While CDs, DVDs, and now HD DVD and Blu-ray have formed a natural progression as the physical media behind video game consoles, this was not always the way. There was a time when each console had its own proprietary format, and as the future of video gaming approaches, the future of game distribution does not appear to be as simple as betting on whichever disc format is the most current. In this weekend reading article we examine the history of gaming media, and how it may inform the future.
Get in to it with us, after the jump.
[P.S. The absolutely awesome Inception game art comes from Penney Design, which you should totally check out.]
For the past decade optical discs have been king of the home consoles, and were it not for Nintendo's famous recalcitrance that number would stretch back deep into the 1990s. In fact, some of you may remember the then-ballyhooed SEGA CD, a peripheral device that was released in the early 90s to complement the Genesis. Many current gamers may not remember this, but despite the Genesis generally being considered cooler than the Super Nintendo, in North America anyway (Sega's Jurassic Park game was way cooler and looked much better than the SNES version; the Genesis' version of Mortal Kombat, though nerfed by having too few buttons, had gore; Sonic was intentionally branded by Sega to be "cooler" than Mario), the Super Nintendo produced hit after hit and ultimately annihilated the Genesis in terms of console and game sales. After all, Nintendo had an entire generation more or less to itself (no matter what any Sega or Atari fanboy might tell you, the NES had as much competition in any region as a Tyrannosaurus would with Jigglypuff) to build up brand loyalty, skilled developers and titles that are not only iconic but continue to sell to this day. Sega had Sonic and, um... The Super Nintendo had Mario, Zelda, Samus, Mario Kart, Star Fox, Final Fantasy and the epically-profitable Donkey Kong Country. Sega had to know that, however valiantly, it was facing an uphill battle. So they turned to CDs, a cool, new technology that could hold mountains more information (and thus, fancier looking games - for which the Genesis was known). They certainly weren't the first (TurboGrafx won that battle, but subsequently lost the war) and would not be the last.
As anyone who played a Sega CD game could tell you now, in retrospect the technology was not quite there. It was slow, slow, slow and didn't live up to the hype. Meanwhile, Nintendo and Philips, then Nintendo and Sony, and then Nintendo and Philips again were planning to release a Nintendo console that would provide both cartridge and CD-ROM support. A more thorough recounting of what transpired can be found here, but suffice it to say, Nintendo pulled out of both deals. Philips ended up releasing the CD-i (with some truly awful, but now collectible, "Zelda" games), and Sony ultimately released the PlayStation - which, in fact, was to be the name of the Nintendo & Sony cartridge/CD collaboration. Nintendo stuck with cartridges for reasons that are illuminating when one considers why the industry might return to them, and ultimately fell on it's own sword. Sony, as we all know, ran with the CD-only paradigm and triumphed, pushing Nintendo down from the top pedestal. Meanwhile, both Sony and Nintendo sucked all the air out of the room, handing Sega an even nastier defeat than SNES handed it in the 16-bit generation. For all of its merits, Sega's Saturn never gained much more than a cult following.
While the Sega CD's tech was not quite there yet, Sony's got it right. Yes, there were often brutal loading times. No one can argue against that. However, they were much shorter, much more tolerable, and better games could be crafted as a result. Further, CDs offered better sound, more storage, and a much lower price point than cartridges. Now, there was much more to do in the battle between the N64 and the PlayStation, but we limit ourselves to what is important here. Nintendo famously continued with cartridges because they were much faster, lower-power and less complicated than optical devices, and its new console was (for the time) lightning-fast. Much like the PS3, the N64 boasted hardware leaps and bounds beyond the competition - and much like the PS3, the N64 took the market leader to last place. In the N64's case, price cannot be considered a factor for consumers - the console and games were not expensive - but for publishers, paying for cartridges on top of Nintendo's royalties bit in to the bottom line. Meanwhile, for developers, the promise of greater storage was an evolutionary change waiting to happen. Consumers, meanwhile, showed that they were happy to wait through loading times for what developers were now able to make possible - classics like Resident Evil, Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy VII. But Nintendo didn't, as many have ever since predicted, shrink down to third-party status the way Sega ultimately did. Why not? Two clear reasons were the N64's then-beautiful graphics and system-selling games like the Ocarina of Time and Goldeneye. However, cartridges also proved to be less prone to a scourge that effects both console developers and game developers alike: Piracy. And Nintendo has proven that it can stay profitable on lower numbers of consoles - as long as consumers pay for its first party games.
