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Digital Dreaming: Thanks to Next-Gen, the Optical Disc Lives On, and On
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 04:25pm 09/12/13 | Comments
Kosta Andreadis takes a look at how PS4 and Xbox One are hampering the complete domination of digital distribution, and why Triple-A game sizes will require the Blu-ray disc for the foreseeable future...

As we move ever closer to the digital distribution age -- that mythical time where the click of a button (one naturally featuring credit card information, address, birthdate and information on your favourite types of Italian food) means you can purchase the latest blockbuster game, film or musical property to consume instantly, in the highest definition possible, a proverbial speed-bump seems to have appeared on Australia’s information superhighway -- data. A big chunk of data, in fact, where next-gen games are concerned.

The biggest bump so far (and at launch, we might add) is the digital download of NBA 2K14 on Xbox One, in the form of 43 Gigabytes of what we have to assume is basketball now being played across a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland triple the size of Los Santos.

In reality NBA 2K14 is just another basketball game, a fantastic-looking basketball game at that, but one that would need six DVDs, 62 CDs or, going even further back, over 28,000 floppy disks just to fit on a retail shelf. It’s pretty amazing that the increase in capacity of our physical (data) storage mediums has seen an almost exponential growth in the last 20 or so years, and with floppy disks being a thing of the distant past NBA 2K14 has of course been released on a single, tightly packed Blu-ray disc. And it won’t be alone as other highly publicised next-gen releases like Call of Duty and Battlefield are also trying their very best to fill up the 50 Gigabytes worth of data available on the medium -- it’s in this format that most gamers will experience all the biggest blockbuster next-gen titles.

Taking a look at select launch titles for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 we can see today’s hefty Blu-ray disc game sizes:
  • Battlefield 4 – 33GB
  • Call of Duty: Ghosts – 39GB
  • Dead Rising 3 – 19GB
  • NBA2K14 - 43GB
  • Forza Motorsport 5 – 31GB
  • Killzone Shadow Fall - 38.5GB
  • Knack - 35.6GB

Visuals like this come at a hefty data cost, one our bandwidth struggles to afford

As the successor to the DVD, the Blu-ray disc is now the physical home for all high-definition film and gaming content. However, its importance in the digital age doesn’t feel anywhere near as close to that of the DVD, as it has steadily been overtaken by Internet speeds and cheap, affordable traditional disk-based storage where terabytes of data are slowly becoming standard. This in turn has led to (well in countries other than Australia at least) a steady rise in streaming and digital distribution as the preferred method for media consumption across film, television and music.

One of the largest streaming providers in the US, Netflix, recently passed 30 million paid subscribers, a figure which points clearly toward a digital distribution-focused future. Each of the above titles can, of course, be purchased entirely digitally and downloaded direct to their respective console, but their sheer sizes seem at odds with the recent digital surge.

A high-definition film, either streamed or distributed digitally over the Internet at 1080p, is done so using a fraction of the space utilised by the same film at the same resolution on a Blu-ray disc -- with a negligible loss in quality. We’re talking something going from 40GB down to 4GB, where at the high end of the scale HD movie files are being streamed at 2GB/hour and the bigger blockbuster games are taking upwards of 40GB of data. For gaming it seems the compression done before we’re able to download any game is minimal and comparative to the full Blu-ray disc installation size. This direct comparison may seem a little unfair as film and gaming are two distinct media entities but comparatively to film, digitally distributing gaming content could require up to ten times the bandwidth. And this is where, as they like to say, things get a little interesting.

With the gradual increase of broadband Internet in the late 90s to the staggering speeds and bandwidth possible today, a digital download of something the size of 43GB or even 39GB for the latest Call of Duty should be something feasible by most people living in, or around, major cities across Australia. Some download hounds out there sitting in front of a wall of screens with their own dedicated T1 line supplied by John Travolta sporting a soul patch will scoff at the paltry download size of 43GB, very much like Hugh Jackman from the hit movie Swordfish. But for the rest of us regular Joes with an average connection speed of 4.6MB/sec (and a global average download speed of 13.6MB/sec) it would take around about 10 - 24 hours to download each of the above games, with the catch being that any one of these single downloads would exceed the entire monthly average of data downloaded by the average Australian (the non-Hugh Jackmans).

