A few months ago, Microsoft was getting ready to release a new Xbox disc format. Supposedly, the new format provides some more room on a game disc for developers. But, as they typically do before a new feature release, they wanted to get some volunteers to test it in the field before releasing it to everyone at large. So, they took sign-ups for a preview program. I like getting new features early, sometimes just so I can get my update before the servers are hammered with everyone else trying to get theirs on release day; so I signed up.
I was surprised that the disc they sent me to test was no less than Halo Reach. Although I already had a retail copy since its launch, my disc had developed a small crack on the inside hub, so I was happy to be able to use this alternative disc and not risk using a damaged disc in my Xbox.
It worked well enough up until last week, when 343 Industries released an update to Reach. I was surprised when I tried joining another player and saw a message telling me that they had an updated version of Reach. I received no notice to update, nor did the game kick me offline for having a non-updated version of the game. I soon discovered that, while the "format preview" copy of Reach was similar enough to allow achievements and online multiplayer, it was different enough that it did not get the same update distributed to everyone else.
I went back to my retail disc, updated the game, and started hoping again that the disc wouldn't shatter in the drive.
The next day, I was surprised to get an email from Microsoft. They apologized that my "format preview" disc would not get the update, and to make amends, they sent me a copy of the downloadable version of the game.
Not only did they give away a AAA title for a feature preview test, they apparently considered it important enough to continue supporting long after the preview program was over.
Although this was an unexpected pleasantry, it did call something to my attention.
Here is a portion of the Xbox Live Marketplace page for Halo Reach. You can see the price is listed at $59.99, the retail price of the game at launch. This copy of the game does not include a disc or case (obviously), or a manual (but you can download it online). It also does not permit you to resell, trade, loan, or borrow the game. Nor does it let you play it on any console in your own home except the one you first download it to, unless you sign in to Xbox Live on that other console; i.e., you can't give the disc to a roommate or other family member for play on another console unless it is connected to the internet and you sign on there.
Here are a couple product pages for the physical copies of the game, from Amazon.com and Wal-Mart. The game is being sold for $35.95 and $39.96, respectively, with the ability to get free shipping. It comes with a disc, which can be installed to the hard drive or USB on your Xbox console, but the disc is required to play the game. The game can be resold, rented, traded, borrowed, or loaned, and it works on any Xbox in existence, anywhere, online or not, playable by anyone.
To add insult to injury, Amazon also has the Limited Edition of the game for $54.99, which includes an exclusive DLC code for the Elite playable character, some in-universe collectibles, and Dr. Halsey's journal (notes about the creation of the Spartan program), in an ONI "black box" case — for $5 less than the digital download version.
It just underscores what I've said many times before. Digital downloads offer a less valuable product, at a price that doesn't change with the free market.