The Decline and Extinction of the Physical PC Game

I’ve mentioned my game collecting in some previous articles, but never really went too far into detail. Over the past two years, I’ve gone from system to system, grabbing games I found and sniping some auctions. I’ve basically cleaned out the 3DS and Vita offerings, grabbing up whatever games I was interested in. Same with the Wii and Playstation 2, with a few small exceptions that I’ve still got in my crosshairs. But lately, I’ve set my sights on something fun to collect, although much more difficult to find: boxed PC games.

The more of these things I collect, and the more I try to actually install them and re-live these awesome titles from my younger years, I start to remember this very bleak era for PC gaming – a frustrating time brought upon by terrible business decisions that resulted in an entire subculture of game piracy. At the peak of the nonsense, it turned your everyday legitimate game purchaser into a frustrated pirate, trying desperately to remove the restrictions put in place via DRM schemes. The aftermath of the madness was digital distribution and the complete abandonment of physical PC games.

It’s no wonder that we waltz down the game section of our local entertainment aisle today only to find a sad, miniscule collection of games that nobody will probably ever buy. And if they do? Well, they’ll find themselves activating them and installing them through Steam anyway. Digital distribution ran the physical game industry into the ground, but in my opinion, the inconveniences put in place by the game companies at the turn of the century are 100% to blame.

While my opinions are all over the place when it comes to digital distribution, the purpose of this article was to bring to light the beauty that was the big box PC game era. It was an incredible time for gaming, and if you can ignore all the malicious DRM schemes that made it a train wreck for longevity, these physical copies can be loads of fun to find and collect!

The Beauty of the Big Box PC Game

Assuming you were alive and cognizant of the economics of PC games through the early-2000s, you probably remember these PC big-box beauties lining the shelves of your local Best Buy, CompUSA, Costco, or otherwise. They were gorgeous and in glorious abundance – receiving one of these as a gift was like winning the lottery, at least that was how I remembered it. Rows upon rows of colorful mayhem, placed right across from the rows of gigantic CRT monitors, each one promising to be better for gaming than the last. It was a great time, let me tell you.

compusa
In the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, this was one of the go-tos for everything PC gaming, at least in the United States!

One of the most amazing Christmas gifts I can recall was receiving the trapezoid-shaped box of Final Fantasy VII. Not to mention, most of these big box games let you flip open the cover to reveal even more awesome screenshots and information about the game, as if to say “sorry, we had way too much awesome stuff to show you and we ran out of space, so we had to make more.”

final-fantasy-7-box
The whole front flap opened up for even more treasures within!

What stood out the most with the big box PC games was the sheer amount of effort that was put into the presentation. Remember, these publishers were competing with all those other games, and so they needed an edge – something to make them stand out from hundreds of other boxes. Making a box into a trapezoid a-la Final Fantasy VII would immediately differentiate it. Adding the open-flap design was even more marketing real-estate to make sure your potential buyer became a new customer.

rct-box

And it worked, too! Those of you who were browsing your local game store of choice probably remember thumbing through copies fondly, looking for that special one to take home. Sure you’d get some stinkers in there every once in a while, but even the bargain bin games had some great boxes! Talking about you, Big Red Racing.

The Big Box Starts to Shrink

When we as a society collectively decided to become more eco-friendly, the big box PC games were phased out by the “petite” box. Personally I thought this was a nice change, so long as there was still a solid collection of little goodies inside. Why waste all that cardboard? I liked how it took up just the right amount of space to fit on a shelf without spilling outward. Ok, I still missed the big box, but there were still all the aforementioned presents within, so I learned to deal with it.

You’d usually get a full color instruction manual, along with a nice cardboard booklet of CDs. These weren’t much larger than a DVD case, which they sometimes housed, but they still looked great, and most employed the flap system, that is, you could open the cover to reveal more goodies and three-word statements from probably-made-up journalists (“Best Game Ever Made” — Tim Jones) rating the game.

Over time, the cardboard box was phased out in favor of the presumably cheaper-to-produce and.. possibly more eco-friendly(?) chunky DVD case. These still looked alright but admittedly lost most of their charm. They still looked beautiful, but I consider the loss of the big box PC game marked the rapid decline of physical PC games in general.

Eventually, colored manuals became a thing of the past, reverting to black and white manuals, at best. Attempting to cut costs even further, the game cases dropped in quality to a thinner, more lightweight plastic that would easily break and fall apart. It was a depressing thing to witness, but with the influx of users moving to 100% digital distribution, companies were slashing publishing budgets left and right when they released fans would buy games without the flashy box art anymore.

Losing their Steam

While physical PC games were still a common thing leading up to a few years ago, it’s no secret that Steam ended up dominating the entire marketplace for video game distribution. Around that time, I too jumped on the digital bandwagon, because who wouldn’t? Sales were abundant and you didn’t have to go out and buy a cheaply produced copy. The big pretty boxes of last year were toast, so there was little incentive to even buy a physical copy.

doom-2016-cover
Only took 2 hours to install.. 10 minutes for the DVD and 1 hour 50 minutes on Steam for the 25 gigabyte “update.”