As gamers, we often underestimate the money gaming companies lose because of piracy. On the small scale it doesn't seem like a big deal, but when you realize that most gamers play or download pirated games, or know someone who does (and once you factor in that that's true for all gamers) the numbers start adding up quickly in favour of a medium that's less prone to piracy.
The fight between the DS and the PSP is, in many ways, similar to the fight between the Super Nintendo and the Genesis. A massive audience of gamers is split between two camps. One one side you have the stalwart console, less sexy but easy to work with, and that basically prints money. On the other side you have the cool, sexy newcomer who made a big splash but never really gained the momentum many thought it would. They also both launched with proprietary media as the method of game delivery. On Sony's side it was UMD, on Nintendo's side, something that looks suspiciously like an SD card. Cartridges, you see, are with us still. As Sony has learned with the PSP, optical media just aren't right for a handheld; and, as Nintendo has proven, cartridges are one of the best ways to protect against piracy.
But things have changed since the N64. There was a time when one had to manufacture and distribute pirated cartridges - too difficult and too expensive for most (let's face it) lazy piraters. So, there wasn't much supply for consumers of pirated games. Nowadays, one can easily buy an adapter and download games. Though it's too many steps for lots of gamers, it's enough that the big boys are trying to stop sales of the adapters before things reach the scale they have for the music and film industries. Meanwhile, consoles often now require firmware updates that make life for hackers more difficult.
Regardless, to pirate games for a cartridge-based system is simply more complicated than for a disc-based system. This author remembers seeing people openly trading PSOne and PS2 games on burned discs with hand-written labels. This can be done easily and at home, and the materials can be purchased legally. It doesn't take a dedicated pirate to get it done. Not so with cartridge piracy: Though one can find ROMs easily, the adapter has to be purchased. The R4 is perhaps the most famous example: Nintendo has successfully sued distributors of the SD-to-DS adapter around the world. And while early results were mixed, the simple fact is that companies like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have enough money to bury small-time makers and distributors of such products with protracted lawsuits and big settlements. As the recording and film industries have proven, however, going after torrenters is like attacking a money (and PR - here's lookin' at you Metallica) eating hydra. Since there will be many fewer distributors and manufacturers of R4-type adapters than there are torrenters, console companies can conceivably keep the upper ground in that battle against piracy.
Meanwhile, as optical media have gained more storage capacity a fundamental limitation of them has become solidified, if not ossified: They are slow. Jarring, flow-killing loading times persist well in to the 21st century and many games are best played off a hard drive. Such is life, when it comes to optical discs. Cartridges, on the other hand, have come leaps and bounds in terms of price and storage capacity. Anything I write in this space about how large and cheap an SD card or USB stick can be will date this article within the year. As of today, affordable, readily-available SD cards and USB sticks are eclipsing the storage capacity of Blu-ray discs, which themselves may never surpass DVDs in terms of storage popularity as digital transmission increasingly becomes the method of choice for distributing data.
Currently, there is a great deal of buzz in the computer world over solid state drives and some are predicting that therein could lie the future of video gaming. Indeed, solid state drives have shown to exceed contemporary hard drives in many gaming benchmarks. While it sounds odd to think of games released on hard drives, how different are solid state hard drives from old-fashioned cartridges?
For that matter, why bother with physical distribution at all? Could gaming skip it altogether and move to online distribution, à la Steam? Games that are only available from a download service seem safe on the surface for developers - after all, they get to control distribution - but if history is has any say, but even Steam is not immune from piracy. A key question here is, will the money gained by eliminating middle-man retailers offset the potential of rampant, MP3-style piracy? Regardless, digital delivery of all 40 gig triple-A titles faces very obvious problems of general practicality before it becomes the norm.
While foretelling the future of gaming is risky business (go back in time five years and tell the world that Nintendo's underpowered, silly-named Wii would decimate the competition and foment a revolution in motion-controlled technology) major issues are easy to identify.
