My entire "game" career has been virtual. The first game I ever made that might have been commercially viable was named "Zamboozal Poker Dice" for The Atari ST in 1989, but It never found its' way to being published. It stayed on a 3.5 inch floppy and never made into any kind of box.
In the 90's I went to work for Mattel Toys, where we made some of the first online web games for Mattel's various web sites. We dabbled in Java , basic server-side processed HTML games with images, and DHTML. By the turn of the millenium we adopted Flash and never looked back. In that time, my team made over 200 web games for various Mattel properties, all online. All virtual. None of them existing in the physical realm for even a microsecond.
There were a couple instances when the games got "close" to going into a box. My team built an upload mechanism for the Vivendi title "Barbie Fashion Show" that allowed girls to send their designs to Barbie.com, but for legal reasons, we did not get credit for it. There was also a project that came out of the Hot Wheels team to put some of our most popular web games on a CD and sell them with some large scale Hot Wheels cars, but like 90% of all ideas generated at a toy company, that one never saw the light of day.
So when I finally went "indie", thrust into a world where everything is digitally delivered, you would think that I would feel at home, right? The truth is , I still longed for that elusive "box". There is something about having a box that supplies a perceived value that does not exist in the digital space.
I had box envy.
So when I went full "indie" I decided that I wanted to design "boxes" for some of the games I had worked on. I wanted to hold, in my hands, a physical representation of the virtual work I had done for the past 15 years.
The first games our company, 8bitrocket made, were "retro style" games. The best and most popular game was a retro evolved Asteroids-style game named "Retro Blaster". The box design I came-up with was based on old Atari 2600 boxes from Spectravideo and the boxes for the Vectrex. It called out an imaginary game system named the "VGS 8200", the imaginary system that plays all the games I've worked on, no matter what platform they were originally developed on.
The box was printed on card-stock and filled with a piece of styrofoam. It was not designed to actually be a game-box, but to represent the virtual game in the physical world. It made me feel so good to finally "hold" one of my games on my hands, that I went ahead and made more of these boxes to represent a few of the other games I had made or worked on (even one for Zamboozal Poker Dice).
It became a sort of insanity. When we fnished our first iOS game at Producto Studios, I made box for it that appeared in the promo video on youtube:
...and I have not stopped. There is another box design sitting on my hard drive for our next game too.
So why is this? Why do I feel the need to have some kind of physical representation of my virtual games? Is it because I come from an era of physical goods, or is it something more?
Does this feeling extend to consumers? Is there a perceived value of packaged goods over virtual ones? I would imagine so, when the price of downloadable games is getting closer and closer to zero, while the price for disc-based games has remained somewhere in the neighborhood of $50.00. Obviously the physcial games are arguably"better" (in that they cost more to make, often have fancier graphics and in many cases, deeper game play than their virtual counterparts), but I don't think that is not the only reason someone will plunk down money at the store to take a box home with them.
I believe the box represents more than just the game inside. The box holds potential, whether it is in bag coming home from the store, or in package under the Christmas tree, it's unrealized gaming potential that you can feel and you can see. Sure, many boxed games are terrible, but so are many virtual games. It's not really a question of quality, but a question of perceived worth. Even if the physical game I bought sucks, I still own it. I can still sell it, give it away, trade it, use it as a door stop, swat flies with it, or whatever I choose to do with it. It's mine. (well, until the Xbox 720 arrives that is). It's not so simple with virtual games. Some can be sold or traded, but most of the time the purchase is final, and when the power is off, there is nothing to show for it.
There are a lot of people doing a death dance around new consoles like the Wii U because they use the "old model" of disc-based games costing more than "zero", while a huge swath of the video game world is moving towards "free" or next to it. But what if physical is not really dead at all?
What if there are more people like me that long for a physical representation of virtual goods? Sure, in my case I wanted to experience things of my own creation, but that is because I do this job for a living. Will that feeling extend to the next generation? Will that same thing happen to games that happened to music? Hip kids buying record players and LPs because they want a physcial representation of their music to fill their virtual lives? It's quite possible that when (if) all games go virtual, that a backlash will form soon after. Will we see hipster kids buy gaming rigs that play the games of their youth (i.e Angry Birds, Plants Vs. Zombies, Minecraft) on "cartridges" (SD cards, thumb drives, or whatever) so they can experience physically what they had for so long only seen as blips on an electronic screen?
I, for one, can see it as clearly as that "Retro Blaster" box hanging on the wall next to me.