June 19, 2012

Flash drive console games

Recently we got some maybe-true details about the next generation Xbox system (link). The specs include a Blu-ray drive, which totally makes sense. Microsoft wants the Xbox to be viewed as a gaming console as well as an entertainment device. It also makes sense because you can stuff something like five times the amount of data on a Blu-ray than you can on a standard DVD. This will become more useful as games get larger.

My question is, why do we still put games on optical discs? I can’t speak for the PS3 or Wii, but the optical drive is by far the loudest and slowest part of the Xbox, not to mention the easiest to break. USB flash drives continue to come down in price and go up in capacity. Many would say “why bother with physical media at all?” but I think going strictly digital isn’t viable as long as ISPs are considering bandwidth and/or data caps. There’s also gamers without access to broadband connections and the second-hand game business to think about (though I’m sure game companies would love to get rid of that industry).

Flash drives are still physical media that you can require to be plugged in for the game to be played. Since Xbox has two front USB ports and supports USB hubs, you can have more than one game plugged in at one time for easier game switching. And you can’t ruin a flash drive by scratching it. USB data rates (or at least seek times) are much faster than that of optical drives. This would mean faster load times and less (or at least less noticeable) load screens. You can already cut down on some of this by copying the game to the hard drive, but you still must have the disc in the drive to play. If a wholesale switch were made, this could mean a second, optical drive-less Xbox hardware device could be available for those not interested in playing movies or old games. Something closer in size to the Apple TV. Or you could put the whole system on the Kinect sensor!

I’m sure this has already been considered, so there must be significant downsides that I’m not thinking about. The cost of a 32 or 64 gigabyte flash drive is likely much higher than your typical optical disc, but I’m thinking the cost would become worth it when more games outgrow optical media. Disc switching isn’t fun. They would also have to put new, untested measures in place to protect against copying, but it doesn’t seem like this would be that difficult, and DRM is a fact of life for optical and digital games already. What do you think? Are console games on flash drives a good idea? What downsides am I overlooking?

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