When compact discs became a standard for portable and user-friendly data storage, it was out of necessity: there was nothing quite like it on the market in terms of capacity and portability that also made data transfer and access incredibly easy. Alternative storage mediums were either expensive or difficult for the common end user to use and even get the equipment to do so. When gaming was reaching the end of the 16-bit era, it was becoming clear that if companies wanted to create bigger and better games, they would need to jump on this bandwagon, even if a lot of the console manufacturing companies were slow to do so.
While Sony wasn’t the first company to adopt the compact disc format, they were certainly the first company in gaming to popularize the format for video games in the mainstream and probably the most successful of that first wave of companies to adopt the format. Over the years, the format had changed but the physical form remained, for the most part, the same: we’d gotten many different disc formats but the format for console gaming had primarily been discs of this nature. There were a couple that even changed things up a little, with Sony introducing the UMD, a disc format proprietary to its PlayStation Portable console and Nintendo introducing its smaller, dual-layer DVD disc that was essentially proprietary to their Gamecube system. However, the physical format has remained the same, more or less.
Cartridges, though – and by proxy, removable and portable hard drives, as well – have changed in shape, size, format, and function over the course of the years. In gaming, cartridges were more like discs that were shaped to be proprietary to the system they were to be played on but, for all intents and purposes, they were nothing more than performing the same function of, say, a USB thumb drive that was stuck on read-only. Increasing the speed and capacity of said storage mediums has been a slow process over the decades they’ve been around and even in the 16-bit era required extra hardware to be placed inside some of the cartridges just to keep up with production and customer demand for the graphical quality, audio fidelity, and scope that games were slowly progressing towards over the generations. By the time the 64-bit era had begun to gain steam, it was clear – physical cartridges just weren’t able to keep up.
However, though, this is slowly becoming less and less of a valid point as handheld consoles and other hardware in the multimedia world have been proving to us more and more over the course of time that discs may no longer be an archaic format for gaming. Things like high quality and professional-level cameras have required high-capacity and high-speed discs for quite some time and devices like cell phones and media players have required them, too, to meet consumer demand – these discs have been in use in many devices for a long time, however, you would really only need to buy one or two at a time and you would use it in much the same way you would a removable hard drive or thumb drive, constantly writing and rewriting information.
While the technology is certainly catching up and, perhaps, surpassing the old formats, one has to still admit one thing and one thing only that stuff like Blu Ray has over stuff like SD Cards and USB drives: production and marketing costs. You can get a spindle of Blu Ray discs for the cost of one high-capacity, high-speed card or drive and the difference between the viable mediums becomes quite clear. That’s part of why you see handheld devices limited in terms of what they can offer when it comes to games and hardware: you can’t just make every game a 100GB masterpiece of gaming or else every game would easily triple or quadruple in price, at the very least.
I might seem like an old man trying to reach out to a newer generation about the heyday of gaming but, in all honesty, I’ve grown weary of load times, I’ve grown tired of scratched discs, I’ve grown tired of loading problems, and I’m extremely tired of the drives that constantly get thrown in consoles with all kinds of mechanical parts that could go wrong for a multitude of reasons. I want cartridges back because, then, it does away with all that. They might be expensive to produce now but I think that if companies like Sony and Nintendo put a little more work into it they could easily bring the costs of manufacturing down quite a bit and create a format that does away with these pesky little disks once and for all.
Picture, if you will, not needing to install a game prior to playing: just popping open the packaging and sliding it into the console and playing, right off the hop. No installation, no fuss, everything is located on the cart. If it’s not and, for some reason, the installation is a must, then the speed of installation would be much higher as data transfer speeds would be much higher. Since there would be no belt-fed disc drive nonsense on the console, there would be less need for high power draws, meaning that there could be more focus on efficiency of console operations such as networking and graphical performance. Picture a game going gold and delays not actually requiring a complete recall of the game but rather just a rewrite of carts already in production. No more day one patches! Picture, if you will, a low cost way to introduce DLC and expansions at the retail level as there would undoubtedly be more shelf space and costs to advertise wouldn’t really change and might actually be cheaper! Picture a re-introduction of actual game expansions instead of half-assed sequels and single-player content!
There’s a lot to benefit from going back to a disc drive setup like cartridges. This also staves off the whole “digital-only” concept a lot of people in the industry see companies moving towards: no longer will hardware need to be a non-static thing. You can introduce modular consoles that could very well do away with internal hard drives altogether, if they can get cartridge capacity up high enough. They would continue moving in the direction that it seems they want to move in, without forcing everyone into working around having to deal with compact discs because they’re cheap.
There’s many reasons I think we need to move console gaming back to cartridge formats. What do you think, though?