In 1989, the first Sierra game I ever played, Space Quest III, shipped on six 5.25-inch double-density, double-sided floppy disks. A hard drive was optional, though copying the game files to the HDD substantially improved performance. The total game install was between 3.5 and 4MB–but that was significant, when a computer from the same time period only had between 10 or 20MB of HDD space.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, and games of today commonly eat dozens of gigabytes per install, dwarfing the sizes that were common as recently as five years ago, at the end of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era. To some extent, this is to be expected. As consoles and PCs have become more powerful, they’ve added support for higher resolutions and more detailed graphics. These higher-quality detail levels require higher-quality assets, which means the game installation grows as a result. Increasing the size of a game world or adding additional content also increases total installation size. If a (sadly hypothetical) Skyrim II uses art assets that are four times larger on average than Skyrim’s, and is twice the geographical size, the final game is going to be far larger than its predecessor.
There are two crazy things about this image. First, that’s every single location in Space Quest III. Second, the game didn’t feel particularly short, despite fitting into the modern storage equivalent of a postage stamp.
But while it was normal to expect game installation sizes to jump from the PS3/Xbox 360 era to the PS4/Xbox One era, they’ve continued growing at a brisk clip. Forza 7 is now 100GB for a single title, as Digital Trends reports. When Titanfall shipped several years ago, that game was nearly 50GB. According to Forza’s developers, the game is actually quite well-compressed by default, which makes that 100GB installation size even more of an eye-popper.
“All of our heavy assets, including image and geometry data, as well as all audio and video assets, are compressed with the leading compression technologies in the industry, and many are compressed with multiple techniques to minimize their size on disc, all the while balancing size and overall quality,” Turn10 told Digital Trends.
There are a variety of causes behind this problem, as the report points out, including developers not dedicating resources to making certain that the game files are properly compressed, games shipping with the audio for every single language included, games developers failing to consider some people don’t have fiber (or taking bandwidth caps into consideration), and games that ship with uncompressed audio resources because low-end machines can’t decompress the audio on the fly. There are ways to deal with all of these concerns, and a game could even offer the option to uncompress its audio streams for lower-end hardware with plenty of HDD space, as opposed to just keeping the files in that state by default.
But there’s a cause Digital Trends doesn’t mention that may deserve consideration of its own: The death of disc-based media. So long as games shipped on physical media, the installation size of any given title was limited to the maximum capacity of its storage. While companies have shipped multi-disc games in the past, most prefer to avoid the additional cost of including more than one disc, and more and more games are shifting towards a digital-only distribution model. Titanfall 2 on PC never included a disc at all, and Forza 7 only includes a physical disc if you buy the Ultimate version of the game. Moreover, the “Play Anywhere” option that lets you share the game between a PC and an Xbox is only available if you buy the game digitally; the disc-based version lacks that feature.
One way games have gotten around the physical installation size limit is by requiring substantial updates or downloads after the disc-based installer has begun, but this isn’t a popular option. Most people don’t like paying for physical media only to be forced to download a few dozen GB of data as part of the process. Furthermore, this solution can still leave customers with bandwidth caps unable to use the media they may have specifically purchased to avoid the bandwidth cap issue. Faster connections can blunt the impact of larger game installation times. But they do nothing for capped customers, and the time it takes to download the installation files is only part of the installation time.
As physical media is phased out of gaming, I suspect we’ll see game installation sizes grow, not shrink. Without the need to cram the entire title on a single physical disc, developers will have less reason than ever to be particularly concerned about how big their titles are. The fact that we’re already seeing 100GB installs in the current cycle suggests they’ll continue to grow over the next few years.
The FCC has made clear it will not continue Tom Wheeler’s attempts to push the broadband industry into rolling faster speeds out across the United States. Under Wheeler, an Obama appointee, the FCC defined broadband as a 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up connection. Wheeler’s successor, Ajit Pai, has proposed slashing these rates to 10Mbps down and 1Mbps up. Hopefully game developers will start paying a little more attention to their own file sizes, if we see broadband definitions start rolling back to qualify slower speeds in the next few years. Between the factors DT identifies and the slow phase-out of physical media, gamers on slower broadband connections will feel increasingly pinched as the years go by.