It’s been recently announced that for the first time, online sales of PC games in the US have actually exceeded the amount sold in stores. In the first half of this year, gamers bought 11.2 million games online via services such as Steam, versus 8.2 physical copies sold online. Comparably, Amazon announced recently that for the first time their sales of online books had actually exceeded their sales of hardback books (paperbacks, however, still exceeded both).
This isn’t a new trend as such, as the figures for both these types of online sales have been gradually encroaching on physical sales for some considerable time; both have merely recently hit the turning point where they overtake traditional sales. As to why it’s becoming more popular to download games, books, or music, however…
Partly, it’s the nature of the product being sold. Such items are ‘soft’ items, software or media designed solely to be used electronically. They’ll be run directly on your PC (or iPod, or Kindle, or device of your choice). There’s no need to have a physical copy. This sort of purchasing is unlikely to catch on with other, more material products. In the crazy old days of the dot com boom, several companies tried to sell groceries online, delivered to your, and failed pretty miserably. Admittedly, the majority of dot com ventures failed miserably, but the likes of Webvan did it with a certain spectacular flair.
Secondly, people are trusting these downloads more. Years ago, people preferred to have a CDROM (or even floppy disks) with the game they’d bought on; if their computer crashed, it was useful to have a backup copy they could reinstall. Nowadays, most companies that sell games online keep a record of your purchase and allow you to download it as many times as needed (at least for one or more particular users or computers). Likewise, if you purchase an ebook from Amazon, that purchase can be redownloaded for your Kindle at any time. In other words, nowadays the companies take care of your backups.
Finally, particularly in the case of PC games, the physical copy you can buy in a store is most likely going to be the release version. There’s likely to be at least one patch you’ll eventually need, and these are almost always only available online. If you’re playing an MMORPG like World of Warcraft or some other game with a lot of online connectivity, you’re going to be patching routinely as content changes. There comes a point where if you’re going to have to spend hour upon hour downloading a sequence of patches after a long install from disk, that you might as well have purchased it onlineand download the latest version anyhow.
Business models for anything change over the years, and the nature of video games and the Internet made this one almost inevitable. The only thing likely to be surprising are what strategies retail stores develop to try and draw sales back to them. If, indeed, we eventually have any retail stores selling PC games before long.