People are still frantically scanning store pages, Twitter accounts and any other alerts to grab a next-gen PS5 or Xbox Series X. And as people jump into the next generation, or consider making the jump, they’ll also have the option of the discless Xbox Series S and PS5 Digital Edition for the first time. It’s a huge decision because this will be the first console generation where more than half of all games are sold digitally. But if you’re in Australia, you might want to seriously reconsider being a digital native for this generation.
My apathy for the digital only consoles isn’t a specific knock against the discless Xbox Series S — which I’ve reviewed — or the digital-only edition of the PlayStation 5. Having more choice and up down the product stack is generally a good thing, and there will be people or whole households that have hard caps on what they can and can’t spend. For them, any option is better than no option at all.
But in the broader sense, consoles — especially at launch, or the month of launch — are a luxury purchase. If you’re buying one, you’ve generally got disposable income, you’ve been saving all year, or you have some other kind of arrangement where you can comfortably drop $749 plus extra on some video games.
Most by this stage will have likely already preordered an Xbox or PS5, and then the full or discless version of those two consoles. But if you missed out and you’re still weighing up what to buy, hear me out: don’t buy the cheaper consoles.
It’s not as if the PS5 Digital Edition, and especially the Xbox Series S, aren’t excellent pieces of engineering. The PS5 Digital Edition has the benefit of eliminating the biggest source of noise from the PS5 — the Blu-Ray drive. The chassis design of the Xbox Series S is simply spectacular — it’s one of the nicest looking consoles ever manufactured, for my money, and it’s obvious why Phil Spencer has so much faith in the cheaper console.
But that faith in the Xbox Series S — and Sony’s half-step towards a digital future — comes at a cost.
Let’s look at the raw pricing in Australia. Locally, the Xbox Series S will cost $499, while the PS5 Digital Console will set you back $599. If you’re buying either console, chances are you’re also buying into each console’s respective subscriptions. For Sony, the PlayStation Plus Collection is $11.95/month or $79.95/year. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (XGP) is $15.95/month (often with a $1 deal for the first month), which is necessary if you want access to online multiplayer. (You can get Game Pass for consoles separately for $10.95/month, but not having access to online multiplayer is a huge dealbreaker for many.)
So all up, this is the total cost of the consoles over the course of a year:
PS5 Digital Edition + full year of PlayStation Plus Collection: $678.95 ($599 plus $79.95 for PS+ Collection)
Xbox Series S + full year of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate: $675.45 ($499 + $1 for first month of XGP + $15.95/month for XGP for the remaining 11 months of the year)
If you were to buy a regular PS5 under the same terms, you’d spend $828.95. The Xbox Series X would cost $925.45 with a full year of XGP.
So on the Xbox front, that’s a difference of $250. For PS5 users, you’re saving about $150 by going digital only.
Now here’s the problem.
Above was a shot of the new PlayStation Store web interface. There’s a mix of titles from indies to AAA games, but I just want to call your attention to the bigger name titles for a second. There’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla PS4 & PS5 at the top, as well as the “Next Level” edition of Borderlands 3.
All of these games cost at least $100. On the same page, you’ll see other launch next-gen titles. DiRT 5 was $99.95 at launch for the basic edition. Watch Dogs: Legion was $99.95. Comparatively, if you had access to retail discs, the situation is very different. Watch Dogs: Legion was $68 at Amazon at the time for the PS5 version. Same story for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
The story was the same for Xbox users as well. A game like Planet Coaster: Console Edition was $75 digitally, but $69 at retail. It gets worse when you get into AAA territory, of course. Yakuza: Like a Dragon? It was $100 digitally — before launching on Xbox Game Pass, anyway — and $79 at retail. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is $99.95 for the regular edition, but $109.95 if you want the Xbox Series X optimised version. At retail, that version is $94 at JB Hi-Fi and elsewhere.
A look at the PlayStation Store almost a year later shows the situation hasn’t changed. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is $99.95 digitally, but $78 for a physical copy. The prices are the same for the rebooted Saints Row. The cross-gen bundle for Call of Duty: Vanguard — aka the version you buy if you want to make the most of your next-gen console — costs $109.95 digitally, but $98 for a physical copy. Even something like Deathloop, which isn’t too bad at $89.95 — but that’s only if you have a PS+ subscription, otherwise it’s $99.95.
At retail? $78, provided you don’t mind shopping online with Harvey Norman.
Over the course of a year, chances are you’d probably still be ahead buying digital. (And that’s if you’re not getting extra storage — Black Ops Cold War alone will eat up 135GB on both consoles, almost a third of the Xbox Series S hard drive, but once installed you can remove individual modes like the campaign and zombies to save space.) But nobody buys a console and then swaps it out after a year or two, not unless it breaks. People generally keep consoles for the entirety of a generation, unless there’s a mid-gen refresh. Even then, many will use those consoles as a secondary unit.
So you have to think of these purchases over four, five, six or more years. If you’re buying multiple AAA titles every year — or even the AA games or indies that eventually see a physical release — it’s worth asking: is it worth saving $150 or $250 now, if you’re going to eat a premium with every game you buy?
Digital pricing has gotten better over the years. We’ve covered many of the Xbox and PlayStation seasonal sales before, and while not as aggressive as their retail counterparts, there have been better deals as the years have gotten on. But those are still months after the fact, which is fine if you don’t mind waiting! But anyone buying a console in the first week or month is the kind of person who isn’t going to want to miss out on a title like Horizon Forbidden West. Or Ghostwire: Tokyo. Battlefield 2042. Gotham Knights. The Harry Potter RPG.
Every time one of those games roll around, the value of the digital-only consoles gets a little bit worse.
That’s not to say there aren’t other considerations that would justify the cost, though. People concerned about the environment, rightfully, would probably want to consider a discless alternative. (That raises another question though: are you actually helping save on carbon emissions when considering the output of data centres versus the printing of physical media? And if you don’t care about ray tracing or things like 120 FPS, what about the difference in emissions from the power usage of something like the Series S vs. the Series X?)
Those who have been burnt before by failing Blu-Ray and DVD drives might also want one less point of failure. And if you already have a primary console, or you’ve invested more heavily in the Sony ecosystem, the Xbox Series S makes total sense as a great Xbox Game Pass box. It’s certainly a cheaper investment than building a new gaming PC, especially in Australia and especially with the ongoing CPU/GPU/global chip shortage. Plus, it’s worth remembering the impact digital distribution has enabled for countless indie developers. A lot of games — even high profile ones on the Nintendo, Xbox and Sony platforms — wouldn’t be accessible if they were reliant on physical distribution.
That’s getting heavily into first-world territory, though. From an economic perspective — and this applies to a lot of things outside of gaming too — you’ll save more money over the lifetime of your PS5 or new Xbox by paying more upfront. You can save even further on the Xbox front if you’re a Telstra customer.
But for most, it’s the savings at retail that will add up the most. If you don’t mind the extra storage required, sticking with physical media for a little while longer will stretch your budget a little further in the long-term.
This post has been updated since its original publication, and retimed following recent discussion around digital and physical media.