Speculating on the next Gameboy
As I was laying down to sleep, I started to think about the next generation Gameboy (GBX, Gameboy Next). Honestly, I don’t remember the train of thought that lead me to thinking about it, but I was sooo engrossed, that I had to get out of bed to jot down ideas and what not.
The first thing that came to mind is what type of media would Nintendo choose to use? I think that any sort of optical or magnetic disk type media would be way too inefficient from a power and loading time perspective. Clearly, Nintendo has always placed a big emphasis on quick load times, which are essential for portable gaming systems. In addition, Gameboys have a rich tradition of looong battery life. Disk based media require spinup time, which negatively affect load times. So the only thing that comes to my mind is flash media (or small format hard drives, if they’re cheap enough and sufficiently durable). It will likely be a proprietary format (for reasons that will be discussed below).
But to distribute flash media with each game is inefficient and costly (as was always the main issue with cartridge based systems aside from the size limitation). We have already been told by Nintendo that the Revolution will offer games for download. It would seem like this would also be the obvious choice for the GBX, with one radical difference: the games will be download only.
Yes, download only. This may sound bad for stores that sell games, but consider the facts: 1) stores will have an advantage in that they can distribute game related materials (manuals, freebies, etc.), 2) not everyone will have access to an internet connection, so stores will still need to have download kiosks, 3) stores will allow users to validate copies of existing software titles so that users can download. That last point is of particular interest as it means that the GBX will have backwards compatability by allowing users to download copies of their old games. We have a precedence for this as Revolution will allow users to download old NES and SNES games (and who knows what else, maybe even Sega Genesis games?!). On point 1, all manuals will be made available online in PDF format for download. On point 2, an internet connection will not be required to play the game, only to download the game.
All downloaded games are portable across units, but not across media. What this means is that you can download a game to a particular media and you can then use that media in another unit to play the game, but you cannot copy the media.
Flash memory is relativley cheap nowadays, with retail prices for 1GB of memory ranging from $40-50. For comparisons sake, the Gamecube disks are 1.5GB in capacity. Keeping in mind that this is a portable system meant to be played on a small screen and the fact that flash memory prices will drop significantly in the next 1.5 to 2 years (the timeline for the GBX), we can postulate that a 2-4GB flash unit at $40-50 could hold a good number of games considering that the current DS memory cards are only supported up to 128MB. Of course, the games themselves will be cheaper as the overhead of distributing the games is significantly reduced. The cost of printing the games is completely eliminated.
The advantages of using flash media and downloads is easily apparent in the cost savings for Nintendo and the convenience for the user. Using solid state memory allows for significant power savings and reduced loading times compared to magnetic and optical media. For game saves, the GBX can either reserve game save space on the download media (for example, if the game is 120MB, 10MB may be reserved for the game saves for a total footprint of 130MB) or perhaps use a seperate, more conventional (non-proprietary) media, for game saves.
So why is a proprietary media required for the downloaded games? The reason is that it must support certain measures to ensure that games are not duplicated (or at least not easily duplicated) and/or pirated. More specifically, it must contain a write only section that cannot be altered. How does this all work out? I’m glad you asked 🙂
- Each media will have a unique identifier (UIDMedia)
- Each media will have a private key (KV,Media) and a public key (KU,Media)
- Each GBX unit will have a global public key (KU,Global)
- Nintendo servers will have a master database that contains the unique ID (UIDMedia) for every media manufactured along with the public key for the media (KU,Media)
- Nintendo servers will also have a private key (KV,Global)
Certainly, there will be some sort of handshake procedure and what not to setup the connection for browsing game catalogs and initiating the download to ensure that only registered hardware (registered when manufactured) can connect to the servers, but I’m only going to cover how a theoretical download scenario could work after the handshake.
(I aplogize for the unconventional notation, as I’m too lazy to go in and format the HTML properly, so just follow along. Also bear in mind that this is a very high level overview.)
- <Unit> M0 = Encrypt(KU,Global(UIDMedia)). The first step is to create a message by encrypting the unique ID of the media using the public key of the Nintendo servers. This ensures that only Nintendo servers, which have the private key, can decrypt the message and map the unique ID of the media to the public key of the media. The message is sent to a Nintendo server.
- <Server> UIDMedia = Decrypt(KV,Global(M0)). The server decrypts the message from the unit using the server’s private key. This results in the unique ID of the media. The Nintendo servers contain a key map of media unique ID to media public key.
