Disc-Less Console Gaming: The Times They Are A-Changin'
Brian Dipert - June 18, 2012
I did a double-take when, a couple of weeks ago, I saw a report in the Wall Street Journal (subsequently also referenced in an Ars Technica writeup) indicating that Sony had seriously considered going without an optical disc drive in its next-generation game console (presumably the successor to today's Blu-ray-based PlayStation 3). Part of my reaction, admittedly, was a manifestation of smug justification. As long-time readers may remember, I've long been critical of the Blu-ray format, both versus its DVD predecessor and in comparison to various streaming delivery alternative schemes. One of my more controversial (and popular) writeups, for example, came straight from the January 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, where I'd just learned that Warner had decided to drop its dual-format plans, standardizing on Blu-ray and in the process, putting a notable nail in HD DVD's coffin.
While the subsequent end of the high-def optical disc format wars would enable the industry to unite behind a single standard, I felt that Blu-ray's comparatively scant advancements over DVD (versus DVD's enhancements over VHS) would lead to limited adoption of the new format. This was especially the case given than Blu-ray adoption necessitated the purchase not only of new versions of content that the consumer likely already owned (an ongoing revenue stream trick that Pink Floyd admittedly seems to have figured out), but also of new disc playback hardware, often along with the acquisition of a new display in order to have any hope of discerning the claimed quality improvements. And these fiscal requirements were particularly unpalatable given that consumers were already tangibly feeling the effects of the economic downturn that began in late 2007 and lingers to this day.
The PlayStation 3's underwhelming positive impact on the Blu-ray market stands in stark (and at first glance, perhaps baffling) contrast to the substantial boost that the PlayStation 2 had given the DVD. Consider, though, that the PS2 only cost $299.99 at its introduction in 2000, reflective of the traditional "razors and blades" initial console hardware cost subsidy (to be made up later via lucrative content sales). A scant six years later, in contrast, the PS3 ranged from $499.99 to $599.99. Consider that the sixth-generation PS2 had beaten the Xbox to market by a year, whereas with the seventh-generation consoles, Microsoft and Sony's chronological roles were reversed ... and that the Xbox 360 had embraced HD DVD, and undershot the PS3 in price.
Consider, too, that the DVD format was near-universally industry blessed out of the chute, versus the multi-year Blu-ray vs HD DVD war whose consequent uncertainty hampered the adoption of both formats. And again, consider the dubious-at-best benefits of Blu-ray's "true" high-def quality versus that of either an up-scaled DVD, or a high-def or up-scaled standard-def streaming (translation: convenient to consumers) video presentation. In 2000, broadband wasn't yet pervasive, so streaming wasn't really an option ... and the upstart DVD's legacy physical media competition was archaic, sub-standard-def VHS magnetic tape.
Speaking of streaming, its burgeoning appeal for game content delivery is likely behind Sony's consideration of (but, according to the Wall Street Journal, ultimate dismissal of) an optical disc console discard. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony all already offer online stores which, according to the analyst reports I occasionally come across, are becoming increasingly popular. While I realize that I was fairly critical of cloud-based gaming a couple of weeks ago, you'll note that I was speaking specifically of high-end, graphics-rich and fast-twitch game titles. A recent ExtremeTech writeup bolsters my suspicion that cloud-centric processing is perfectly adequate for elementary and even mainstream content. And anyway, downloading the bulk or entirety of the game payload to a big, inexpensive hard drive or flash memory array (which I presume would remain within a next-generation console design even if the optical drive didn't) prior to playing the game would dispense with the preponderance of my complaints here.
I still don't see online store game delivery completely replacing physical media, at least for a while, until the bandwidth feeding the average consumer's home further increases, and until today's increasingly oppressive monthly usage caps (hopefully) loosen up. Unlike a movie, a game title isn't played through in a completely linear fashion, so progressive download techniques can't be employed as effectively with gaming as they can with video. And folks' instant-gratification tendencies will make multi-hour downloads prior to game play an unpalatable scenario, versus slipping a disc in the console's optical drive and starting right away.
However, the trend toward cloud-based processing and/or downloadable delivery, and away from physical media, is clear and irreversible. As such, it's curious to me why Sony didn't settle on an interim migration move, as Microsoft had done with the Xbox 360 HD DVD peripheral; don't dispense with the optical drive entirely, but make it an optional USB-tethered add-on for the increasingly small percentage of game players who still need its capabilities.
Thoughts? Share them below.