HD-DVD: Microsoft's folly?
Forthcoming accessory for Xbox 360 might solve fewer problems than expected.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) – As it ramped up the hype machine for the Xbox 360, Microsoft coined a new term: The High Definition Era. Wednesday in Las Vegas, it took the next step, announcing plans for a HD-DVD accessory for the video game machine. Question is: Will the move do any good?
Don't misunderstand. Microsoft certainly needed to do something to acknowledge the coming improvements in the DVD format - and it was hardly a mystery that it had chosen to take a position counter to Sony's (Research) Blu-Ray technology.
There were certainly practical advantages to bypassing HD-DVD as an included feature of the Xbox 360, as well. Going with a standard DVD player kept costs down substantially. But yesterday's announcement could irk some the system's early adopters.
That could – and very likely will - change, of course. As developers begin to truly take advantage of the system's features in the coming months and years, you're going to see games that cannot fit onto a single DVD. In fact, that's already happening. The developer of "Enchant Arms," an upcoming role-playing game in Japan, told Gamespot.com last year it was hoping to be able to fit the game on two discs, but admitted "that's even looking grim." Any old school gamer can tell you that switching discs while playing is not a fun experience.
Game developers are in something of a bind, though. Even if Microsoft opens up the HD-DVD player for game software and even if sales of the peripheral soar, game makers will still have to publish two versions of the game, which could confuse and frustrate consumers.
Even worse, it could result in a situation mirroring what the PC gaming industry currently faces. The industry standard for PCs is still CDs. While DVD-ROMs are becoming more widespread in newer machines, they still haven't hit a critical mass, so publishers and retailers continue to publish titles on multiple CDs rather than a single DVD, resulting in some frustration among gamers. (You don't have to swap CDs as you play, as you used to with floppy discs, but loading the game onto your hard drive takes noticeably longer.)
Truth be told, it's likely to be a while before the HD-DVD accessory gains traction. Microsoft pointedly avoided discussing a price Wednesday, but the new drives aren't likely to be cheap. Toshiba recently announced plans to sell a stand-alone HD-DVD player for $499. Even if Microsoft's version sells for considerably less, you're still likely to see a price tag equal to or greater than the price of the core Xbox 360 unit.
Granted, most current Xbox 360 owners – and a sizable percentage of the folks who buy one as this year progresses – are early adopters and interested in the latest and greatest gadgets, but I suspect if they're going to spend that much for a HD-DVD player, they'll opt for a standalone unit.
All that said, Microsoft's no fool for releasing this add-on. If nothing else, it's a good way to test user-acceptance of the format without committing the company to it. Should Blu-Ray emerge the winner in this latest round of media format wars, Microsoft can always choose to go in that direction with its next incarnation of Xbox, keeping the option of backward-compatibility open. (Both HD-DVD and Blu Ray can play current generation DVDs, but not the rival format.)
Ultimately, the availability of a HD-DVD accessory probably won't hurt or help Microsoft. It will serve its purpose, though: Preventing Sony from being able to accurately say the PS3 is the only game machine with a high definition DVD drive. And as the battle between those two companies escalates this year, that's no small thing.
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Morris is Director of Content Development at CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.