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The Evolution of Physical Gaming Media Through the Years

Let's see gaming's evolution.

Floppy Disk

Ahh, the floppy disk. Part of the identity of the early computer this form of disk storage were ubiquitous back in the day. These days you may be hard-pressed to find any, let alone a drive to read them. This limited storage device, developed in the early 60s and finally becoming commercially available a decade later, were the pinnacle of storage at the time. Reaching their peak around the 80s and 90s, this form or storage was eventually adapted for the video game industry. One of the most iconic games which found itself on this humble storage device was the original DOOM. Proving the floppy disk as a viable storage for early PC gaming, many developers turned to this format to distribute their titles. The floppy disk provided a foundation to some of the most recognisable games in video game history; the list is extensive but here are some of the most noteworthy titles which began their lives on the universal floppy disk: Civilization, Command and Conquer, Duke Nukem, Might and Magic, Sim City, Tetris, The Oregon Trail, The Secret of Monkey Island, Wasteland, Wolfenstein 3D.

Datasette (Commodore 64)

During the 70’s and 80’s, the Commodore 64 personal computer rose in popularity due to the computer’s versatility. This humble PC can also be found listed in the Guinness book of records as it’s earned a reputation as the best selling PC in history. This revolutionary computer boasted superior processing capabilities, storage and graphical prowess which made it an ideal platform for the next stage in video game evolution. As the Commodore 64 reigned supreme during the 80’s, developers began craft innovative titles for the computer. At the time, video games still distributed on Floppy Discs but a new storage format reared its head to compete with the classic setup. This was the Cassette, however, when referring to the particular versions of the cassette used with the Commodore 64 the term Datasette was born. The Datasette allowed digital information to be stored and certain developers opted for this distribution method over the traditional Floppy Disc. However, the Datasette had its limitations and, although there were early adopters, this format never found a solid foothold in the commercial marketplace.


As home consoles began to take shape early adopters found themselves with plenty to choose from. Whether you supported Sega, Atari or any of the multitude of obscure consoles which were conceived during the 80’s, most these utilised the classic cartridge design. The dawn of the cartridge allowed for improved reading speeds and soon became a staple of the home console. At the hight of cartridge usage for the video game industry there were a multitude of designs, with no “one size fits all” approach. This often meant bespoke cartridges tailored for individual consoles and at the time there were one home console which quickly rose to the top, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Soon the rugged cartridge format had found a home and the NES bloomed in popularity. Trying to list all the titles introduced by this prevalent storage device would be foolish, purely due to colossal amount of video games distributed using this medium. The NES gained worldwide success and soon Sega stepped into the race as a major player around the late 80s with their Sega Genesis. As the years rolled on the cartridge continued to be used and home and mobile consoles, Nintendo’s Gameboy playing a major role in promoting mobile gaming, have both taken advantage of this storage device. With the Nintendo Switch on the horizon and aiming to use cartridges once again, it seems Nintendo’s love affair with the cartridge remains strong.


As the 70’s drew to a close a new and innovative form of data storage emerged; sporting a circular shape. The birth of the optical disk was heralded by the LaserDisc, quickly rising as a preferred media format due to its enhanced audio and video storage capabilities. With its reflective surface the LaserDisc marked a paradigm shift for the entertainment industry. This original concept marks the corner stone for CD, DVD and BluRay, which follow the design features of the LaserDisc. Although the LaserDisc may seem cumbersome by today’s standards, significantly larger heavier than today’s optical media, the LaserDics caught the attention of the video games industry almost immediately. Soon developers were using this forefather of optical media to craft detailed graphics for arcade style games. One of the best examples of the LaserDisc being used in gaming is the 1983 classic Dragon’s Lair.

Compact Disc (CD)

Introduced to the world in the early 80’s, the Compact Disc was born and viewed by many as the successor to the LaserDisc. Due to the success of the LaserDisc within the video game medium consoles quickly adopted the compact disc and began to take advantage of its enhanced storage. This increased storage capacity allowed for bigger and better games to be created for home consoles.  Although consoles began to adopt the new and improve form of storage there were some that retained the classic cartridge option, such as the Nintendo 64, a decision some may say cost the Nintendo 64 sales and additional 3rd party support. As the CD disk grew in popularity more consoles around this era adopted this new-fangled format, including the Sony PlayStation and Sega’s final attempt at developing a home console, the Dreamcast.


The years 2000 and 2001 saw todays video game giants release consoles almost simultaneously. Sony levied the success of the PlayStation and unveiled the PlayStation 2 in 2000. The following year Microsoft made their debut with the Xbox One alongside Nintendo’s GameCube, which marked an evolution for all three companies. All both Microsoft and Sony sought to take advantage of the latest iteration in optical media technology, the DVD. The primary advantage DVD’s provided developers was its increased storage capacity, which, as mentioned previously, help facilitate bigger and better games; furthermore, DVD also allowed for greater rotation speeds which meant faster data transfer rates. These features combined to create a superior storage option for video games. However, the Nintendo GameCube opted for a slightly different form of DVD as they chose to distribute their games on a miniDVD disc which tweaked this new form of storage.


Around the same time DVD was released, Nintendo opted to utilise the miniDVD instead. This smaller version of the DVD was designed to combat piracy, reduce costs and help Nintendo avoid licencing costs for using the DVD storage format. Although the device had its advantages, Nintendo’s use of the miniDVD meant certain multiplatform had to be distributed across multiple discs. This was primarily because the miniDVD sported a reduced capacity size. This little nuanced version of the DVD found its home on the Nintendo GameCube and was primarily used on this device.


Continuing the trend of tiny optical discs was the Universal Media Disc or, as it’s more commonly known, UMD. For a storage medium with the word “universal” in its name this format was quite bespoke. UMD was developed by Sony and primarily used on their handheld gaming device, the PSP. This miniature disc, held in a plastic case, had no other usage outside of the PSP thus it was unable to find the success it needed for longevity.


These days BluRay is the dominant form of physical game distribution and one which is widely used across both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. However, the first console to utilise the media was the PlayStation 3 back in 2003. While the Xbox360 was using HD DVD’s and Nintendo their bespoke style of DVD discs, Sony was aiming ahead of the curve and have already implemented BluRay into the PlayStation 3’s design. Retaining the same optical disc format originating from the compact disc, BluRay was designed to be exponentially superior o DVD. Providing significantly more storage, increased layers and faster read write speeds, BluRay was able to support high definition resolutions. Due to BluRay’s ability to support high definition gaming, the console generation was blessed with rich textures, perfectly suited owners of high definition televisions.

Streaming & Digital Downloads

As time progresses and technology continues to evolve only time will tell if physical media remains a viable form of distribution. With 4K technology emerging and broadband speeds increasing at an exponential rate only time will tell if a new form of physical storage media is required or if digital streaming will take over. These days digital downloads are prevalent and distribution digitally significantly cuts costs for the distributer as there is no physical storage requirement.

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