Video games stored on a disc of plastic and tucked away in a case are approaching extinction.
You can quibble about the when and the how of this happening, but the inevitability of games being sold online like music, free of their plastic prisons, is certain.
The first real sign of that step away from games sheathed in cardboard and plastic sold in a bricks-and-mortar store hit earlier this month in the form of the PSPgo.
Sony's latest Playstation Portable is a smaller, sleeker system that has no way of playing a physical game on it. There is no disc drive of any sort; instead there is internal memory, a wireless Internet connection and a virtual store run by Sony.
"This is an interesting step to test the waters on a digital-only product," said Eric Lempel, director of Playstation Network Operations. "We are thrilled and completely cognizant that this is the platform for a digital gamer.
"It's a really exciting time."
While gamers can visit the Playstation Store directly on their Playstation Portable or PSPgo, the PSP has to store its games on Memory Sticks, while the PSPgo has 16GBs of internal memory and still has the ability to store titles on Memory Sticks. Top-tier games can take up half a gig to 1 1/2 gigs of memory each.
The Playstation Store currently has about 100 PSP games available for download, with hundreds more in the pipeline, Lempel said. To purchase a game, you just need to find it and download it directly to the device. The sale is automatically charged to a credit card or taken out of credit, which can be purchased at retail stores.
Both the PSP and PSPgo can also display pictures and movies and play music. While the online store both rents and sells movies, it currently doesn't offer music. That's something that could change in the future, Lempel said.
Sony faced quite a few hurdles in launching its download-only gaming platform. Some retailers - which make a bulk of their money off game, not hardware, sale - were reluctant to carry the device. And game publishers had to be convinced that the games, no longer on a physical disc, wouldn't be open to greater piracy.
Under Sony's system, games have to be "activated" after they have been installed on a PSPgo or Playstation Portable and can only be installed on a total of five different PSPs or PSPgos in their lifetime.
Those steps, Lempel says, helped convince third-party publishers that their device was a safe bet.
While the $250 PSPgo is a download-only device, Sony isn't putting all its eggs in one basket. Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida said the company intends to continue its support of the $170 Playstation Portable, which allows gamers to download and play those same games or use the device's built-in UMD drive to play games.
Moving forward, he said, new games will be released in both the UMD and digital formats. The hope is that games will hit both the retail store and Sony's online Playstation Store at the same time and for the same price.
The decision to not drop the price for a game that doesn't have the added cost of packaging and distribution may not sit well with gamers, but Lempel says Sony is comfortable with the decision.
"Right now there is no price difference," he said. "We feel (the games) are competitively priced and that there is a ton of content across the spectrum.
He added that a price drop for digital games in the future is possible. "We're always looking at our business model."
The online store does have lower-priced, simpler games available for purchase. These "minis" cost $10 or less, take up less than 100 megs of memory and can't have multiplayer or network functionality.
One stumbling block for the new platform could prevent current Playstation Portable owners from upgrading to the new handheld.
There now is no way for Playstation Portable owners to transfer their libraries of UMD games to the download-only PSPgo. Yoshida said that Sony "seriously looked into solutions," but that legal and technical issues prevented it from coming up with a system that would work.
Lempel said the biggest issue was not just the games, but rather the games' music and other royalty issues.
To try to make up for that, Playstation Portable owners in Europe who upgrade to the PSPgo will get three free download games. Currently, there are no such plans for potential upgraders in the United States, Lempel said. He did add that new bundles for the PSPgo could be heading for the U.S. in the future.
While the PSPgo gives gamers the convenience of instantly purchasing games online without having to leave their homes and the ability to carry many of those titles with them without the need of extra discs, the device is a much bigger win for publishers and Sony.
If successful, the PSPgo and its download-only service completely kills the ability of gamers to sell off their titles or buy used copies of games.
A quick check of the top 10 rated games for the Playstation Portable found that half weren't yet available in the Playstation Store and of those that were, only one was cheaper than the various stores and services that sell games used.