The Real Reason Video Game Consoles Still Have Optical Drives?

With the rise of online gaming and digital downloads, video gamers in the United States and other developed countries might well wonder why the gaming consoles they buy still come with optical disk drives - and why the next generation of machines will also still have them. The answer, according to recent reports, has nothing to do with protecting retailers.

Earlier this week, ReadWriteWeb reported on the rise of digital downloads and the pressure it is putting on videogame retailers. (See "Game Over for GameStop and Video Game Retailers?") And this week, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Sony flirted with shipping a 2013 successor to the Playstation 3 without an optical drive, then decided to keep it. Microsoft will also ship its next-gen console with an optical drive.

Why bother?

Blaming Slow Net Connections

The Journal claimed Sony and Microsoft based their decisions on shoddy Internet service overseas, which might mean that players would have to spend hours or even days trying to download large game files, and might incur bandwidth fees from their Internet Service Providers.

That reasoning makes no mention of the struggles of game retailers like GameStop, but no doubt comes as a relief to them anyway - at least for the time being.

Still, the fact that Sony - which co-created the CD, DVD and Blu-ray formats - even considered dropping the optical drive from its next-gen console clearly shows where the industry is heading. According to the Journal, even GameStop’s CEO admits that a move to digital downloads is “inevitable.”

ReadWriteWeb talked to a producer of a popular first-person shooter, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid antagonizing retailers. “We all want the industry to go that way. It gets games to customers faster, and it gives publishers a lot more room for price flexibility,” the producer said. He also noted that smaller publishers, such as Hothead Games (makers of the Deathspank parody series), were “basically built on Steam and the Apple Store,” and suggested that digital consoles could open doors for even more indie shops. As Hothead expressed the situation on its own forums: Digital platforms allow for a much higher level of creativity due to the lower investment required to bring them to market. 

So, is the issue of lousy Net access in the developing world the real holdup? Or are there other factors in play?

Who Goes First?

According to the anonymous producer, “No one [in the console business] wants to be the first one to cut the cord.” Retail sales still account for the majority of total game sales, and systems are too competitive for one manufacturer to take the plunge alone. There’s also currently no solid model for incorporating storefronts into digital sales beyond game cards, and no secondary market for preowned digital titles.

Are the video retailers worried? GameStop has declined to be interviewed on these topics, so we went back to a local GameStop outlet and asked the clerk we talked to previously.

He wasn’t too concerned, even allowing that he’d heard rumors of “some pretty big things that might be in the works” with a console vendor. He seemed confident that even a disc-less platform release would still give plenty of time for retailers to adapt.

“We get a big pop in sales for consoles and one or two big games in the first month after a new [console] release, but it really takes a year or so for the new system to come into its own,” he said. “That gives us some time to figure out how things are going to work.”

The clerk pointed out that even though the Playstation 3 launched in 2006, the store still sells plenty of used Playstation 2 games.

Microsoft and Sony have declined to comment about the degree to which they plan to push online sales for in-game “extras,” but again, the clerk was optimistic. “As long as people want to play a game before they buy it or pay for things in cash, we’ll be in business.”

Photo by 'blindfutur3'.