How to Play Games Without Using a Disc
By Aaron Parson
Updated September 22, 2017
Before the release of the Xbox One, Microsoft announced its upcoming platform would be the first console to allow gamers to play retail games without a disc. The feature never made it into the system, however, so whether you play on an Xbox One, PS4 or an older console, games that ship on discs always require the disc in the drive, even after installation. If you're sick of switching out games and filling your house with boxes, you can skip both the discs and the trips to the store by buying your games digitally.
How Digital Distribution Works
Digital game stores sell the exact same games as retail stores, plus many titles only available online. Rather than install or play from a disc, purchased games download via the Internet, but that doesn't mean you need an Internet connection to play. Some games require a regular "check in" online, but in general, digitally purchased games work just like their disc-based cousins after you finish the initial download.
Downsides of Digital Distribution
While digital distribution offers the conveniences of shopping online and saving space on your shelf, it also limits your ownership rights. With very few exceptions, you can't resell a game you buy digitally. In turn, this means potentially higher prices when compared to used game stores. On top of that, Microsoft and Nintendo platforms only support a single digital store, eliminating your ability to shop around for a better price. If you play on PC, however, you can pick between numerous shops to get the best deal. Sony's platforms also have multiple marketplaces, as you can either buy games on the system directly or through Amazon.
Digital Sales on Consoles
All major game consoles and handhelds include a built-in digital game store. Unlike in the early years of the PS3 and Xbox 360, when digital distribution catalogs were limited, the stores on the PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Vita and 3DS sell digital copies of almost every retail game. When you buy a game on a Microsoft or Sony platform, it registers to your Xbox or SEN account, respectively, allowing you to download it on any system after you log in. Nintendo, on the other hand, registers digital purchases by system, so if you buy a new Wii U or 3DS, you need to transfer your games rather than re-download them.
Digital Sales on PC
Digital distribution is an option for console gamers, but on PC, it's the only game in town. Game stores stock a few major PC releases, but most games never ship on discs. The largest PC game store, Steam, sold about 75 percent of all digital computer games in 2012, according to IHS Screen Digest, but there are numerous alternatives, including Origin, Amazon, GOG, Uplay and Desura. Thanks to the competition, digital distribution of PC games has become known for steep discounts, with titles regularly going on sale for a tiny fraction of their retail price. Keep in mind that no matter where you buy a game, you might need to install additional software to run it: For example, most Ubisoft games require Uplay, even if you buy them on Steam.
Aaron Parson has been writing about electronics, software and games since 2006, contributing to several technology websites and working with NewsHour Productions. Parson holds a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.