There are certain things in life that we’ve always come to expect: the sky is blue, the sun rises in the east, space is big, and games always come in a physical form. Whether it’s a cartridge or a disc, games have always been something we can hold in our hands and put on a shelf. The prospect of that going away is terrifying for many of us.
Change isn't something that gamers really like. Look at the Xbox One for example. They tried to turn it into an online-only console and we all know how that ended. Case and point, taking away an optical drive or removing the option entirely is something that may not go over well with gamers in the grand scheme of things.
Is it truly possible that the PS5 will ditch discs altogether, or will we still have the option between digital and physical like we know and love? It’s time to start asking the hard questions, so let’s discuss the elephant in the room. Will the PS5 have an optical disc drive?
A New Patent Points to...Cartridges?
In the beginning of gaming, games were delivered to us on cartridges. True old school gamers will remember the old method of blowing into the bottom of it when the games didn't start (which isn't a good idea, by the way). Things transitioned over to discs for the most part, but consoles like the Nintendo Switch still use a different format. When it comes to portable systems, discs aren't the best idea because they're bound to get jostled or shaken during the course of play. This can lead to skips in the data and damage to the disc itself.
So, if we think about the PS5 as a portable/console hybrid, then it would make sense for the format to change. We also need to talk about the fact that games are far too big these days for Blu-ray discs to hold. Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, comes on two discs when you buy it. One disc to install the game, and one to play it.
There's also this quote from PlayStation boss John Kodera, who mentioned this during an investor meeting in May 2018:
"Rather than separating portable gaming from consoles, it's necessary to continue thinking of portable gaming as one method to deliver more gaming experiences."
There's also this South Korean patent filing that was made public recently. In this patent, Sony describes an "electronic game cartridge."This was first revealed by TechTastic.
It was later revealed that this design is intended for the existing Sony Toio, a robotics toy crowdfunded by First Flight, which produces concepts from Sony employees. Even so, this concept could also apply to the PS5.
This is purely speculation on my part, but my prediction would be that Sony could achieve something using a combination of discs and cartridges. For those who buy the physical copy, your game will still be on some sort of high-capacity disc, but when you want to take that same game on the go, you could transfer the data over to a cartridge that stores your game and progress until you come back, at which point it's wiped and ready to be used again in the future.
Not only would this solve the problem with discs in portable systems, but it would also cut down on load times for the portable version of the title since cartridges have higher data transfer rates. Now, there could be some obstacles here with transferring games over to your cartridge depending on how long that takes, but what if we would simply transfer over only the data needed to pick up from where you left off?
This same principle is applied to game downloads, which allow you to start the game before the download is complete. Microsoft has been pushing to utilize machine learning algorithms to understand what files are absolutely needed before you can start playing. This essentially gets you into the game faster, but the same concept could be used to identify only what is needed for a transfer to the cartridge that would allow you to continue your game on-the-go.
There's also the possibility that Sony could switch over to cartridges entirely, but that could make backwards compatibility difficult. With the push for this feature on the PS5, I don't think they would leave it on the table again. Therefore, we would still need a disc drive for physical media. Even so, we've known for a while that discs won't work forever. Is it time to switch (pun intended)? Let's discuss.
The Fall of Physical Media
I remember when I was kid how exciting it was when VHS switched to DVD. The first DVD movie I watched was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” I remember going nuts over the clarity and the sharpness of the picture. In terms of gaming, I always thought that discs were amazing. It fascinated me as a kid that the PS1 discs had black bottoms. Honestly? I didn’t mind switching discs for the big RPG games either. It always felt like a milestone achievement.
We’ve always had discs. It was something we’ve become comfortable with. Even with things like Steam and the PlayStation Network selling digital versions of games, we never considered the possibility that the majority of games we play wouldn’t be on discs.
There's something satisfying about opening the packaging on a disc and putting it into your system. They kind of experience, that new game smell, it's not the same with a download. That being said, digital downloads do offer more convenience. Disc drives go bad, yes, but downloads also require hard drive space. It's a give and take in either scenario.
Remember Blu-Rays? Oh man, the fact that the PS3 was a Blu-Ray player and a game console sold so many systems. Microsoft tried (and failed) with their competitive HD-DVD format, and with the release of the Xbox One, Microsoft bowed to Sony and adopted their proprietary Blu-Ray format.
Blu-Ray, a format invented by Sony, was supposed to be the next format for the foreseeable future. It had a ton of storage space, which meant it could hold games without issue. That was of course, before games started clocking in at 50 gigabytes. Now it has been roughly nine years since Blu-Ray came out on the market, and already it’s already losing ground.
PlayStation Magazine Editor Ben Wilson interviewed with Tech Radar and he predicted that the next console would be a streaming service, no discs included. This is what he had to say:
"Steam on PC has taught us that disc drives are becoming less and less necessary, but I can’t see them being phased out completely for a while yet. People love their boxed products, and ‘experts’ have been predicting the imminent demise of the CD for more than 20 years. Remind me how that one has turned out? There will always be those who prefer special editions and sexy packaging to invisible downloads, and it’s those guys and girls who’ll ensure disc drives live on within gaming in some form."
Things like Netflix, Steam, and of course, digital sales are partly to blame for this decline. While Blu-Ray isn’t dead by any means, sales were up by 35% a few years ago, and now Blu-Ray sales are falling.
What do Gamers Want?
It’s time to start thinking about this now. I know some people hate it (why, I don’t know) when people start talking about the next generation console, but Sony is already planning out the next console, so if we want something, we need to reach out and take it now.
We recently had a poll where we asked you, the gamers "Should the PS5 come with a optical Blu Ray drive?" These were the results as of this writing:
- Make it optional for those who don’t need or want it (26%)
- Yes, include it with the PS5 63%
- No (11%)
It’s possible that people would go for the first option if it meant a different in price, but if the price was the same regardless, it’s clear that people will gravitate to the drive being included regardless. For hardcore gamers and collectors like myself, it’s obvious why we would want discs over downloads, but for those who are on the fence about the situation, what does a disc drive offer than a download can’t?
- Physical Storage - Blu-Ray discs can hold at least 50 gigabytes. This is a lot to download on today’s speeds, which means that people would rather buy a disc and save the time it would take to download the full game.
- Retail Companies - Stores like GameStop depend on physical media. Even though they have started offering digital downloads, companies like this would be very strongly against a lack of discs because it would cripple their sales.
- Gifts - Our current generation and especially the generation before like to present physical gifts on holidays. Handing someone a sheet of paper with a code or a prepaid card just isn’t the same.
In short, games began on physical media. While the rise of digital downloads has led to plenty of indie developers getting their games out there, people aren’t ready to just completely shift to a world where only downloads are offered instead of discs. Much of the gaming industry depends on this aspect, but as games get bigger and require more space, discs may not have the capacity to hold them anymore.
We also need to consider things like virtual and augmented reality. If these types of technologies have a portable aspect to them, then discs won’t make a lot of sense. Top this off with services like PlayStation Now and you have the recipe for a future where our beloved discs aren’t allowed.
Even so, it’s clear that gamers aren’t ready to let the optical disc drive go, myself included. What do you think? Should the PS5 have an optical drive, or should discs go to the wayside in favor of streaming services or cloud-based gaming? Let us know what you think in the comments below!