Now, Australia itself has always posed a challenge to telecommunication providers over the years because of the huge distances not only between our own major cities, but also the major communication hubs across Asia, Europe, and America. With data travelling across cables that run across our very own continent and entire oceans, this means that an exponential increase not only in broadband speeds but in the size of the data itself means that any solution would be costly and by association heavily politicised. This is an issue for distributing high-definition content a tenth of the size of next-gen games, namely films, and with copyrighted material in play this means that the Blu-ray format is going to see a massive increase in market saturation. Thanks mainly to gaming.

This in and of itself is not a bad thing, as physical retail stores have been the major distribution point for media for a number of years now, even as technology advances at a pace that is borderline ridiculous. But when the DVD was released it was the preferred option for data storage and backup as well as media content, the same goes for the CD. In 2001 the average hard-disk drive (HDD) size for the regular consumer was about 40GB. In 2011, a mere 10 years later, this figure rose to 3TB. Today you can buy a USB stick for less than the price of a burger at one of those fast food burger joints that also sell salads you never see anyone eating, that can store a few DVDs worth of content on a thing the size of your thumbnail. Because of this the Blu-ray disc format just doesn’t seem all that relevant, until now. Not for sheer technological advancement but merely as the only real viable option for big budget games.

You might want to hang onto your household shelving just a bit longer

This is not an issue isolated to Australia, merely amplified here due to what some scientists have called “some seriously shitty ‘net, bro”. The proof can be seen in compression technology being developed where a video in the mythical 4K resolution can be streamed in a size comparative to that of a 1080p (or 2K) video. This means that optical disc technology may very well have hit the mass market wall with Blu-ray for this and many other reasons. The real question to ask is not whether or not a game like Battlefield 4 needs to be 33GB in size, it’s whether or not this is a case of developers not worrying about size, compression, and digital distribution all that much. Compressing game data brings with it more complexity than a single focal point like video or audio but even the console makers seem to be content in keeping the Blu-ray disc as the primary method of game storage for the next-generation.

Both the Xbox One and the PS4 come equipped with a 500GB hard drive, a size that is half of what you can find in a standard laptop being sold today. This means that even if you were to go the digital distribution only route on either console, you’d fill up half of the hard drive after only purchasing half a dozen games. With both consoles looking to become fixtures in many homes for at least the next six years this doesn’t feel at all like forward thinking, especially for the Xbox One whose selling points seem to be that it’s an all in one media machine that also happens to play games. The PS4, much like the PS3, features a replaceable hard drive, making it a far more viable digital machine than the Xbox One, but it only supports hard drives built on decades-old technology. It seems that although the biggest marketing push has been around digital content across either console, their flagship games are all going to be Blu-ray disc based affairs.

Conspiracy theorists out there might want to look to brick and mortar game and entertainment stores as the reasons behind each new console’s HDD size and the maintaining of the Blu-ray disc, and they could be right. The smoking gun is there, it’s just that there’s also a question of pure naivety in production and market saturation. Yes Australia is one of a handful of places that will suffer due to bandwidth, but market saturation in territories like ours aren’t likely a high priority when demand and early-adopters will prevail, regardless.

Perhaps the real winner in forcing the optical disc to survive the foreseeable future is the indie game scene. There will be a clear delineation between a big budget game release and an indie game: one will ship on a Blu-ray disc where the other will be purely digital and a fraction of the size. One is a sign of the future, the other is not. Indie games focused on digital distribution are aware of the bandwidth issues in trying to reach the widest possible audiences, and are sized comparatively.

