With much love, we slide miniature discs into our PlayStation Portables and play games. With equal disdain, we wait during loading screens and sit through second-rate movies.
Our relationship with Universal Media Disc (UMD) is one characterized by equal amounts of love and hate, a roller coaster of affection irrevocably tied to the success of PSP. The strengths and weakness of the UMD format are a source of controversy amongst game developers, motion picture studios and consumers; yet, Sony Computer Entertainment faithfully stands by its man, foreseeing a future in which UMD is admired more than shamed.
PlayStation Portable senior marketing manager John Koller is quick to outline several benefits of the format. "UMD possesses many strengths, from size to form factor to portability," he says. The same can easily be said of the UMD's cartridge counterpart on Nintendo DS. However, ease of UMD manufacturing is seen as a winning benefit. "Duplication of UMDs is much easier, cheaper than cartridges," Koller adds. "We've really optimized time and cost by going with a disc-based format."
On the topic of UMD weaknesses, Koller is candid: "There's no question the biggest weakness is related to porting games from other platforms. Publishers are concerned about the size of UMD because they can't cram a DVD game on to it."
Award-winning developer and Castlevania series creator Koji Igarashi, whose experience spans numerous platforms, including upcoming PSP title Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, highlights what he sees as a key disadvantage of the format. "The slowness of the seeking speed of UMD is a weakness," he states, "The […] loading speed becomes a big problem for UMD."
Igarashi is at the forefront of efforts to work around the weakness, which will likely place Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles amongst a select group of games without significant loading times. He explains to Pocket Gamer, "To tell the truth, I was a little worried at first because I was told that the loading time was long when I started working on PSP. But thanks to programmers, we were able to achieve considerably fast loading times. We can overcome [loading times] by technique – it is the programmers' chance to show what he can do."
Igarashi's comments support the idea that creativity in working with the format is vital in producing quality titles. Two years after launch, however, many publishers continue to hurriedly port games with little regard for the specifics of the platform.
"UMD is a unique medium to create games," Koller points out, "and developers need to understand that when tackling the system."
Movies on the move
Sony Computer Entertainment has always positioned UMD as ideal for game development, but more than that, it's a format capable of a wide range of multimedia playback. Sales of UMD movies in the handheld's first year were particularly promising.
Unfortunately, consumer perception of UMD movies has waned as digitally distributed content waxes into popularity.
Despite reports that retailers are cutting back on UMD movie stock, Koller remains optimistic. "The future of movies on UMD is great," he states, asserting that demand for the format is growing. "We saw a 35 per cent growth year-on-year from 2005 to 2006, which clearly demonstrates a growing interest by consumers for UMD movies."
Price reductions on most UMD movies are likely a significant factor in this surge, as many retailers last year were eager to ditch the format on grounds of poor sales. Mass market retailer Target had confirmed by July 2006 that it was discontinuing UMD movies due to lacking sales. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, was also rumored to be cutting the format from shelves. Target and Wal-Mart, along with a number of other prominent retailers, ended up issuing an immediate slash in prices, boosting sell-through.
Since late summer 2006, UMD movies have seen mediocre, but consistent sales in North America and Europe. Sales in Japan, however, have been astronomical – in autumn of last year, UMD movies underwent a 1000 per cent jump in the region as a result of deep discounts by retailers.
Increases in sales are undoubtedly the result of price reductions, but also what Koller terms "a calibration by movie studios". Motion picture studios planning UMD movie releases are more attuned to the type of consumer purchasing UMD movies: young males under the age of 25. Warner Bros, Paramount, and even sister company Sony Pictures have tailored their UMD catalogues towards the demographic, with action, sci-fi and comedy releases.
UMD as a movie format faces a rocky road to the future, despite Koller's positive outlook. The rise of digital content for iPod and other devices are placing immense pressure on disc-based formats. Promises of a PlayStation Store front on the handheld could mean the introduction of downloadable movies; Koller wouldn't comment on that. The release of the PlayStation Portable Entertainment Pack certainly hints at such a possibility, enabling consumers to download feature-length films to a memory stick.
Even if – or more likely, when – Sony Computer Entertainment unleashes downloadable movies and other content onto PSP, it won't mean the end of UMD. "We'll never walk away from our base," says Koller. "Whether it's movies or game content, third parties have an incredible opportunity to utilize it."
It's clear that Sony is far from abandoning its relationship with UMD, one that will endure through any rumored redesign.
"The future of UMD is bright," Koller proclaims. Like any relationship, only time will tell.