A couple of weeks ago, a rumour spread like wildfire across the Internet, proclaiming that the next iteration of Microsoft’s Xbox console would have no optical disc drive (a similar rumour cropped up about the PS4/Orbis last week as well). Many wrote it off as idle speculation, although a minority seemed not only to believe the rumour as truth but welcome the news. Those who debunked the rumours cited the fact that the last console war between Sony and Microsoft was not actually about the consoles themselves, but the medium their respective consoles used. It seemed Sony had learned its lessons in its past defeats in format wars, from Betamax to Minidisc, with Blu-ray winning the battle against the slightly inferior HD-DVD for dominance in the home movie market. The suggestion now is that Microsoft would now have to kneel down and pucker up to Sony’s Blu-rimmed hole if it wished to brand their next console as a home entertainment system, and their strategy with the Xbox 360 would suggest as much.
However, as much as fanboys would like to paint everything in black and white, things are all different shades of blue. Although Sony is perhaps the most vocal about Blu-ray development, they do not actually own the licensing rights to the format. The Japanese electronics giant is one of 19 companies that sit on the board of the Blu-ray Disc Association, a board that includes another of Microsoft’s competitors – Apple. But that is besides the point. These companies license each other’s products and software all the time; they make their decisions based on the market. Rumours also broke in January that the Xbox 720 would indeed support Blu-ray, which flies in the face of the more recent rumours that would suggest no optical drive at all.
However, the discless console rumour has been circulating since October 2011, and was possibly the result of a speech given by THQ CEO Brian Farrell at Cloud Gamer USA, during which he voiced his belief that the next generation of consoles would be discless, citing the benefits of such a system as “no physical goods cost for game makers, no inventory, no markdowns, and all the money spent by the consumer would go to the developer or publisher.”
Note that all the benefits he lists are for game makers and publishers, not the consumers. He does not say this would automatically equate to cheaper games. On the contrary, any discless console would kill off trading in the used game market. As Chris Avellone, Obsidian Entertainment’s Chief Creative Officer, so eloquently stated, “I hope digital distribution stabs the used game market in the heart.” It would not only do that; it would cut off the opportunity to swap games with friends, or outright return a game if it does not meet a consumer’s expectations. Not to mention the fact that not everyone who plays video games has an Internet connection to their console.
Yet, in the face of digital music and film downloads, as well as DLC for games, a shifting consumer pattern from hard copy to digital seems inevitable, especially in light of the success of Valve’s Steam service. While the company is secretive about its sales figures, in November 2011 Kotaku offered a rare glimpse at the numbers for The Witcher 2, revealing that the game sold 700,000 at retail, but close to 250,000 in digital downloads across all digital retailers – one third of the total sales. Two months later, the company announced Steam’s sales had grown 100% for the seventh consecutive year, supplying 780 Petabytes of data to gamers around the globe in 2011.
And therein lies the rub – the size, amount and frequency of data being downloaded.
On the iTunes website, Apple suggests that an average 2 hour HD movie is 4GB, and will take you anywhere between 1-6 hours to download, depending upon your network speed. Now, game files are larger than this, and if we are talking about the next generation of consoles, they are likely to increase significantly in size. Even if we take the biggest game on the PS3 to date, Killzone 3 at a whopping 41.5GB, going by Apple’s estimates, it could take anywhere between 10-60 hours to download. You would potentially have to leave your console on for three days, and this is assuming your Internet rate remains constant. Of course, if developers knew beforehand that the game was being distributed digitally, they could perhaps implement a system whereby you download the core game and the first few levels, which would allow the consumer to play while the subsequent levels are downloaded in the background.