Gen-9, I’ve been realising, is going to be a tough road to traverse.
It’s not just shifting trends of hardware; the rise of mobile-grade hardware was always going to have an impact, which is why when companies trot out the excuse that the Switch took them by surprise – yeah, because you’re not looking hard enough at the shifting trends. That’s a big problem in the video game space in general – when a company realises that something has changed, it’s usually already changed and had changed months beforehand. They arrive late to the party, and then wonder why other studios are already making huge volumes of money whilst they, having arrived late and usually with a rushed and cobbled-together bit of software to take advantage are left with table scraps. Fortune favours the brave. Big risks have big rewards. Bethesda is likely about to have a massive amount of success on Switch, and Bethesda got into that scene early. And embraced it. Sure, I don’t doubt there was some fear there – but they saw something in it, and By Eru Ilúvatar have they ever been vindicated on that front.
But one thing is becoming somewhat clear; whilst the Switch is good – great even – it has to solve the Game Card problem.
Of course it does. 32GB is the current maximum (there has been talk of a 64GB version on the horizon) but they’re not that commercially viable for publishers, so they’re shunting additional and necessary files onto the Micro-SD storage so they can use the much cheaper 16GB cards. Nintendo has to get a grip on this situation not simply for the sake of third-parties, but also because Microsoft has demonstrated with the XBox One X how ludicrous the next stage of media demand is going to be,
You’ve probably by this point seen the eye-watering figures; to play Gears of War 4 (not sure why you’d want to) in 4K, that’s a 103GB download patch. Want to play Quantum Break, with all its live-action sequences? That’ll be 160GB of your 1TB drive – 16% of the total storage of a 1TB drive for ONE GAME. Even at the lower end with the likes of Halo 5, the demands are between 90-100GB in additional downloaded files.
The largest commercially-produced media is currently, as I understand it, BDXL (Blu-Ray XL). It’s a triple-layer Blu-Ray that has an effective capacity of 100GB (effective meaning “sort of”, since production is not 100% perfect and can have margins of error). So these discs aren’t nearly big enough either – for true 4K, you’re going to need room to grow as well, so 200GB media is going to be the ideal for the future. Without it, there’ll be a heavy reliance on digital downloads and external drives – and that’s going to get messy if serious gamers need to have multiple external drives all hooked up to one device.
You get my point though – the industry wants to transition to 4K. But it seems to have vastly underestimated the realities of this transition.
So why isn’t there a new media format waiting in the wings? Well, the answer should be patently obvious (the Game Card is not really a viable format yet so it doesn’t count here) – digital streaming.
The reason CD-ROM moved forward was because it was cheap and gave higher audio quality, which required more space. 3.5″ Floppy Discs were reliable and cheap. DVD-ROM was cheap and driven by movies seeking to move to a higher-quality format, which required more space. Incidentally, all are Sony media formats – I know, Sony isn’t completely useless on this front and have had a lot of success over the years (as well as some obvious failures). Blu-Ray was an expensive end-point; TV and Movie Streaming formats were already gaining traction, and today the physical movie space is a much smaller market than it once was. Streaming is cheaper, easier and people can spend the cost of one DVD sale on a months worth of all-you-can-watch movies, or they can binge-watch TV series to their hearts content. Again, it was cheaper – and required zero storage space on the consumers end. Click button, watch movie.
This transition has been a serious problem because Streaming, whilst amazing, has rendered physical media almost a moot point in this space now. Sure, they still do DVD and Blu-Ray sales for movies and TV shows, but it’s a market that is in decline because another technological method has taken over, the way MP3 killed off the CD-ROM in the music space. With no real interest from movie studios, TV production companies or music buffs (the recent retro-fad for vinyl not withstanding), funding into the future of physical media hasn’t quite been in the same league as it once was. There’s been no real urgency, and no real point for additional funding when you consider how utterly pointless it would be to fund such things knowing that you’d be unlikely to recoup those costs.
