The Covid-19 lockdown will surely drive more people towards buying digital, right?

We are amid a global pandemic, and everyone on the planet’s routine has changed. Here in Northern Ireland, every business that is not “essential” has been told to close their doors, and every “non-essential” worker must stay at home. Video games are now a more important way to relax than ever. Being able to blast up into the solar system to vaporise evil aliens, or catch cute little monsters in balls and make them fight each other, is a welcome escape from the anxiety and existential dread that the real world is causing so many people at the moment. Over the last few weeks, both Xbox Live and Nintendo Switch Online have both experienced downtime due to increased demand. Concurrent active users on Valve’s Steam platform have surged, even breaking its own records – twice. Xbox Chief Phil Spencer had the following to say on a post to Xbox.com:

We understand the important role gaming is playing right now to connect people and provide joy in these isolating and stressful times, and our teams are working diligently to ensure we can be there for our players

With most of the population at home, and a lot of them playing games, people must be blasting through their backlog of games – hell, I sure am. This list of unplayed games dwindling means that thoughts of buying a few new releases have started to cross my mind, but with going to the shops no longer a morally viable choice, there are only two real options. Either order for online delivery, which comes with a sense of guilt of its own, or download from a digital marketplace. I don’t want delivery drivers, or warehouse workers, to have to go out into a possibly unsafe environment so that I can catch a bug in Animal Crossing. This moral dilemma means that I, usually a staunch purchaser of physical games, have entirely changed my buying habits in a matter of weeks.

Ukie, the association for the UK’s video game and interactive entertainment industry, reported that in 2018 digital & online sales grew by 20.3%, while physical, “boxed software,” sales were actually down 2.6% on the previous year. There will always be a market for physical releases in some shape or form, I’m sure. Just look at vinyl records, could boxed games end up going that direction? Maybe. 

With Animal Crossing New Horizons and Doom Eternal having released a few weeks ago, it would be fascinating to see a breakdown of sales in terms of how many physical vs digital copies each sold. With everyone trapped indoors, and COVID-19 seemingly bringing out the more caring side in a lot of people, there has undoubtedly been a significant effect on how people buy their games, as well as how many games have been sold.

With people, social distancing in their own homes, the practically immediate access to games on an online marketplace is surely proving too tempting to resist. With the alternative being to wait days on delivery, more people will change their buying habits, and it is guaranteed a lot of people won’t go back. So, will this “lockdown” drive more people to purchase most of their games digitally? I would be astonished if it hasn’t already

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