Is it the future yet? Flying cars, laser swords, starships burning off the shoulder of Orion--we all have different metrics for gauging that special moment when one can stand up and quietly whisper "we have arrived." For some, the ability to order Domino's pizza from a Wii was that moment. For me, that moment will arrive when we no longer have to think about where we are going to safely store our ever increasing digital belongings. While my future probably falls somewhere between Warp 9 and Hoverboards, it seems like I'm not the only one watching and waiting.
“There’s a generation of kids being born today and probably already alive who I’m pretty confident will never buy a physical media product. They will never buy a DVD, they will never buy a CD, and they will never buy a game in a box.”
So says Atari president and former Sony exec, Phil Harrison, speaking to Edge Magazine. While Atari may think an online distribution model can serve all of its delivery needs, should we all start tearing down our bookshelves and burning our binders full of discs?
Recently, in our office, we had a pretty lengthy discussion about the future of game consoles and what delivery mechanisms they would adopt for their games. With Sony essentially winning the optical media war with its 50GB Blu-ray discs, it raises some interesting choices for their competitors. Will Microsoft license Blu-ray drives from Sony for its next console? While the money Microsoft and others would spend to use Blu-ray technology wouldn't necessarily go directly into the Playstation 3 coffers, it certainly wouldn't be hurting Sony. Developers are already starting feel the pinch when it comes to developing for both Blu-ray and DVD. id Software's John Carmack has repeatedly expressed concern that sacrifices in quality will have to be made to fit their upcoming title, Rage, onto two DVDs for release on the Xbox 360. While the decision to refrain from pressing the game to more DVDs seems to be a financial one and based on royalty fees, it's certainly clear that Blu-ray will offer the most options for developers as we move forward.
Carmack is not alone in his Rage issues, but some are even concerned that 50GB Blu-ray discs can't contain their pure, uncompromising vision. We probably all recall Hideo Kojima saying that Metal Gear Solid 4 could have looked better if the team didn't have to compress so many of the elements to fit on one Blu-ray disc. Pioneer has apparently heard his pleas, and while the state of MGS5 is anyone's guess, there is apparently a 400GB Blu-ray disc in development that would be readable by current Blu-ray players. Now, this doesn't mean we should expect 400GB PlayStation 3 games in the near future, but it does mean that the world is moving forward with Blu-ray and that has to mean more than a few smiles for one particular company.
Sony seems to be in a strong position if you consider Blu-ray to be the future of media distribution, but in the words of everyone's favorite minature midichlorian master, there is another. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, recently addressed the absence of Blu-ray drives in upcoming Macs with the following:
"Blu-ray is just a bag of hurt...the licensing of the tech is so complex, we're waiting till things settle down and Blu-ray takes off in the marketplace."
It's an interesting take, considering that Apple currently offers HD content through iTunes. At the same time, Steam is continuing to push forward, and be effective, with full installs of new games on the PC. Microsoft has been very vocal about its online distribution of games and HD video content, as well. With the ability to do complete game installs onto your hard drive, it seems like the only technological hurdle for online distribution of console games is bandwidth. Internet service providers are definitely starting to feel the crunch with more and more information being traded across their systems, and the worry is that the infrastructure for the rapid transfer of gigs of information just isn't there. A fully adopted system for these games would have other obstacles as well. We're seeing a lot of that now with digital rights management and being able to transfer and redownload copies of products you've already bought. Also, don't think the GameStops and Best Buys of the world are going to quietly sit while a huge portion of their retail sales vanish.
There's really no reason to think Microsoft is going to stop offering an all-in-one media system in the near future. Like Microsoft, Sony takes a loss on each console it actually sells, and hopes to make a profit on software sales and licensing. If the only practical means of delivering competitive content in the next round of consoles is through Blu-ray, will Sony really need to manufacture its own system, or can they get fat off the technology licensing fees? There are fewer and fewer exclusives for each particular system, so the dividing lines are becoming more and more blurred. Realistically, it's more likely that the division of Sony that handles Blu-ray will be happy to get its technology into Microsoft's next system and the separate portion of Sony handling the PlayStation will continue to focus on making a competitive product. As much as we imagine Microsoft and Sony as fierce competitors, they are all partners in the business of making money. At the same time, we were once trading text files on floppies, music on CDs and movies on DVDs, but all of those things have migrated to some form of successful online distribution and it's unlikely games won't follow.