Ever since Microsoft made the announcement that the Xbox 360 would ship in two different configurations, there's been much speculation on what effect this decision would have on developers'use of the hard drive; after all, if a certain percentage of the 360 user base does not have a hard drive, don't all games for the console need to be made with the notion that there is no HDD present?
Taking advantage of the HDD...
Bethesda's Todd Howard, the executive producer on the 360 RPG Oblivion, recently told Game Informer magazine "...Oblivion will still work on every 360. That being said, Oblivion takes full advantage of the hard drive and uses it extensively, so we'd certainly recommend that everyone gets one."
But just what does "extensively" mean? What, besides improved load times, will make the game experience better enough to warrant the extra $100 expenditure? In speaking to website GamesFirst.com, Peter Hines, V.P. of Marketing and Public Relations at Bethesda added to Howard's comments on what the HDD would mean for gamers.
"We definitely plan to take full advantage of the hard drive for Oblivion and you will see the results in the game's performance, faster load times, etc... How much of a difference? We don't know yet," admitted Hines.
He continued, "Does the difference in performance justify buying a hard drive? Well if you were only doing it for Oblivion, it might not be worth $100 just for one game. But, considering that there will certainly be other games that will take advantage of the hard drive as well, not to mention other functionality the hard drive allows for, I don't think there's any question in our minds that the hard drive is well worth it. That's the version we plan to buy."
If you believe Microsoft's Corporate V.P. and Chief XNA Architect J Allard, then the 360 hard drive will be used for much more than just load times with next-gen games. "Speeding up load times is one of the many things a hard drive can be used for but really it is up to the imagination of the developer," Allard explained during a public online chat. "We have been talking with game developers for a while now to make sure that games will load efficiently without a hard drive present."
...Or developing for lowest common denominator
Although Allard may say that it's up to the imagination of the developer, the fact that Hines would not mention any specific enhancement other than faster load times does make one a bit concerned that the 360 HDD really won't be used for much more than a cache for those gamers willing to shell out the extra money -- a feature the original Xbox offered as standard.
It's worth mentioning, though, that only a small percentage of games on the Xbox took advantage of the hard drive caching. Nevertheless, since Microsoft is selling "core" packages without the HDD, thereby splitting the market, it becomes far less likely that developers will go out of their way to optimize games for those who do have the drive. If that turns out to be the case, then the HDD in the 360 will ultimately serve as a really big memory card that also enables increased backwards compatibility, rather than a device to enhance the gameplay experience.