I read articles and listen to podcasts from analysts in the gaming press regularly and the one annoying point that keeps getting raised is around the topic of Blu-Ray. You know, Blu-Ray — the billion-dollar technology which is supposed to be the successor to the current DVD format? For those that haven’t been keeping score, Blu-Ray is one of two high-definition disc formats (HD-DVD being the other) which is being backed by several companies — one of which is Sony. (And that’s another big misconception — BluRay is not a Sony-created standard. Sony is part of the consortium, but not the sole company pushing a standard, as they did with the Memory Stick or UMDs.)
The media debate for and against Blu-Ray drives in the PS3 has been pretty much split into one of two camps. The first camp (and the most popular these days) are preaching doom and gloom about the evils of Sony “bundling” this Blu-Ray technology into a gaming system, thus raising the cost to consumers. “We think Sony is making a big mistake here — they’re forcing customers to buy their new disc format and building it into the cost to consumers.” Quite often, these folks then bring the Xbox 360 into the discussion and point out how Microsoft is offering gamers the “choice” of a high definition gaming format for movie playback.
The second school of thought appears to be countering the first. They’ll speak from a business perspective and talk about how Sony is targeting the high-end gamer who wants the biggest and best. They mention how many people bought PS2s in 2000 and used them as DVD players as much as they did gaming consoles. They often talk about how Blu-Ray will win the war against HD DVD and that this bundling of Blu-Ray with a gaming system is a smart thing for Sony and for it’s partners.
There are probably some truths to be mined from both camps, but there seems to be one critical point that both are missing — and particularly the first camp. While Blu-Ray has been stamped as a “a high-definition movie format”, people don’t seem to be paying as much attention to the fact that Blu-Ray (and HD DVD) have the capacity to hold four times the space of a standard DVD! For movies, this is important (in order to have a movie run at a high resolution for two hours, you need sufficient space) but for gaming this is an eventuality that MUST occur! I recall the days when Nintendo was sticking to their guns with their cartridge based format — holding developers at ransom and making them squeeze their content onto 30 meg catridges. When the PS1 was released, developers were none too happy to sacrifice the speed of access in catridges for more room to put music, images, full motion video and other rich content on a 650MB disc. While there is some debate, it is believed that this is a big reason why Square — a long-time partner of Nintendo in the 80s and early 90s — jumped on the Sony bandwagon with exclusive content. Similarly, when developers made the jump from CD to DVD, many scoffed at the idea that game assets would top 650 MB and, for that matter 4.7 Gigabytes. However, reading a recent interview from the lead designer for Tecmo’s PS3 Ninja Gaiden Sigma indicated that Tecmo was already running out of space with the last Ninja Gaiden game.
For me, the picture is quite clear: buying a console now is an investment for the next four to five years of gaming. Games will be utilizing higher resolution images and higher quality sound — thus requiring more media space. Sure, games like Gears of War are able to fit on a standard DVD. But will this be the case two years from now when developers really begin to push the envelope even further?
I think Microsoft has done a tremendous job thus far of listening to the development community and the user community to make small but significant changes to help everyone get the best gaming experience. But a challenge does lie ahead. Although Microsoft has released the HD-DVD player, it has indicated that it will only be utilized for movie playback. Right now, that’s all well and good and they’re winning the publicity war by declaring that they’re giving gamers “a choice of whether they want to play high definition movies or not.” The issue comes when developers working jointly on PS3 and 360 games start to make use of the PS3’s additional space on the 25 GB and subsequently 50 GB dual layer Blu-Ray disc? This could become a HUGE issue that Microsoft needs to address. Do they start manufacturing all 360s with HD Drives at that point? (Can’t do that — It’ll alienate the current 360 user base.) Do they just run games over the HD DVD Drive? Could do that, but again, you’re segmenting the user base between those who have the HD Drive and those who don’t. And history has shown that this is always a dangerous move. (Sega 32X? Turbo Grafx CD? Even Nintendo wised up and didn’t release the N64 Disk Drive add-on in the early 90s.)
Earlier I mentioned that there were two camps debating about the PS3 and whether incorporating Blu-Ray technology was a good idea. Well, actually there is another camp. Many folks are saying that with digital distribution becoming more and more accessible that neither format will matter and that all content will be delivered electronically. While this would be nice (and content companies would LOVE to save money on distribution costs, possible piracy avoidance and other issues), we’ve got a LONG way to go before this is a reality. As great a job as Microsoft did laying the foundation for Xbox Live, they still had trouble delivering standard definition content movies and TV shows over broadband. Even at the highest DSL and Cable speeds, the content is going to take a significantly larger pipe to deliver a compelling experience. Fiber to the Home (FTTH) is on the horizon and several friends of mine already have it. But these guys are hardcore technology early adopters. The majority of the Madden-playing public won’t make an investment like this for several years. I suspect some won’t at all. And then there’s the issue of wireless Internet access. Many homes are now relying heavily on 802.11 to transmit content to their console. Bringing a game like Gears of War over an 802.11 connection could take…..(gee, I don’t even want to guesstimate. If I had to guess, I’d say at least a day.) There are tons of obstacles that have to be surpassed to get digital distribution to be the way that the majority of content is served. And until such time, this Blu-Ray/HD DVD discussion is very relevant.
Without question there’s not a better deal for your gaming dollar this holiday season than the Xbox 360. (And I’m totally including the Wii in this equation.) Theoretically, a gamer can open the $399 Xbox 360 on Christmas day and, with a trial Xbox Live subscription, download tons of gaming demos to tide them over…. demos which will help them decide which games they want to invest more time (and $60) in. Right now you’re not getting that on the Wii or on the PS3. But looking down the road a bit, this issue of Blu-Ray being more than just a movie format and more akin to “elbow room for developers” is going to rear it’s head. And when it does, I want all the gaming analysts to remember their mantra of “offering choice to the consumers for HD content”. In about three years, this should be and interesting landscape (and for more reasons than this one alone.)