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The future of game media
Posted on Monday, August 18 2008 @ 17:33:04 Eastern

Gaming's come a long way in every way imaginable, but I'm here to talk about one in particular: capacity. Back in the days of the C64 (that's Commodore 64 bits) for you whipper snappers) entire games were held on cassette tapes. NES cartridges varied in capacity but generally capped at about 4MB... that's MEGAbytes, about a song's worth of data. We've gone through the SNES and Mega Drive and even as late as the N64 cartridges were still being used. The original PlayStation was the first successful venture into the optical media format for games and increased the max capacity to a whopping (for back then) 700 odd megabytes and when DVDs began being used in the PS2 and Xbox systems the bar was raised yet further to 4.7GB (ahh, back in familiar territory now). Finally we get to the present generation of consoles and find that Microsoft, with their Xbox 360, stuck rigidly and perhaps stubbornly to the DVD format while Sony took a risk and backed Blu-Ray, one of the two high capacity disk formats that was available at the start of this generation of consoles. I could write a blog about the ensuing format war and why things happened the way they did but to do so would be purely academic retrospective and this entry is intended to be speculative and hopefully informative. We all know the outcome; Blu-Ray won the war and the HD-DVD format has been left out in the cold.

So what's happening for next gen? Well as far as I know there are no firm announcements but many have speculated that Microsoft's weak endorsement of the HD-DVD format is due to their intention to push digital downloads with their next console and this brings me to the purpose of this blog: digital downloads.

The idea is novel, or was before services such as Steam took off. You sign up to the service and are then able to download and pay for whatever you want without getting up off your fat ass and waddling to the shops. Sounds good, right? Wrong. It's an interesting concept and certainly has a place in the PC world and an increasing place in the console world (since consoles are emulating PCs more and more). The problems with the idea are numerous though and would need to be overcome before an exclusive download system could be adopted. Firstly and most obviously hard drive storage for consoles needs to be improved. PS3 and Xbox 360 Elite are closer to the target with 80GB and 120GB hard drives respectively but even that would not be enough for many gamers. When you consider that games like Crysis are regularly taking up 11GB of space on PCs you should realise that next gen games are going to be BIG and we'll need BIG hard drives to support burgeoning collections.

Another major problem is that the whole second hand game market would disappear overnight. Shops like Game, Gamestation, Gamestop, EB and other places that cater exclusively to the gaming market would either go under or convert to online only businesses. Multimedia places like HMV, WallMart, Zavvi and CEX would lose a substantial amount of income. Hard up students, kids and tight bastards would lose a surefire way of getting cheap, good games. Hoarders would lose that thrill of looking over one's collection and realising one could make a pretty penny by flogging that stuff. Not only that but it would make most people extremely cautious with their purchases, potentially denying them that surprising gem we have all known after seeing it on sale for two quid.

I have purchased several songs from the iTunes music store... then I used a program to remove the shitty DRM protection put in place to apparently piss off those who legally bought the damn songs. Why is the DRM so bad? Because it stops the song from being played in anything but iTunes and on anything but an iPod, because of the ridiculous authorisation system iTunes has, because it's punishing the legitimate listeners, pirates get a better functioning copy than those who legally purchase and that just shouldn't happen. The entire concept of DRM would need to be rethought. If I buy a game I should be able to play it on whoever's machine I wish to, I should be able to sell it on if the feeling takes me.

And what about the people who don't have the internet or a decent connection to the internet? They do exist and some of them are gamers, are we to leave them in the dark?

A more materialistic reason why I am against downloadable games is that I love the tactile feel of owning a game. With a download a game is no different to anything else on a hard drive: it's a cloud of 1s and 0s. I bought the Spore Creature Creator via download and have to say the feeling is nothing like having the disk itself.

Incidentally my experience with the Spore Creature Creator didn't help matters. Another advantage of having hard copies of games is that we can delete any trace of it from our hard drive, deliberately or accidentally, and regain it later from the disk. Using the Apple system of "buy it once, download it once, delete it once and you're ****ed" we would have to keep something forever if there was even the slightest chance we'd want to use it again in the future. Admittedly Microsoft has gotten around this problem by keeping a record of everything we pay for and allowing us to download it again at no extra cost and that's great, but when using another company to download a game (say, EA) we may not be so confident about deleting files. I was told in either an email or on the website somewhere that I was able to download a back up of the Creature Creator install file only to be completely unable to find any way of actually doing this. Any download system would need to allow users to delete and re-download files at their whim, to do otherwise would be taking a step backwards from hard media.

In some respects downloadable media works beautifully, I've bought and downloaded the Shivering Isles expansion for Oblivion and I almost certainly will buy the GTA 4 DLC when it comes around. I've purchased a couple of XBLA titles and am trying to find a way of gaining 100 points so I can get another. I'm not totally against downloadable content but as far as I'm concerned there will always be a place for hard copies of games. Although some problems can be remedied with a little common sense and a lot of balls (in today's paranoid clime) there's no getting around the lack of a second hand market unless those balls happen to be planet like bollocks dripping with the entrepreneurial, take risks sweat of Richard Branson and some incredibly brave and persuasive individual walking like a giraffe taking a drink manages to change policy to allow the users to purchase and sell the licence to play a file. If that happens then maybe an exclusive download market has a shot at winning me over. It's unlikely all of these things will actually happen and if even one doesn't make ground then all we'll be getting is a more limiting, sub par service to the one we have now.
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