It’s a squeeze play for shelf space in the interactive departments of most retail software outlets, with over 2,500 interactive titles competing for display.

The question is why, after compacting so many megabytes of information onto a compact disc, CD-ROM publishers insist on marketing the thin slivers in fat packages eating up the very shelf space they crave?

“This has been a horrible issue to deal with,” says Wim Stocks, VP and general manager at Navarre, one of the largest multimedia distributors in the business.” Unfortunately, it’s a convention that has grown up in the software business. We’ve been through it on the music side.”

It took a trade association – the Recording Industry Assn. of America – to lobby the six biggest companies in the music business on the packaging issue. Finally, Sony took the first step and led the way to a jewel box standard.

In the infant software business, however, there is no “Big Six” controlling the marketplace, only very independent and competitive heavyweights such as Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and Broderbund. And without their cooperation, none of the smaller companies will make a move.

“I’m not going to be the guy who goes first with the smaller package and the arrows in my back,” shrugged Bobby Kotick, CEO of L.A.-based Activision.

Part of the problem with software, say publishers, distributors, and retailers, is that for the hefty price – as much as $60 and $70 – consumer psychology expects some heft to the purchase.

Another problem is the nature of the software business itself.

“The box is the only way we have to sell the product,” says Shelley Day, president of Humongous Entertainment, the publishers of the children’s “Putt Putt” titles.

Unlike the music industry, where radio introduces the product to the audience and familiarizes them with artists’ work, software has no such advertising medium. There isn’t even the equivalent of a listening kiosk in the stores for people to try out the software.

“It’ll take a large company, like Microsoft,” says Day, to spearhead a reduced packaging movement, “along with retailers saying that’s what they want.”

Activision’s Kotick is certain that the packaging problem will be solved as “the natural evolution” of the medium progresses. One factor to spur it along is the fact that, unlike audio CDs, the CD-ROM contains its own credits and liner notes as part of the program.

Until then, however, trees will continue to fall for the sake of CD-ROMs.

“It’s pretty wasteful,” says Day, whose Humongous Entertainment is based in the heart of the lumber industry in Washington state. In her view, it’ll be at least two years before the industry does away with the big packaging practice, and, she says, “I really can’t wait.”

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