Specials: I'm not a futurist, but I play one on TV.
This month's issue of Wired
once again trots out the age-old adage that games will not be sold on physical media in the future. Instead, everything will be based around Xbox Live Arcade and Steam-inspired download systems. The thinking says that once we get the chance to play Metal Gear Solid: Snake's Mullet's Revenge, Super Mario Solar System and Halo 5 in five or ten years there will be no hard copies of any game. GameStops will become flea markets where old gamers marvel at how their copies of Street Fighter II used to come on dull gray cartridges (SFII still being the most anticipated game on the Xbox 1440 Marketplace you see). Wired even got a quote out of Sony President Phil Harrison where he opines "I'd be amazed if the PlayStation 4 has a physical disc drive."
That's all well and good Phil, but isn't your company touting the PS3 and its Blu-Ray drive as the future of High Definition entertainment?
But as I see it, there are three major problems that will prevent a download-only system from working. And with the way things are shaping up, it may not even be a viable way to distribute all
games (which is what these execs really want) when my kids unwrap their PS5s on Christmas morning. And I don't even have any kids yet!
The Bandwidth Problem
The biggest problem that would be created by removing the disc drive is without a doubt the bandwidth problem. There's just not enough of it to go around. But first, a few numbers if you please.
In America, most DSL/Cable services have stated download speeds between four and eight MBps. These speeds are also theoretical and are never reached in the real world. This will run your average user between 25 and 40 dollars a month. Verizon and other companies have begun experimenting with a new broadband service called Fiber To The Premises (FTTP) that features download speeds between 50 and 100 MBps for around $90 a month. Between these services, broadband penetration in America among Internet users has reached about 75%. This number does not include the millions of people who either don't have a computer or don't have an Internet connection.
The last update from Microsoft on the state of the Xbox Live Marketplace was a post-E3 announcement that over 24 million pieces of content had been downloaded since the 360's launch. These "pieces of content" range from 60kb gamer pictures (many of which are free) to heavy 1GB demos of some of the most impressive Xbox 360 games.
Contrast this with the NPD numbers from June, which showed that Cars, the movie tie-in game based on the new Pixar movie, sold 646,000 copies. Doing a little quick math with the supplied numbers we find that over 11 million games were purchased in the month of June. The number of games sold in one month (and a slow Summer month at that) is roughly equal to half the number of downloads the XBLM has delivered in seven months. And I can guarantee that none of those 11 million games weighed in at 60kb. Don't forget as well that this 11 million number only counted games sold in North American. I'm pretty sure people in Europe, Japan and the rest of the world enjoy gaming as well.
Going back to the Wired article again, it focuses pretty heavily on the low-powered arcade games that currently populate the Xbox Live Arcade, which I have no doubt will continue to grow in popularity. But in this world without disc drives, what about Sony's previous assertion that the 50GB capacity of a Blu-Ray disc is the only way to capture "True HD"? If the file size of blockbuster games keeps increasing, and there's no reason to doubt that it will, we won't be talking about downloading a 50MB copy of Street Fighter II. Instead it'll be a 20GB copy of Halo 5 being downloading 3 million times in a single day (if day one sales of Halo 2 are any indication).
Between all these desperate sets of numbers it should be clear that the XBLM and other similar download services only reach a fraction of all gamers (and cut out 25% of the Internet population instantly). And a massive rollout of simultaneous downloading of all of the latest and greatest hits would create a massive crunch on all of the servers involved. On top of that, with this many simultaneous users, download speeds will sink like a stone. Observe what happened to Xbox Live when Microsoft opened the floodgates to all 360 owners during E3. Or for a more recent example, there's the new demos of Saint's Row and Dead Rising that just dropped on the XBLM. Most reports place the download times of these 1GB files in the range of 45 minutes to three hours.
On top of all this, a download-only game system does not exist in a vacuum. Add in all of the of the "extras" that game companies have added to these networks including HD video and CD-quality music and the MySpaces and YouTubes that make up the rest of the Internet and you'll have one very clogged Information Superhighway. Bandwidth capacity is just not there yet and with ever growing file sizes of games, it may never be. This leads directly into our second problem...