- <Server> M1 = Encrypt(KU,Media(KShared)). Using the public key of the media, a shared key is encrypted to create one part of a message.
- <Server> M2 = Encrypt(KShared(FileGame)). The game binaries are then encrypted using the shared key.
- <Server> MF = M1 + M2. A final message is created by encapsulating the encrypted shared key and the encrypted game file. This composite message is then returned to the GBX unit.
- <Unit> KShared = Decrypt(KV,Media(M1)). The GBX unit obtains the shared key by decrypting the first part of the return message using the private key of the media (remember, it was encrypted using the public key of the media which is stored at the server). The shared key is never stored in an unencrypted form. Each time a player loads a game, the shared key is decrypted again. Only the encrypted form of the shared key is stored (perhaps the unique ID of the media is also stored in the message as an added measure). Because the shared key is encrypted with the public key of the media, only the private key of the media, contained in a read only region of the media, can be used to obtain the shared key.
- <Unit> FileGame = Decrypt(KShared(M2)). The game file is read using the shared key. Decryption is done in real time using hardware level decryption for performance reasons.
Essentially, this would be a form of DRM where the rights are associated with the media, not with the unit.
Bill Gates was straight on in commenting that the HD-DVD vs Blu-ray format war is insignificant due to the fact that this will be the last significant physical media (from a distribution perspective) for quite a while (at least when it comes to consumer electronics; holographic storage will eventually become the standard in ultra high capacity data storage). Nintendo, I think, will be the first gaming company to move away from distributing physical media altogether by switching to a download only type of service for its next gen portable console.
Other random thoughts on the console are:
- The DS screen resolution is currently 256×192 (for each screen). PSP is 480×272. I expect that, with the improvements in LCD and processor technology in the next two years, the GBX will have a resolution higher than the PSP (although we all know that Nintendo has a habit of undervaluing graphics capabilities).
- It will have a 6 button design similar to the DS. The current GBA has a 4 button design (A,B,L,R). I picture a setup more like the GCN’s, however, in that it will be three smaller buttons surrounding one large action button.
- The unit will have a built in gyroscope. This ties into the Revolution and some of the experimental games on the GBA which have built in motion sensors (WarioWare Twisted!). Racing games, flight sims, etc. will be totally sick on this machine. In addition, it may also connect to the Revolution as a wireless controller.
- Following in the vein of the SP and the Micro, it will be slick. It will be sexy. I picture it somewhat like an iPod Nano in terms of finish (except it’ll be more resistent to scratches).
- It will have built in wireless capabilities. We see that Nintendo is finally coming around to all of this ‘Net gaming and really embracing it (Mario Kart DS).
- To enforce a kid-safe environment, as each unit will have a unique ID, Nintendo can create an architecture whereby each conversation and each exchange of text is logged and scanned in an asynchronous fashion. Other users in a conversation may also choose to explicitly tag a conversation as breaching the terms of service. Essentially, it would require a massive grid of computers to scrub recorded voice and text data for abuse. In turn, Nintendo can punish those users by disabling voice and text capabilities (on the Nintendo network) for an increasing period of time with each infraction.
- There is a very distinct possibility that we will be seeing an emergence of large capacity, small format hard drives in the next year. This is related to the recent developments in storage design. Specifically, perpendicular storage technology, which promises to increase disk density significantly. Anywhere I’ve used “flash memory”, it may very well be replaced with a micro harddrive boasting 20-40GB.
- I think it’ll look like the OQO ultraportable in terms of layout (the screen slides up to reveal the input buttons), except not as wide. This would be inline with the design of the Gameboy Advance SP “clamshell” and would be great for viewing media when not gaming. Which leads me to…
- The GBX, contrary to Nintendo’s typical stance on building pure gaming machines, will be a multimedia platform as well. With the emergence of cheap, large capacity storage and the competition (Sony), it will be hard for Nintendo to ignore this functionality.
- And finally, this being Nintendo, we know that there is going to be some sort of innovation that hasn’t been done before on a handheld gaming system. I predict that this will be stereoscopic 3D. Yes, you read that correctly. Sharp has already developed an LCD for cellphones which has this technology. What’s great is that the effect can be turned off in case it causes headaches and what not for certain users.
Okay, that’s enough babbling and speculation from me. Time to sleep damnit! I dunno, I’ve somehow managed to hype myself up over my totally fabricated speculation 😀
But mark my words, I think what I’ve outlined here will come to be in the form of the next generation “Gameboy”.