November 23, 2020

The Disc as Dongle

One possible future of digital distribution is already here – in the guise of an existing format.

The industrial design of the just-released Playstation 5 may be regressive, but it looks to the future in one critical way: Judging by the ungainly grafting-on of its disc drive, its original conception as a digital-only console is unmistakable.

For many, digital-only is a conflicting proposition. It curtails long-established freedoms of lending and resale, yet most would agree that it is also inevitably the future. But it doesn’t have to be the former. There is a solution – and it already exists.

The physical discs included with the retail versions of console games have served an increasingly marginal utility over the past console generation. Ever-larger day-one patches weigh in in the gigabytes. Triple-A games already require tens of gigabytes of data to be copied from the disc to the hard drive in order to manage load times, and the Playstation 5’s reliance on a super-fast SSD architecture only formalizes this.

This leaves the disc with precious little to actually do – it’s too slow to be played from, its data is often outdated by the time it’s installed, and as broadband speeds continue to inch upward, the read speed of even a modern Blu-ray drive is already slower than some fiber connections. Yet despite all this, the lowly disc still has one ace in the hole.

Even stripped of its value as a storage mechanism for game data, the disc serves a critical purpose: It is the physical manifestation of a license, an unencumbered and freely transferable token with which ownership of a game is immutably entangled. Future games could well ship with an essentially empty disc, relying on the network for everything else, yet the advantage of the disc-anchored license would remain undisputed. The disc allows one to, as memorably demonstrated in Sony’s 2013 response to Microsoft’s aborted digital-only Xbox play, simply hand that license to someone else.

All this then invites the question: Why does it have to be a disc? Why does a console need a noisy, mechanically complex, and expensive optical drive just to read a license? Professional software has long used USB peripherals, or dongles as they are semi-affectionately known, as the physical manifestation of licenses. The disc has become a dongle, so why not just use a dongle?

A few kilobytes and an encryption scheme are all that’s required to tie licenses to a physical device today. A tiny, inexpensive USB device could serve as the retail form factor for future games, ushering in an all-download future that retains nearly all the benefits of physical legacy formats. It could perhaps even, via firmware update, add “physical media” support to both the digital-only Playstation 5 and Xbox Series S.