Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Why Do Games Take Up so Much Space?

Shamus Young | 14 Sep 2015 12:00
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Next we have three questions, all from reader Daniel:

First: Why are so many games that release on the PS4 and XboxOne so full of technical issues despite running on more powerful consoles?

There's always a technological shake-out period when we move to new consoles. (Lair is a good example of a game that came out during the technological shake-out of last generation.) New hardware means totally different bottlenecks for programmers to worry about. Maybe on the GameBox 500, the memory was super small, so developers targeting that console got really, really good at finding ways to save memory. Then the GameBox 1000 comes out and it's got lots of memory, but the CPU is just a little slower than what's needed to to support all the fancy new graphics. So now developers have to re-write their engines and master different techniques, sacrificing memory in order to save CPU cycles whenever they can. With each new generation this problem is a little worse, because the graphics engines are more complex.

On top of this, a new console might mean new tools. (Like a programming environment, or perhaps tools for artists to figure out.) It takes time for everyone to get good at using them. This last generation was a big jump. The processor in the PS4 is radically different from the PS3. I expect the technological problems will smooth out as the platforms mature. The late-period PS2 games looked a generation ahead of the early ones, despite running on the same exact hardware.

If I can dare a prediction: It's possible the problems developers are having hitting 60fps will get solved at some point. Late in the generation, it might be commonplace to see Xbox One and Playstation 4 games hit a stable 60.

On a console is there a difference in performance depending on whether the game is on a physical disk or digitally downloaded and why?

Assuming both are on the hard drive and don't use any sort of disk-checking or phone-home DRM, then I can't imagine any difference between the two.

However, if you're playing directly from a disk you're obviously going to risk slower loading times compared to playing from the hard drive.

What determines the size (in GB) of a game? Like Wind Waker HD is 8 GB while Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii is around 1.5 GB and Xenoblade Chronicles X is 21 GB. Splatoon is roughly the same size as Xenoblade Chronicles but doesn't have nearly the amount of content as Xenoblade. Meanwhile MGS 5 and Witcher 3 have roughly the same size of 25 GB yet have very different play times. What's up with that?

While it varies by genre, when you're talking current big-budget AAA spectacle-driven content munchers, a majority of your data is going to be texture maps. This is really pronounced on games that use Megatextures. (I explain megatextures in that video over there, if you're curious.) Wolfenstein: The Old Blood came out earlier this year. It has a PC install size of 36GB, and 31GB of that is textures. Everything else - models, video, game logic, and audio - fits into the other 5GB.

In terms of hard drive space, megatextures more than deserve their name. They eat massive amounts of storage space. But those games are outliers. To my knowledge, there are only four games that use the technology.

For most other games, the size can often come down to art style and priorities. In an open world game the art team can have one grass texture that they uses everywhere we see grass, and every fortress and castle will be made from the same brick. Or maybe the artists have a sense of style, tone, and mood, so they have one grass for the steppes, another for the grasslands, another for the swamps, etc. Or maybe they're really picky and each environment has a dozen different grass textures. This same idea will apply to dirt, stone, different kinds of wood, foliage, mud, pavement, and so on. One team might have a minimalist style and another might have a lavish collection of textures that nom up your hard drive space.

(Have a question for the column? Ask me!.)

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank.

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