It’s put the video game space – which has benefited immensely from the drive of other mediums and platforms – in an awkward position. Now, in a period where publishers are pleading poverty (whilst raking in record profits), they’re facing a future of 4K Gaming which requires an astounding amount of media space, and now – perhaps for the first time in a long, long, LONG time – these companies will have to find their own solutions, and that is likely to cost money.
SURPRISE! You gotta spend money to progress! I think I hear a Ms. Morissette on line one. Something about rain on a wedding day?
I’ve no doubt Sony and Microsoft already know this and are beavering away at something – anything – that will move them forward. But it’s going to be the single biggest issue for a 4K future – what’s the point when these games are going to be so enormous, so gigantic in size that you’d be going back to multi-disc launches – and whilst BDXL is available as a consumer product, it’s not cheap. A pack of five BDXL discs costs around £95 (that’s £19 each). Nintendo’s 32GB Game Cards are likely cheaper than that, even if you factor in mass-production, so I can’t imagine any third-party seeing that as a viable option – if the 32GB Game Card is too costly, BDXL is just a non-starter. I can’t see a new 4K RPG at 220GB using three discs – games cost £50 here still, and that would already be selling a product at a loss.
And BDXL is not without its problems and faults either – loading time extensions, no standardisation yet (meaning some optical drives can’t even read them, let alone write to them), and it also requires specialist software in order to burn to its triple-layer system.
This means that a 4K Future needs a 4K Media Format capable of handling it. And that’s going to be the real challenge.
Great, our hardware can now play games in a 4K Resolution. But if you’re filling up your hard drive with at worst case scenario a meagre 5 or 6 games, then it’s a future which is going to get really annoying really fast. And consumer interest is going to just go, “This sounds way too complicated, I’d need to buy a new external drive every couple of months – or more – and that sounds dumb.” Without a media format capable of driving video games forward – and video games are still very much a majority physical media market, digital is making steps but people do seem to prefer their discs and carts and thing – 4K is going to just be what the XBox One X is now; kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place, a great demonstration of what is possible and to come, but no wheels to move the thing. Compromise of the worst kind; here, have your 4K. And by the way, you’ll need to have a LOT of external storage, or be prepared to delete game files every few weeks so you can download this patch for this new game at 4K!
I doubt as a result Gen-9 will happen until there’s a solid consensus on what to do going forward. A fully-digital service in future would mean streaming, and Sony’s made a bit of a meal out of that with older games at smaller file sizes, so a 4K future in this is a fair ways off. Or enormous hard-drives as standard, costs of which would invariably be passed to the consumer and raise the retail price significantly.
Video games are getting back to being “the cool kids” (though that does have something to do with another arena collapsing in on itself right now), and the Switch and XBox One X and PS4 “Pro” are absolutely going to be interesting to watch in the next couple years – the Switch particularly, since everyone is seeing a massive success curve on the horizon and encouraging investment into it (even third parties are now going “Bloody hell, gotta get on this now guys or we’re gonna be left behind!” – well, all but EA, and EA has never been the smartest company in the world…). But for the next few years – this is probably it. This is how it’s going to be. This is what we have, because there’s no solid media format out there right now that’s going to expedite a new hardware cycle in earnest. Some analysts and investment companies are talking Switch sales up to 2023. And that may be how long it takes to find a way around this little technological brick wall.
Of course, when they find something – it’ll be enormous news. And that’ll be the point you go, “Right, now we can push a 4K future in earnest!”
But we’re probably going to be waiting a while, so perhaps it’s not the worst time to get in on the PS4 “Pro” or XBox One X after all. Aside from the fact you’ll still need a 4K TV, it’ll need to be set to different settings for each console and then you’ve got to work out which games do scale and what the download sizes are and…
… on second thoughts, might wanna wait until they simplify and standardise this stuff first.
Or just buy the Switch like everyone else seems to be doing right now. *shrugs*