Editorial: Storage Wars

Nude cartridge action!

A printed circuit board within an N64 Cartridge.

Each generation of console hardware has come with either a proprietary storage media with a larger capacity than the previous generation, or an established industry format that has not been used in a console before. As we head into the eighth generation of hardware it would seem that Blu-ray discs will continue to be the standard media of the generation despite both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One supporting 4K resolution output for video. The size of a 4K movie could be upwards of 100GB, yet even a dual layer Blu-ray disc can only hold 50GB. An announcement has been made of a possible future storage media, but before we look into it, lets see how far we have come.

Early Home Computers

For some early home computers like the Sinclair ZX81 (released in 1981) and the ZX Spectrum (released in 1982), programs were stored on audio cassette tapes and loaded into the computers memory via an ordinary cassette recorder. The advantage of using audio tapes to distribute game software was chiefly related to cost and availability. Floppy discs were more reliable, but also more expensive. Eventually the floppy disc became the preferred method of distributing games for home computers once the three and a half inch variety most of us remember became the industry standard. The format would continue into the mid 90s until the falling price of optical media and its increased storage capacity became the medium of choice.

The Cartridge

The first generation of games consoles had little use for cartridges. The Magnavox Odyssey could play different games by flipping switches within the machine as it had no CPU. The cartridges for this machine served only to flip the correct switches for the desired game to be played. The Fairchild Video Entertainment System (VES) was the first console to employ cartridges as we know them today, as a printed circuit board mounted within plastic case. As compact disc technology came to be used widely for data storage, most hardware companies moved from cartridges to CD-based game systems. Nintendo remained the lone hold-out, using cartridges for their Nintendo 64 system; the company did not transition to optical media until the production of the GameCube.

ROM cartridges could not only carry software, but additional hardware expansion as well. An example would be the Super FX coprocessor chip in some Super Nintendo games. Micro Machines 2 on the Sega Megadrive used a custom ‘J-Cart’ design by Codemasters which incorporated two additional gamepad ports. This allowed players to have up to four gamepads connected to the console without the need for an additional third-party adaptor. The ROM cartridge slot principle continues to this day in the portable Nintendo systems.

Everything but the porn.

Every time I buy a whole new set of discs on a new media type, I want to smash my old collection.

Optical Media

Because proprietary cartridge designs were expensive to produce, the industry adopted an established form of media in the CD-ROM. The fifth generation marked a turning point for optical-based storage media. As games grew more complex in content, sound, and graphics, the CD proved more than capable of providing enough space for the extra data. The cartridge format, however, was pushed beyond the limits of its storage capacity. Consequently, many game developers shifted their support away from the Nintendo 64 to the PlayStation. Sony and Microsoft stuck with standard formats in the sixth generation, opting to use DVDs. Sega and Nintendo used their own storage media and suffered for being unable to play DVD movies.

Entering the seventh generation, Nintendo opted to continue using their proprietary optical media, though now it could at least hold as much information as a DVD. Sony and Microsoft however, decided to support two different high-definition formats. The decision by Sony to include a Blu-ray player in the PlayStation 3 was a major factor is securing the format as the media that would succeed DVDs. The PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are both set to use Blu-ray as their storage media.

The Future

The next generation of home consoles will not have a new storage media at launch, though they could possibly use a peripheral to play movies released on a new standard. Sony and Panasonic this week announced they have signed a ‘basic agreement’ to jointly develop a standard for professional-use next-generation optical discs. While Sony and Panasonic say their next-generation optical discs will target businesses looking to preserve their data, this doesn’t mean they won’t evolve to become a storage medium for the consumer market. The firms are targeting the development of an optical disc with recording capacity of at least 300GB by the end of 2015.

Are you looking forward to re-buying your movie collection again, or do you only buy movie digitally? Do you think the new media will find its way into the next console generation? Let me know in the comments!

10 comments on “Editorial: Storage Wars”

  1. Obviously all future consoles will release everything on Blu-Ray VHS tapes on the Wii, as Bup has prophesied.

  2. I feel like this lack of change in storage medium is just another indication of how incremental this generation is from the last. We’re getting slightly beefier consoles with more social media functions.

  3. @Mel: Part of that is down to the way in which the consoles of the last generation were so powerful relative to computers at the time. This time around, the specs are far more modest.

  4. This time around perhaps the Blu-ray drives will actually be fast enough to read data at a usable speed…

    16 bit consoles used CD storage, as did the 32 bit ones; while DVDs were used in both sixth and seventh gen systems – so I hardly think that new storage mediums are a prerequisite for meaningful generational change.

    That said, I do sort of see the next generation as a chance to make good on the half-crippled technologies and techniques which debuted during the current generation.

  5. This reads more like a research article than an editorial. I think it should have included more opinions or been labeled differently. That being said,I do think that continuing with the current data storage format will be a problem for the graphics loving gamers among us. This is mostly wishful thinking, but I’d love to see games focus more on story and game-play because of the limitations on creating even more massive graphical nonsense than before.

  6. @Dice – I did a bit of research while writing the post, so I guess that came across in the way I wrote it. Here’s my opinion on new storage media:

    As game graphics get more advanced, more money is spent on making games look good. This increases the budget and means companies need to sell more games to break even. I don’t believe the industry can sustain itself this way and we will eventually see a generation where graphics have not noticeably improved.

    Maybe this will happen in the next generation, and a new storage media will only be needed for 4K movies.

  7. It’s reasonable for games to increase their budgets and sales projections, to a point. But when this goes beyond the growth rate of the industry it becomes idiotic. But it’s easier to pump more polygons into a game than to find someone with a good story and good design ideas.

  8. The trouble is that we’ve reached a point where the devs/publishers think “we’ll make a loss on the first game but recoup our investment on the sequels”.

    Also, Blu-ray is more than enough for all but 4k movies. The reason that BDs were filling up on the PS3 is that the drive read the data so slowly that graphical assets had to be duplicated multiple times.

  9. Hmm. Very informative. Thank you, Imitanis. There are so few movies that I want to own and watch multiple times so I have gone ahead and re-bought some of them on Blu-ray. But I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t bought my first HDTV. HDTVs make the differences in graphical fidelity between DVDs and Blu-rays much more noticeable. I don’t think I will switch to a new medium for a while. Staying a little bit behind march of technology is much cheaper also.

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