Not to mention, games were increasingly requiring large-sized patches that were difficult to obtain. Who else remembers searching for a patch on FilePlanet.com and waiting on download queues for hours just to get the latest version so you could connect to GameSpy and play? Steam solved this entire problem, first with Counter-Strike, and then to all the other games that were offered on the platform.

Of course there was also the mandatory online activation as part of draconian DRM schemes, but if you used Steam, all of that happened behind the scenes! No CD keys, no “Please Insert Game Disc” messages, none of that! Now everything is so damn convenient.

To quote Sam “Ace” Rothstein from the movie Casino:

The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland.

When people today insist on digital media due to “convenience,” and explain that it saves them from having to swap a disc, it really puts how great we have it today into perspective. Nothing takes any time at all, and everything is practically immediate. Today, “convenience” is saving five seconds swapping a disc, ten years ago, you wouldn’t even be able to play the game until you spent literal hours tracking down and downloading a valid patch!

But of course, these DRM issues were the thorns in the side of a great thing that will always hold some fond memories for me. And as less people become interested in them, the more copies will be up for grabs!

While I would have loved for big box PC games to stick around, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the change to something better was not only necessary, but inevitable. Companies were very misguided in trying to secure their software, and in turn they cultivated a toxic ecosystem that forced the common man into either piracy, cracking legit copy protections, or not buying the game at all.

While it has been sad witnessing the demise of boxed PC games, and even smaller physical games go the way of the compact disc, I think we can take it as a lesson to avoid seeing our beloved physical copies from disappearing on other gaming systems. But that is a post for another day!

Do you remember going through your local game store and perusing the big box games? Do you still have them today? What’s your most prized gaming artifact? Let me know about it in the comments!

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Decline and Extinction of the Physical PC Game

  1. Great article! I never did much PC gaming but we did try our hand at a couple of Star Trek games, being the huge fan I am.
    I still have the boxes, looking beautiful. But I also remember the stress of getting them to work on my Windows PC. And even one game we never managed to get working! Deep Space Nine Harbinger didn’t want to work no matter what we tried.. not tech savvy enough I guess.

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  2. The front flaps! Loved those. And I remember looking through the aisle to arrive on whatever game would be next. That’s how I ended up with Starcraft (the original). Haven’t had a physical pc game in so long. I wonder how long until consoles follow?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully not for a long time. I won’t buy a console that has digital only games, so that’ll spell a very immediate end of game collecting for me. It actually really bums me out to think about, seeing my hobby slowly lose its soul in the name of more money for the corporations, masquerading as “convenience” for the consumer.

      My feelings towards it are probably very similar to how passionate collectors of CDs and DVDs felt in the mid 2000s when music stores started closing up shop.

      But honestly I don’t think they’ll stop making physical games for a long time. If CDs are still being made, I can’t imagine games going away.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Imtiaz Ahmed

    Great post, I remember those HUGE bigger than life PC game boxes. I am recalling boxes I had for Mechwarrior 2, clan wolf expansion, FF7, FF8 (which both came with those awesome booklet things for all the discs)

    but yes, the whole digital thing as convenient as it is, does point to how readily things are available, and more importantly, how quickly we need stuff to work now. It leads to alot of impatient behaviour being developed over the years. I mean, think about your first reaction if the wifi disconnects. It’s almost like the end of the world. Or hell, even if your phone just needs to buffer a video and is a bit slow. People get very ansy, and the same goes for games probably. A downside to the whole digital distribution thing.

    I like the digital distribution of steam, and everything really. For one, I don’t put enough effort to preserving physical copies of anything so it would go to waste in my hands. I don’t think i benefit from not having to swap between games so quickly, as i’m sticking to one game at a time kind of formula, but those games will always receive patches readily. You mentioning needing to go on fileplanet to find a patch, it was pretty tough. But it’s the peace of mind that the games will carry over from platform to platform. I mentioned this in comments for other peoples PC related posts, but for consoles, backwards compatibility seems to become less of a thing these days. I can rely on my Steam library to work on any PC, anytime and anywhere, which is a HUUUGE benefit for me. I hate being in a predicament now where I have a PS3 with games I haven’t finished, and want a PS4, but cannot play those games on PS4. Yes there are remasters that I can re-buy, or PSNow. But take something like Okami, it hasn’t been ported to PS4, and i don’t see it on the list oh games available for PSNow. I can’t depend on such things because I never know if that game will ever come or not, or even when. Too much uncertainty there. I’m going a bit off topic though.

    but to get back to it and answer your question, I’d say FF8 was my most prized box, if i still had it. I never has the original playstation, but loved FF7. Eventually i heard of FF8 and was amazed by everything by it. To finally get it on PC with it’s big shiny box was a sight to behold, I was hooked on that one

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