The Library Problem
Navigating the current iteration of the Xbox Live Marketplace can be considered frustrating at best. For a system that only sports 25 arcade games and 35 demos it is already difficult to browse. Between the use of abbreviations and non-standardized titles, it would make any librarian wince at the lack of an ordered system. But what happens when the download library grows to the size of the current Xbox library (which Wikipedia pegs at 573 games)? It will be even more difficult to quickly navigate all of the titles and impossible to browse through them all the way someone can quickly scan boxes at the local game store.
But let's say someone solves the browsing problem and the XBLM is flooded with hundreds of quality titles. If you're a publisher, how do you make gamers aware of your product over someone else's? The current static ads of the XBLM would quickly make way for something more elaborate as publishers tried to gain a little bit of an edge over a rival. It would be a nightmare for smaller games as they would be steamrolled by a new crop of must-haves every week. And without the money to advertise, their little corner of the XBLM database would sit lonely and ignored for years.
Fianlly, hard drive space is not infinite. The 20GB Xbox 360 HD can hold about five retail 360 games while the 60GB PS3 HD can hold around fifteen (using current average file sizes). And neither HD would have room for demos, videos, music or other "microtransactions". There would be a constant need to upgrade the hard drive to bigger and bigger sizes. Would you be willing to pay $500 for a 750GB hard drive that would store a maximum of thirty games in a PS3/Blu-Ray situation? I think the average gamer would not stand for such a practice.
But worse yet, what happens when one of those drives decides to stop working?...
The Possession Problem
In a sense, the various online networks have solved the "ownership" problem with a download history tied to your username. Theoretically, if something ever goes wrong you can just navigate to the items you originally downloaded and get them again as the system can tell you "You've downloaded this item before". But what if you lost a whole hard drive in a download-only situation. Hundreds of gigabytes of information lost forever. Yes, the option to redownload is there. But as we've established, it would take hours, bordering on days, to grab several next-generation games. And in another sense, the idea of ownership of an online download is a laughable prospect.
A move to a download-only system would destroy the used games market. Any game executive would look upon this outcome with glee as it would mean gamers would only buy new games, creating more profit for the publisher. But this would actually hurt most game makers in the long run. At the magical $60 pricepoint, gamers would buy fewer games. On top of that, the used market wil often fuel demand for new games from a developer. Take, for example, the cases of Ico and Beyond Good & Evil. The constant search for these games in the secondary market absolutely had a hand in the big sales of Shadow of the Colossus and King Kong, the most recent games from these developers, respectively.
The only way an online-only distribution model will find mass acceptance is if Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo creates some kind of eBay-like marketplace so people can transfer ownership of a downloaded game between gamertags. Otherwise, games will have to be priced much more competitively, and with next-gen budgets flying past eight digits, I don't think that will happen. Discs are tangible and they give off a feeling of ownership that a downloaded game doesn't. If the game companies are serious about making downloads the wave of the future, they need to make people feel like they "own" the content they download.
Game stores will not just fade away as archaic reminders of an old era. They'll do everything in their power to make their profitable business stay profitable. And that means hooking gamers with the promise of an exclusive collector's edition or two, like GameStop/EB Games is doing with Square-Enix and the most anticipated non-next-gen game of the fall, Final Fantasy XII. Throwing a little bit of money at companies to create similar deals in the future is all it will take to keep a download-only system off of the table.
In all this brouhaha over digital downloads, many game companies are ignoring their customers basic personalities. Many game players are collectors at heart. We love the boxart and the disc art and the feeling of anticipation before opening a desired game. We like to look at our shelves and admire our game library and share that library with friends and family. As Nintendo has been saying all along with the Wii, gaming is about the community and the ability to share something we love with someone else. That's just not possible with a download-only service.
In the end it's a matter of simple math. Download speeds and bandwidth are increasing all the time, but so is the average file size of a game. Every company has taken part in the digital arms race since the very first console war between Sega and Nintendo. There is too much momentum to stop it now and there are too many barriers between the average gamer and a console that doesn't have a physical drive to make such a system economically feasible.
So I'm sorry to say it Phil, but I think every game console will always have a physical disc drive. It's not a pie in the sky prediction, it's simple reality.