While the next generation of consoles appears ready to launch in 2020, Microsoft is gearing up for the final phase of this generation with a more casual-focused digital only console that will release without a disc drive. Reports call this new console the Xbox One S All-Digital, or if you're a cynical individual, the Xbox One SAD (acronym not approved by Microsoft).
Rumors have persisted for several months that Microsoft was developing an all-digital console to release during the last year or two of the Xbox One lifetime. It's often during this point, late in generations, where manufacturers release smaller, stripped down consoles in order to maximize profits and to entice those who still haven't bought a unit to jump in.
In addition to the digital only console, Microsoft will also reportedly unveil a disc-to-digital program, similar to that of the VUDU disc-to-digital transfer for movies. Details of the program are still vague, but it would seem Microsoft would allow people to somehow scan their discs or offer them to authorized retailers in exchange for a digital copy of the game. That would bridge the gap between those who want to purchase this new console and still have a library of physical discs.
The idea is sound and there's evidence that this new unit - if reports are to be believed - could help give the Xbox One ecosystem a second wind heading into the launch of its successor in 2020. Digital sales have continued to climb in recent years to the point where the industry's largest publishers, including EA and Ubisoft, are seeing digital sales overtake physical sales. Discs are becoming more and more useless. And there are plenty of reasons why this transition is occuring.
The physical disc has essentially become DRM for games these days. Due to the massive sizes of games and the relatively slow read speeds of disc drives, all games are fully installed on the hard drive before they're playable. Whereas 15 years ago, you could buy a game, go home and immediately start playing, today you're stuck waiting for the full game to install on the console. To make matters worse, almost all games launch with massive day-one patches. "Tom Clancy's The Division 2" will have a 95GB patch when players pop in the disc for the first time Friday. That is on top of the already necessary install time for the base game itself.
The video game industry is simply following in the footsteps of the music and movie industries. In those industries, compromises to quality had to be made in order to facilitate instantaneous streaming and downloads. An MP3 does not sound as good as a CD. A Netflix stream does not look at as good as a blu-ray. But video games don't have that issue. A digital copy is the exact same as a physical copy.
The only downsides to digital distribution is the issue of ownership rights, which is still heavily contested. With physical media, individuals still have the capacity to trade or sell their discs once they're done with them. Gamestop created an empire out of this - and is now consequently slowly sliding into irrelevance due to the rise of digital ownership, which does not allow any sort of trading or selling. Once you purchase a title, it's yours to own forever. Up until recently, it wasn't even possible to get a refund. So there are still some issues at hand.
The future is digital and Microsoft knows this. The company knew this when it unveiled the Xbox One in 2013 with the idea of a fully digital ecosystem that included using physical discs as licenses for digital copies. Under the original vision for the Xbox One, individuals would purchase a disc, install the game to their console and would no longer need the disc to play. The problem with the original vision was in Microsoft's insistence of ensuring the console was connected to the Internet at all time and would require verification every 24 hours.
There's still a lot of details that have yet to be revealed. According to reports, the console could be unveiled in April - two months ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. It should serve as a cheaper alternative to the standard Xbox One S or the Xbox One X, though no price was specified. For someone who's not interested in the system's 4K UHD blu-ray player, but still wants to play games, this could be a great option.
It's still too early to release a primary system without a disc drive. Even next generation consoles should and will ship with a disc drive. There is still a large part of the country - including many areas in Southwest Oklahoma - that do not have the broadband capabilities to download and install literally hundreds of gigabytes of data per game. But that time is coming and it's nice to have a more affordable option for those who prefer the convenience and have the capability.