The 8cm Solution

by David Trammell - March 7, 2001, 6:50 pm PST

Have you ever questioned why Nintendo chose to use mini optical disks instead of full sized DVDs? There are more reasons than you think.

Many people around the world are having a great time bashing Nintendo's choice of using 1.5 Gig optical discs, rather than a movie-capable DVD drive in its next generation system. Everyone wants to watch movies, and most can't see any good reason why Nintendo is using these little eight-centimeter discs. However, Nintendo is painfully aware of the needs of game developers and gamers. They learned a lesson from the problems inherent in the N64's design, and they have designed the GameCube to be the best gaming machine in all ways. Unfortunately, there are a lot of questions in the minds of gamers, even some of Nintendo's faithful. Fortunately, there are a number of good reasons why Nintendo went with this special format.

The first reason is piracy prevention. The current DVD and CD based systems are highly susceptible to software piracy. Many people own a CD burner, or they know someone who does. Napster certainly helped popularize the device. Although that's another story, it is an important consideration for us. There are no Napster-like programs to boost DVD-R sales yet, and judging by recent court decisions, there may never be. So this is great for Sony right? They use DVD. Well, it turns out that most PS2 games are actually on a single CD. It's not easy to fill a CD, and because Sony will likely charge more to burn DVD's, most developers will try to squeeze their games into a single CD. Enter Nintendo. The Gamecube will only play 8cm optical discs. They do not have to worry about the current explosion of CD-R. Problem solved right? Well, not entirely. It turns out that 8cm disks will fit in a regular DVD burner (unless Nintendo has made some intelligent modifications that I don't know about). Still, pirates will have to crack Nintendo's encryption scheme, and it's supposed to be quite a step up from normal measures. Finally, the format is technically not DVD (most likely to avoid licensing costs), and there is a chance that it's different enough that no normal DVD drives will recognize it. Nintendo's strong stance against pirating is a good reason for developers to work on the GameCube.

An interesting side effect of the 8cm disc is actually an increase in storage space for your average developer. You see, Sony and Nintendo both have similar charges for licensing a game (about $9 a game). The difference is, with Sony, your money gets you a CD or 0.65 gigs of space. According to IGN cube, Nintendo charges the same amount for licensing, but this would get you 1.5 gigs to make a game. Obviously, PS2 developers can upgrade to a DVD, but it will likely cost at least one dollar extra per unit unless a special deal is struck (additional PSX CDs were $1 per disc under normal agreements). One dollar a game doesn't sound like much until you sell a million games. Nintendo will certainly charge for additional discs as well, but most developers will use one disc, and thus, get a better deal for their cash on the Gamecube. Finally, if the space is really needed, multiple discs can always be used. There has been no official word on multiple layered discs yet, but a little bird whispered the number three to me... that is definitely no more than a rumor at the moment though.

Nintendo has reported that its 8cm drive will be able to read data at speeds comparable to cartridges. That is a little hard to believe, but it will certainly be much faster than normal DVD drives. I think Nintendo meant that loading times comparable to cartridges can be achieved, but it's up to the developers to do it. For example, the system has a lot of spare RAM that can be used for storing unneeded game data. When the data is needed it can be gotten from the RAM at lighting quick speeds. Shigeru Miyamoto intends to have his games load data at opportunistic times so that there is rarely a break in the gameplay for loading. The reason the drive is so quick is because of the short seek time. That is the amount of time that the laser spends moving from one point on the disc to another. Not only is the disc physically smaller, the drive will use CAV (constant angular velocity) so that the disc always spins at the same speed. Normal drives actually slow down as the laser moves outwards and speed up when it moves inwards. These drives can't read data until the new speed is achieved. Another benefit of the constant spin rate is that the outside of the disc is moving faster than the inside(3.1 MB a second on the outside and 2 MB on the inside). This means that Nintendo can have speed sensative data like textures and sound effects on the fast part and the rest (FMV, music, etc.) of the data on the slow part.

So what about DVD movies? Well, there is more to playing DVDs than the size of the disc. The ability to play DVDs must be licensed, (twenty bucks per console) and the standard DVD drive would cause you to lose all the benefits discussed above. There are other benefits as well. The small discs leave no doubt in anyone's mind that the reason for the NGC to exist is to play games. Nintendo has managed to manufacture its console so that it can launch at a very competitive price. The PS2, on the other hand, is expensive and will remain so for quite some time. The GameCube will be noticeably more powerful than the PlayStation 2, but it will cost much less. People will assume that the difference in cash is paying for Sony's DVD player. While this isn't entirely true, it may seem like a rip-off to some more casual gamers. I personally don't want a sub-par DVD player from Sony bundled with my console. It will wear the thing out faster and it's a waste of money if I want to buy a real DVD player. The GameCube will also benefit because it's not competing against movies. Developers don't know how people are dividing their time between movies and games on the PS2 (at least the Xbox will require a remote so that its developers will know how many consoles are used for gaming only).

I for one won't miss DVD functionality in my Gamecube. Between the PS2, Xbox, stand alone DVD players and PC DVD drives, I don't think anyone will have trouble getting a DVD player in their house. Why would we want to be forced to buy one with the GameCube as well? This should be especially true in October when the Gamecube is released. In my opinion, Nintendo has made a little understood, but undeniably correct decision.

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