IndieBox is still going strong - each month, 5000 boxed games are created and distributed to subscribers. The company has also worked on other side projects, such as a mock board game for Humble Bundle and the the fulfilment of Kickstarter rewards. Most recently, IndieBox has announced a full collectors edition game, Owl Boy, for sale through their storefront but outside the subscription model. "We've been following the development [of Owl Boy] since we started IndieBox and it was important for us to support that development team. Because the game is Windows only, we wanted to help spread the word about the game in the best way we knew how - creating a great game box for it.” It’s ultimately a good thing for fans, but is this simply a once off - or is this indicative of where IndieBox is headed? “This is just the beginning. Look for many more big announcements in Q4 and 2017."

As it stands today, runs of these games are in the single digit thousands - a boon for indie developers, publishers and fans alike. Through my discussion in research for this piece, one thing stood out clear to me - there is not only a market for these small print runs of indie games, but that that market is steadily growing. Developers are looking to publish their digital only games in physical format; fans want to support them and purchase boxed copies. 

Digital distribution may be the future, it’s true. And yet… and yet. There is something alluring about the idea of holding a cardboard box in your hand, ripping open the plastic and flicking through a beautiful 42 page manual as you shove that game in the disk tray. Yes, all-digital content is inevitable... but it’s clear we’d still like to hold on to our games, even just for a little longer. Physical boxed copies of video games aren't going anywhere just yet.