Con-Soul Searching: Solid-State Singularity
I’m pretty vocal of my disdain for digital distribution. Actually I’m pretty vocal about everything. Sometimes I look like an idiot because of it. But hey, that’s all part of putting yourself out there. Live and learn. Anyway, my problem with digital distribution is simple; I have no tangible game. Granted these games can be stored on a hard drive which then makes them tangible. My problem with that, you can’t back up those files in case of a hard drive failure. The rebuttal, you can redownload those games if your hard drive fails or is stolen. But once again I retort, once Xbox Live support for the 360 or PSN support for the PS3 is shut off, you will not be able to redownload those games. I just realized I am arguing with myself in type. It’s kind of weird. I could probably go on for the rest of this article with points and counter-points but I feel I have said all this several times in the past. Instead, I would like to imagine a different world; a parallel universe if you will. One where digital distribution never took off and we were left to find the next form of physical storage. Flash memory.
Storage disks are pretty awesome. They are small, durable, inexpensive and can hold large amounts of data. The biggest cons of disk media are more a problem with the disk readers themselves. Take the 360 for example; it’s loud (the non-S models anyway), the disk has to spin at very high speeds and it can actually damage the disk if the system is moved while in use. My biggest problem is the need for load times. I remember when the PlayStation first came out besides the N64. I was shocked to see a console use something besides cartridges. It was a big point of contention between me and my friends; cartridges versus disks. Obviously we all hated the idea of load times but we tolerated them for the great games the PlayStation had to offer.
After the success of the PlayStation, every console manufacturer adopted disk media. Granted Sega was already using disks but their success was non-existent compared to Sony’s. Sadly this was the end of an era; the end of console cartridges. Ever since then the cartridge has only lived on with Nintendo’s handhelds. So what is so great about cartridges? For me to explain this I am going to go into geek mode here. NES carts use mask ROM (read-only memory) which means the data is encoded onto chips which are then physically connected to the board. The only way to reprogram mask ROM is to remove the chips and start over. Surprisingly, DS carts work off this same tech as NES carts. Over the years, mask ROM has been refined to bring us flash memory also known as EEPROM; electrically erasable programmable read-only memory. Basically the difference between mask ROM and flash is the ladder can be rewritten easily. Flash is built through circuitry while a DVD-ROM (the storage type for 360 and Wii disks) is pressed into the foil layer of a disk, that and DVD-ROM is read optically instead of through a physical connection. What all this means is that flash is faster to obtain data from than from disk media. Thus, we got load times. Whew, that was kind of tough. Is everyone still with me?
What I am trying to say is flash based cartridges would be a great format for video games. Flash cards are tougher than disks, they are smaller and can also hold large amounts of data. The added bonuses of a flash based console are reduced noise, greater durability from less moving parts and lower power usage. For these reasons, solid-state computers are starting to grow in popularity. But this is where my fantasy world of no digital distribution ends. In reality, compared to digital media, flash is wildly expensive both for production and distribution. It is easier to upload a file to a server than to build circuit boards and drive them to stores. As much as I would love to see the return of the game cartridge, I know that ship has long since sailed. Flash memory still has a place in the consoles of the future but just not the one I wish for. Some of the advantages of flash cartridges will be seen as hard-disk drives are changed out for solid-state drives. But with digital distribution, we are sacrificing all advantages of having a game in our hand for the sole purpose of convenience.