Is the Xbox 360's hard drive really a valuable extension of the system, vital to your experience, or is it more like the PS2's hard drive, which was expensive and virtually ignored by every game besides Final Fantasy? Should you buy a hard drive with your Xbox 360?
The Internet has been abuzz lately with discussion on this very topic. Comments by Bethesda
and Epic Games
have been sighted as evidence both for and against the reasons that every gamer is going to want the 20 gigabyte hard drive of Microsoft's platinum system. To help decide the issue as best we can before it actually launches, we've sat down to discus the pros and cons of the Xbox 360 hard drive. Should you put your money into it? That's what we're trying to decide. Storage Space:
The original Xbox shipped with a standard 8 to 10 gigabyte hard drive, and it was used by the system for such things as caching, which substantially speeds up load times, and the storage of saves and downloadable content. The same reasons seem to apply to the Xbox 360 hard drive as well. But let's look at this a little more carefully – how many features will you use, and what should you care about?Live Downloads:
When we talk about Xbox Live downloads, we're talking about game additions, like additional levels for Ghost Recon, or additional tracks for racing titles. In a recent interview with TeamXbox
, Scott Henson, Director of the Xbox Advanced Technology Group, said they'd attempted to make the difference between the hard drive vs. a memory card "transparent to our developers so they did not have to think about where things were being stored." What's more, he goes on to list game saves, stats, and maps as examples of items that could be saved to the Xbox 360 hard drive. Game Saves, Stats, and Maps:
Of those three, games saves and stats, things of that sort, are less legitimate reasons to drop money for the hard drive. That type of data is small, and for the most part can be stored on the 64-megabyte memory card that's avaliable for the system. By the time you need a second one, third party memory cards will be on the market and fairly cheap. At launch, a memory card will do the trick.
Maps and game additions, however, are another story. Let's use this generation of Xbox Live for comparison. Ubisoft's Rainbow Six 3 is a good example of a game that's been well supported with Xbox Live downloads. Once you've bought the game, you can look forward to a ready supply of additional maps that you can download off Live at the click of a button. This is a substantial increase in game value.
Rainbow Six 3 maps range in size from about 3 to 11 megabytes, depending on their complexity. On a 64-megabyte memory card, you could expect to fit between 10 and 20 maps if you used it for nothing but storing RS3 content. On the 20 GB hard drive, that number runs into the thousands, with plenty of leftover data for game saves and stat tracking. In bullet points:
- A Rainbow Six 3 map ranges in size from 3 to 11 megabytes.
- You could store between 10 and 20 of them on the 64-megabyte card available for the Xbox 360, but you could store thousands of them on the 20 GB hard drive.
- A memory card cost $40.
- A hard drive costs $100.
- That's only a $60 dollar difference for a great deal more space.
- You will eventually have to buy more memory cards.
Even assuming that the size of future downloadable content doesn't grow, a 64-megabyte memory card isn't going to do the trick for multiple games. Also, you have to keep in mind that Xbox Live will get all sorts of extra goodies in the future. In his interview, Scott Henson brought up the, "ability to download and watch game trailers, game demos, and... a whole lot of other things you can store like your profile, achievements, and themes." Short of a 1 GB memory card, pretty much any of these will be outside the reach of a system without a hard drive. Other Xbox Live features:
If you're not concerned about Xbox Live downloads and only want to play online against your friends, you shouldn't need to worry much. Again quoting Mr. Henson, "...both [Xbox 360 systems] have equal capabilities on the Xbox Live gaming service..." This includes stat tracking, friend lists, gamer tags, and other such goodies. Caching and Load Times:
One of the significant factors of the original Xbox hard drive was its ability to cache data for games to reduce load times. Having the hard drive allowed for games that had a farther draw distance (how far you can see before the details in the environment begin to disappear), larger seamless maps, and generally shorter load times between levels. Is this a reason to drop money on a hard drive over a memory card?
This is a question that's been driving discussion on the Internet these last few days. When asked how the lack of a hard drive would affect Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda replied that the game would run on both systems, and that they were not sure how much difference the hard drive would make, at this point. Mark Rein of Epic Games said, "We've designed the streaming system in Unreal Engine 3 with the expectation that we wouldn't have a hard drive at our disposal..."
Microsoft has also insisted that every game on the Xbox 360, besides MMOG, be able to run with or without a hard drive.
Developers are building games on the assumption that they will not be using the hard drive, and then adding additional features if it happens to be available. Microsoft, for its part, has doubled the speed of the DVD drive (from the 5x of the original Xbox to 12x) to help reduce load times. When it boils down to it, we really don't have a lot of evidence to suggest that playing a game with a hard drive will be substantially different than playing a game without it. When asked, most developers seem to say some variation of, "We knew we didn't have a hard drive to work with. Don't worry about it." None of them have come out and said, "You really, really need that hard drive, because it's going to let you do this, and this, and this right here. This is really cool."
In Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, for example, are maps going to be any smaller or less seamless on the core system than the system with the hard drive? We've posed that question to Ubisoft, and until we get an answer, the jury is still out.
Based on the information we have, it's too early to say whether or not the difference in how games play will be worth the purchase of the hard drive. Judging from developer response so far, I'd guess that the difference will be minimal, and that the hard drive is relatively unimportant for gamers not interested in downloadable content. Backwards Compatibility:
The original Xbox had a hard drive. Therefore, the suggestion is that you will need the hard drive in the Xbox 360 in order to have backwards compatibility, rather important if you don't already have an Xbox sitting around. This is partially true. Many have speculated that companies will begin inserting emulator information into their Xbox titles to make them compatible with an Xbox 360 with or without the hard drive. This seems like it should be possible, since the Xbox 360's 512 megabytes of RAM should be more than capable of handling the caching needs of a less demanding Xbox title.
Still, Microsoft has confirmed that you'll need an Xbox 360 hard drive to play most Xbox games. If you're not like me and don't have 4 Xboxes in your house, it is probably worth your money to have a hard drive. Microsoft has agreed to support the original Xbox until 2007, which means there's still quite a few titles slated to reach the Xbox before the system goes out of style, and you'll want to be able to play them. Even if you don't care about Xbox Live, this is the most provocative reason to pick up a hard drive. If you already have an Xbox - and if you're considering preordering a 360, I'd bet you do - then I wouldn't let this be the reason to drop $100 dollars on a 20 GB hard drive. Conclusion:
I've seen discussions on the Internet suggest that the hardcore should buy the hard drive, and the casual gamer can let it pass. I don't agree with this. The defining factor at this point does not seem to be if you're a hardcore or a casual gamer, but whether or not you play online and care about downloadable content.
Personally, I'm going to be buying a system with a hard drive – I play online, and expect to fill a 64-megabyte memory card with saves fairly quickly.
But I've been tempted to pass on that hard drive at launch. If it weren't for Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six, I'd almost never download anything from Xbox Live, and the possibility of game trailers just doesn't make me all that happy. So I might wait.
Of the primary editors here at GamesFirst, I'm the only one that's thinking about doing it this way. The others all plan to have that 20 GB hard drive tucked safely inside their new toy right when they first turn it on. When the day comes that we're comparing Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter on one system vs. the other, we'll know if I've made a good decision. I might be laughed back to the store as I go to get my extra hard drive. Or, I could find myself playing one or two extra games with the cash saved on an underutilized system feature. Time will tell.