The games industry’s biggest secret: three quarters of gamers still prefer discs

ERA’s Kim Bayley on the latest results from the retail association’s unique consumer tracking study

Monday October 17th, 2016

Conventional wisdom would have it that physical formats in the entertainment business are utterly doomed.

Certainly the games business has been the leader in the revolution. Our annual ERA Yearbook which combines  estimates of digital revenues from IHS with data on physical sales from GfK first reported that digital had eclipsed physical as far back as 2013.

By 2015 we estimated that physical accounted for only a third of UK games revenues.

And yet, as the compact disc and even the vinyl album have demonstrated in the music market, physical formats refuse to die and in the case of vinyl are at a 10 year high.

Latest evidence comes in the form of the twelfth wave of ERA’s consumer tracking survey which has taken place every quarter for the past three years. With between 1,200 and 1,800 respondents in every wave, ranked by age, gender, social class, household income, household size, our survey compiled by Fly Research is one of  the most authoritative consumer research projects in UK entertainment history.

This latest edition provides some significant food for thought not just for retailers but for every platform owner and publisher in the games business.

The fact is that the purchase of physical console games remains remarkably resilient.

Overall some 41.7% of the 1,216 respondents to Wave 12 said they buy physical or digital games, rising to 66.7% among the under 25s and 48.7% in the core C2 demographic.

Interestingly – and running completely counter to the games industry’s insistent on releasing virtually all of its biggest titles in the last three months of the year – respondents revealed that most are only occasional buyers.

Even the most committed gamers rarely buy more than once a month (just 4.5%). A third buy less than once a year and another third buy only once or twice a year.

With two thirds of buyers investing in less than two games a year, it could just be that if publishers were to spread releases out a little bit more throughout the year, the chances of tempting consumers into the market might well increase.

What is most striking from our survey however is the data on format preference. When asked whether they prefer to buy games as hard copies or digitally, a massive 77.1% opted for the physical alternative.

With digital attracting just 22.9% of respondents overall and just 19.1% of females, it is clear that digital is far from winning the hearts and minds of Britain’s gamers.

Strikingly, when respondents are classified by social class, it is C2s, the biggest buyers of games overall who skew most dramatically (84.2%) in favour of physical.

When quizzed on the reasons why they prefer to buy hard copies, the Top 5 answers are unsurprisingly tangibility (“owing something I can touch, feel, look at and collect”) on 23%, permanence and security on 16.5%, convenience 12.9%, habit 11.6% and the ability to trade titles for other games on 7.7%.

It is clear that hard discs have attractive traits which digital struggles to replicate.

On the other hand it is worth acknowledging that those who favour digital copies also have arguments in their favour, a substantial 32.4% citing “immediacy and instant access to games” and 17.6% mentioning the fact that they are space-saving and avoid physical clutter.

So what do we make of all this?

Overall digital skews towards wealthier and male gamers, the latter most likely to be among the keenest buyers.

One possible conclusion is that games publishers have become more and more dependent on the niche of the most committed, digital savvy and wealthiest gamers.

One final question which may support this analysis concerns when buyers are most likely to buy. Compared with pre-ordering (10.5%) or upon release (20.7%), a massive 68.8% responded that they wait until “after the price has dropped”.

By far the greatest number of potential gamers are physical buyers who are price conscious and buy only occasionally.

Our research suggests they offer untapped potential.

Digital formats offer huge potential for the development of the games market, but it may well be that a focus on digital to the exclusion of its mass market physical equivalent could be leaving huge amounts of money on the table.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could begin to tap into that mass market again?


Kim Bayley is CEO of the Entertainment Retailers Association

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