Sony looks at digi distribution

It's all the rage these days.

Reports from development sources close to Sony Computer Entertainment are indicating that the firm is planning a major digital distribution service for game content, which could be a key element of PlayStation 3 - or even of a relaunched PS2.

Several senior developers have confirmed to that they have spoken informally with Sony about the question of digital distribution on consoles, although these discussions were described as being "purely about technology, not business models" by one source.

However, even the technology discussed could be very revealing regarding the Japanese giant's plans for the coming years - with one source from the development arm of a major third-party publisher claiming that Sony has been discussing the technical feasibility of providing PSone and PS2 titles over digital distribution with them.

This could indicate that Sony is hoping to provide a service for the PS3 similar to Nintendo's Revolution digital download system, which will allow users to access a back catalogue of Nintendo titles through the next-generation console.

In Sony's case the challenges may be significantly more difficult, since PlayStation titles were customarily several hundred megabytes in size, and PS2 titles spanned multiple gigabytes - compared to just a few megabytes or less for NES, SNES and N64 titles in the Nintendo back-catalogue.

However, as Internet connections speed up downloads of this size will be far more reasonable - already, several Xbox Live demos for the Xbox 360 are over 600Mb in size - and our sources indicated that Sony may also be investigating the possibility of remastering certain PS2 titles to allow them to stream later content over the network while the player is already playing early parts of the game.

The move would not be surprising, given that both other next-generation consoles will offer downloadable game content - Xbox Live Arcade and game demos in the case of Xbox 360, and the back catalogue download service on Revolution - which makes it highly unlikely that Sony will miss out on this opportunity.

The information from our development sources comes only days after Electronic Arts' European vice president of sales, Dr Jens Uwe Intat, confirmed to that the leading publisher is already in discussions with platform holders over digital distribution - telling us that "we as a total industry, software publishers and hardware manufacturers, are already sitting together and working on business models."

One of the key requirements of digital distribution on this scale, however, is a large storage system - such as a hard drive, a component with which Sony has had a patchy history. Although the PlayStation 2 hardware can support a hard drive, the peripheral was unsuccessful and was only ever used to any great degree by Square Enix' massively multiplayer title Final Fantasy XI. The PlayStation 3 hardware will also support a hard drive unit but is set to ship without one pre-installed in the basic configuration.

Sony is expected to announce new information about its plans for PlayStation 3 in Tokyo on Wednesday, ahead of a keynote address from the firm's worldwide studios boss Phil Harrison at the Game Developers' Conference in San Jose next week.

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