The rise of the DVD-ROM

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COMMENTARY: It has been almost seven years now since the DVD-ROM was released for PCs. Over that time the speed of drives has increased, but apart from that the devices have the same basic functionality now as they did back then.

This leads to a regular boggling of gamer's minds as they wonder why they need to install a game off four CD-ROMs rather than one DVD.

Shipping a game on DVD-ROM makes sense from both ends of the spectrum. Gamers want to revel in the convenience of a single disc game install, while game companies can use this higher-capacity format to try and reduce the easy piracy that comes from the ubiquity of cheap CD burners in the market (although DVD-Burners have plummeted in price over the past year).

But still games keep coming on CD-ROM; it is a frustrating situation where even though some games require a relatively expensive video card that has been made in the past three years, the game publishers are reticent to make a seven year old storage technology a requirement. Even though DVD-ROM drives can now be found for a paltry (in hardware terms) $50.

While the number one excuse used when we ask game companies why they don't use DVD-ROM is that the install base of hardware is too small, we came across another major reason why retailers do not want to stock DVD-ROM drives. Apparently 90 percent of games that ship on DVD-ROM get returned to the store of origin. The anecdotal reason? That uneducated consumers return the products when they fail to play in their home DVD-player.

But the tide is now turning. In just the past week two announcements have been made that could pave the way for a final transition to widespread use of DVD media for game distribution.

Two of the most anticipated titles of early 2004, Far Cry and Unreal Tournament, are going to be available in some regions on DVD-ROM discs. This joins nicely with the brief mention by Valve Software a few months ago that Half-Life 2 will ship on DVD-ROM as well as CD-ROM and its online Steam distribution network.

At the moment Far Cry is set to be a DVD-ROM only release in Europe, but North Americans will have the option of both DVD-ROM and CD-ROM based versions. We contacted the games publisher, Ubisoft, to find out what the Australian situation will be, but a final decision about how the game is distributed is still to be made.

In a recent interview with Gamespy, Cliff Bleszinski from Epic talked about how its upcoming Unreal Tournament 2004 game will be distributed. The game is set to ship in the US as both a 6 CD-ROM package and a 2 DVD package (the second DVD is full of behind the scenes footage of the game development and the like).

We contacted the Australian publisher of the game, but they were unavailable for comment on what formats will be sold in the local market.

As for the other huge title scheduled for this year, id software's Doom 3, Atomic had a chance to sit down last year with CEO Todd Hollenshead and lead designer Tim Willits. We asked them about how the game was to be distributed. Doom 3 is set to ship on at least two CD-ROMs, but most likely four discs.

Atomic then asked about the possibility of a DVD-ROM release and were met with this surprising response from Todd Hollenshead: "You know, there's just not enough of an adoption rate. And then there's also economic [problems]. It's actually cheaper to ship on four CDs than you can on one DVD, and then there's the replicator issue of building the DVD masters. The cost factor [for incremental updates] becomes and issue. We haven't planned on it being a DVD-based game."

Whether the decisions by Ubisoft, Valve and Epic will change id software's mind remains to be seen, but thankfully it seems like the industry will finally begin the transition to more user friendly media for games. It's been way too long a wait.

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