Digital distribution is clearly on its way. Apart from services such as Steam, Live, and the Virtual Console, Sony has indicated that it's forthcoming NGP is going to release titles in both flash media and digital format. Whether this means that all games will be released in both formats, or that (as with the major current consoles) smaller games will be released digitally and larger ones will be released on physical media is uncertain.
Meanwhile, cartridges are here to stay. While the chips have been down for cartridges for the past decade, their cons are increasingly less pronounced while their pros remain intact. Piracy protection for DVD and Blu-ray have long been broken, yet the very difficulty of producing pirated cartridges (and, increasingly, the difficulty of distributing cartridge workarounds) may save producers and console makers money as the price these media plummets. And, after all, money is the bottom line.
As for solid state drives, they may suffer from the same fundamental problem cartridges did when they were pitted against CDs - cost. Currently, the difference in price between a solid state drive, and a regular hard drive, a DVD or Blu ray, or an array of flash cards is extreme. While this will certainly come down as the technology is more widely adopted, like pure-digital distribution, this does not appear to be the next generation's revolution.
So with a hybrid of cartridges and digital distribution is immediately apparent in the future of handheld gaming, what about home gaming? Digital distribution of lesser-sized games is well-established now, but could we see a return to cartridge-blowing?
Yes. But not for everyone.
For Sony to abandon Blu-ray, its format that finally won (see: UMD, Betamax, MiniDiscs, the Sony Memory Stick, et al. for a list of format forays in which Sony was bested) would be a bizarre turn of events for the PS4. It would be insanity to bet against a combination of Blu-ray and a download service for that system. What about the more distant future, however? How long will Blu-ray survive the assault of torrenting and services like Netflix? It may have won the battle against HD-DVD, but as with Sega CD in the 16-bit generation, its days were numbered even before it was released.
Nintendo, on the other hand, holds no allegiance to any medium and has a long history of doing whatever it wants. While the sting of the PlayStation/N64 battle may have subsided, Nintendo will be unlikely to return to cartridges without hearing from developers and publishers first; however, its entrance in to disc-based systems was not whole-hearted (the GameCube disc was purposely sized to discourage piracy, and no widely-released Nintendo system has supported disc-based movie play-back), and its battles with pirates are famous, in so far as those things are. Moreover, developers and publishers have been printing money with the cartridge-based DS and Gameboy systems since the 80s.
For Nintendo to continue supporting DVD would be silly since Nintendo has made every indication the next console will push high-definition graphics, and to jump on Sony's Blu-ray bandwagon would be a strange move for the highly recalcitrant company. Further, nostalgia appears to have moved beyond fad status and in to a branding issue - to wit, Coca Cola is designing all of its bottles with its trademarked hour-glass shape, and has re-issued glass bottles in regions where they have been long unavailable; this is to cash in on what is recognizably Coca Cola, even if you're buying a bottle of Sprite. With legions of gamers raised on cartridges now creeping toward midlife, the attraction of popping a new cart into a new Nintendo console may actually move systems; rather than seeming like a step back, if may feel like a return home. Nintendo would be by far the most likely to abandon discs - but will no doubt hold on to its online distribution services.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is the most likely to abandon physical media entirely. It would be a bold move to make today, but given the likely time frames for the arrival of new consoles (late 2012 or late 2013) it is not unthinkable. After all, plenty of computing devices now sell without any disc capability. Further, continuing with discs presents Microsoft with problems, no matter which direction they turn: Continuing with HD-DVD is fine for gaming, but means being the sole support for that industry; moving to Blu-ray means being able to play high definition movies...but can't Netflix already do that? And, as with Nintendo, buying in to a Sony-branded product may be too bitter a pill for Microsoft to swallow. And the alternative to those two options is to return to DVD - no way that's happening on a high definition console - unless it, too, starts using cartridges or solid state media of some sort, and the company has no history with them. So while the company has options with physical media, none of them is perfect, and positioning itself as the first online-only system could help position the Xbox apart from its competitors.
One way or the other, while the past decade has been defined by disc-based home consoles, optical media's days are numbered. What will happen can be hypothesized, but ultimately we cannot predict with authority what the outcome will be. However, looking back provides tantalizing clues as to what will happen in the future.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section!