In the next few years as digital distribution looks to make further inroads when it comes to film, music and television, but for those of you who love playing the latest big-budget, Triple-A games, perhaps it’s time to take a knee and shout ‘All hail the Blu-ray disc!’

Latest Comments
Posted 05:20pm 09/12/13
Microsoft tried taking steps towards more digital and less reliance on physical media though with the XBone and the internet picked up its pitchforks and torches and brandished them until MS backed down. Granted they did a truly terrible job of getting their message accross, but unfortunately the stain that left behind is probably going to prevent Sony or Nintendo from doing any big moves in the same direction for a while, for fear of getting tarred with the same brush.
Posted 05:32pm 09/12/13
Why wouldn't you want a console with a blu ray player? It's one less thing you have to buy and plug in to the mess of wires behind the TV.

Games are not the only thing consoles are for, if they want to be a media center then they need to have BR players.

I'm all for digital downloads, but for me the biggest hindrance I would think is the restrictive marketplace where you can't shop for the best price rather than the size. I have never hesitated to pull the trigger on a Steam purchase if it's for the right price but I can get Steam keys from any number of retailers, I don't know if this works the same with MS or Sony.
Steve Farrelly
Posted 05:35pm 09/12/13
I often worry about what you're 'purchasing' online too, like, that idea that you only indefinitely rent music when you purchase something on iTunes. I also like my physical games and blu-ray collection. It's like comics and books :)
Posted 06:07pm 09/12/13
There's nothing wrong with a Bluray player, and a physical library of games and movies. But there's also nothing wrong with a digital library of games and movies.

Except when a game is 40gb either on Bluray or stored digitally on a HDD - then the latter is an afterthought.
Posted 06:55pm 09/12/13
With the size of games today, not all of us can get high quota internet and if we can we have to pay hundreds of dollars per month.

One game. Yes, one. I could download one game per month and it would cap me. No I'm not willing to sell up and spend 700,000 on a new house just to get better internet.

This is why I will always buy games on disc (unless this country gets its s*** together internet wise but that's about as likely to happen as me growing tits over night)
Posted 07:06pm 09/12/13

I also like my physical games and blu-ray collection.

On a console this is it for me, yet on my PC the only boxed copies of games I have is Blizzard stuff. Everything else is digital yet when I look at buying a game on the WiiU or Xbox1 I want the physical version.

For me it's about being able to sell/trade that in the future while a digital copy is probably not transferrable.
Posted 08:06pm 09/12/13
The f*** is eating up 43GB on a f*****g BASKETBALL game!?
Posted 10:15pm 09/12/13
It's so M$ and Pony can keep charging you console fools for overpriced games because its not 'digitally distributed.' They're milking the dead cow.
Posted 10:35pm 09/12/13
Ancient Alien Conspiracy theorists would agree
Posted 10:51pm 09/12/13
I still like my PC games coming on disc, I'm just happy that we may finally start seeing PC games on BD ROMs with lossless sound and high-res textures without having to resort to mods. The 360 held back gaming for years with its DVD drive, it also killed HD DVD (at least quicker) by not being built in from the start.
Posted 03:28pm 25/1/14
Posted 06:55pm 09/12/13
With the size of games today, not all of us can get high quota internet and if we can we have to pay hundreds of dollars per month.
Completely false. I am pretty damn poor, live in rural WA and have genuine unlimited full speed ADSL for $90 a month including phone. And yes, real unlimited, no caps ever, no on/off-peak. My first month I dowloaded close to 3TB
Posted 05:10pm 25/1/14
Posted 06:55pm 09/12/13
With the size of games today, not all of us can get high quota internet and if we can we have to pay hundreds of dollars per month.
Completely false. I am pretty damn poor, live in rural WA and have genuine unlimited full speed ADSL for $90 a month including phone. And yes, real unlimited, no caps ever, no on/off-peak. My first month I dowloaded close to 3TB

Happy for you. Not all areas of Australia are so lucky. I live just outside of brisbane and the only thing available to me is Telstra cable.
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