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Microsoft's Xbox One Almost Went Entirely Disc-less After E3

Jan 3 2014, 9:16am CST | by

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Microsoft's Xbox One Almost Went Entirely Disc-less After E3
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Microsoft's Xbox One Almost Went Entirely Disc-less After E3

Microsoft was scrambling in the wake of E3 to alter the Xbox One after a wave of negative feedback about the company’s policies regarding the system. According to a new OXM interview with Microsoft Studios general manager Phil Spencer, one radical idea was seriously considered.

“Obviously, after the announcement and E3, there was some feedback about what people wanted to change. There was a real discussion about whether we should have an optical disc drive in Xbox One or if we could get away with a purely disc-less console, but when you start looking at bandwidth and game size, it does create issues.”

It seems odd that it was after the E3 controversy that a disc-less console was being considered. That essentially would have meant Microsoft would have been going all-in on the very policies people were so upset about. A disc-free console would have made sense as with “always on” DRM and activation codes, discs were essentially worthless under the original system.

Eventually, Spencer and the Microsoft team decided against the idea, for seemingly obvious reasons:

“We decided – which I think was the right decision – to go with the Blu-ray drive and give the people an easy way to install a lot of content. From some of those original thoughts, you saw a lot of us really focusing on the digital ecosystem you see on other devices – thinking of and building around that.”

I can understand the base desire to make the Xbox One a disc-less console. There’s something futuristic about the idea, and its undoubtedly where media is heading, someday. Despite the public outcry about the loss of used games, it could have really differentiated the system from its competition if they had an effective, easy way to download games straight to the console. They could have made the PS4 and Wii U feel old-fashioned after a time, and people adjusted to sitting on their couch downloading games rather than driving to the store for them.

That said, though I do believe this is the future of gaming, admittedly it’s something of a distant future at this point.

Spencer is right when he talks about the limitations of bandwidth and game size. Estimations put the capability of a 500 GB hard drive at about 10-12 games stored. Probably less, if you factor in how much of that 500GB is “usable.” While that’s enough for this initially launch window, or the next year or two for many gamers, that’s going to fill up quickly, especially if you add in DLC and the like.

The larger problem is the internet, especially in places like the US which are struggling to give its population the fast broadband speeds of more plugged in nations like South Korea. We’ve already seen issues with this crop up, like GTA V’s digital launch which resulted in stalled or incomplete downloads of the massive game. And “massive” in this case was only 18 GB. What happens when the file size is 30, 40 or 50 GB?

Our internet (and to be honest, the servers of most game publishers) aren’t at the point yet where a disc-less, download-only console is viable. While it may be fine for Steam, I can’t see that success translating into the console realm at this point. The technology just isn’t there to make such a service reliable. Had Microsoft gone down that path with the Xbox One, in addition to the backlash they would have faced from consumers, it’s entirely possible a mad rush to download any of their launch games or widely anticipated future titles would have led to bandwidth or server-based disaster.

It’s hard to believe that Microsoft was even considering going completely disc-less, given the infrastructure required to make such a thing work seamlessly. And it seems like an incredibly last-minute decision if it was being made after E3, less than half a year before launch.

The public wasn’t ready for a disc-less console, and neither were the hard drives of either system, nor the ISPs who can barely handle Netflix HD streaming as is. We’ll get there someday, but now that all three next-gen consoles are committed to physical discs, it’s going to be a while.

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