Why PC game down­loads are so large

Your hard drives and data caps are beg­ging for mercy. There could be an an­swer, writes Hay­den Ding­man

PC Advisor - - CONTENTS -

It’s al­ways fun look­ing back at old PC ads, right? Back when 48KB of RAM was a huge deal, or when a 450MHz pro­ces­sor was the norm, or when 10MB of stor­age space was more than any­one ex­pected to fill in a life­time. Nowa­days, we have mul­ti­ple ter­abytes of stor­age ca­pac­ity, and it just keeps fill­ing up. It’s all video games.

One of 2016’s large-scale PC gam­ing trends – em­pha­sis on large – was the rapid in­fla­tion of down­load sizes and drive foot­prints. It’s be­com­ing a prob­lem, and one that’s fast putting PC gam­ing out of reach for some peo­ple.

Let’s dig into why be­fore ex­am­in­ing some po­ten­tial so­lu­tions.

Break­ing the 50GB bar­rier

We love our all-digital fu­ture. We re­ally do. Mov­ing to Steam and away from tra­di­tional re­tail chan­nels has en­abled a much more di­verse games in­dus­try – re­leases as small and med­i­ta­tive as Sorcery! or as gun-happy as the Doom re­boot. It’s al­lowed for the re­vival of long-dead gen­res such as the iso­met­ric CRPG, leav­ing us with Waste­land 2 and Divinity: Orig­i­nal Sin and Pil­lars of Eter­nity. It’s given us back the B-games, the mid­dle of the mar­ket we thought died with THQ – games such as Shadow War­rior 2 and Ob­duc­tion, too big to feel ‘in­die’ in the tra­di­tional sense but still com­par­a­tively small when put up against games from Ubisoft and EA.

And if we con­trast the size of our Steam li­brary with our not-so-huge flat, we’re pretty grate­ful that our games don’t take up phys­i­cal space nowa­days. We would be drown­ing in jewel cases.

Last year gave way to some truly mas­sive re­leases, though – and again, we’re talk­ing mas­sive in terms of hard drive foot­print, not mar­ket­ing pounds or shelf pres­ence or what­ever. The largest we’ve seen: the dou­ble-packed Call of Duty: In­fi­nite War­fare and Mod­ern War­fare Re­mas­tered.

Want to take a guess at how much space the pair re­quires? Brace your­self and brace your hard drive, be­cause it’s 120GB. Yes, over 100GB of space to in­stall the pair, with In­fi­nite War­fare tak­ing up 75GB of that all by it­self. Just to break that down into more con­crete terms: if the PC ver­sion of In­fi­nite War­fare were re­leased dur­ing the Xbox 360 era, it would’ve re­quired ap­prox­i­mately 10 DVDs to hold all that data. Even with Blu-ray, you’d need two dual-layer discs for In­fi­nite War­fare alone.

There’s a rea­son games take up this much space, and we have only our­selves to blame for de­mand­ing ever-in­creas­ing fi­delity. High-res­o­lu­tion tex­tures and un­com­pressed au­dio are stor­age hogs.

But it still stings a bit, when a few years ago the big­gest games topped out at around 30GB – and even that was a rar­ity. When Ti­tan­fall hit 50GB back in 2014, it lit­er­ally made head­lines. Res­pawn had to come out and ex­plain why it was that large. (All that un­com­pressed au­dio.) Th­ese days it’s com­mon­place and also baf­fling.

Solid-state drives are get­ting cheaper, but that space still comes at a pre­mium. Most peo­ple we know are run­ning – at most – a 500GB SSD. Fac­tor in your op­er­at­ing sys­tem in­stall and a few pro­grams and you’ve only got enough room for four or five of th­ese mas­sive games.

More im­por­tant, and more press­ing, is the fact that it’s sim­ply not fea­si­ble for many peo­ple to down­load 50GB of data a cou­ple times a month. We’re blessed with an ex­cel­lent in­ter­net con­nec­tion here in Lon­don, but you may not be so for­tu­nate if you live in ru­ral parts of the coun­try. A 50GB-plus game in­stall could tie up your band­width all day, or maybe mul­ti­ple days.

Even if you only in­stall a sin­gle game each month, you’re talk­ing maybe 60- to 70GB for the game it­self, then another few gi­ga­bytes for those day one patches and prob­a­bly some mul­ti­player matches. There’s nearly a tenth of your monthly 1TB us­age, gone.

But why?

What irks us is that for many peo­ple, th­ese su­per­sized in­stalls are un­nec­es­sary. Sure, there are cases where per­for­mance might be bet­ter with un­com­pressed au­dio or tex­tures (that was Ti­tan­fall’s ar­gu­ment), but by and large it’s for en­thu­si­asts with high-end hard­ware. If you’re run­ning a game on a sin­gle GeForce GTX 1060, do you re­ally need as­sets de­signed for 4K? Prob­a­bly not. If you’re play­ing in English, do you need to in­stall un­com­pressed au­dio for a dozen other languages? Nein. And if you only ever plan to play sin­gle player, do you need all of the mul­ti­player stuff, too? Though it’s largely com­pleted on the PC, the weird tran­si­tion pe­riod be­tween phys­i­cal and digital media has left us with some trou­ble­some bag­gage – namely, that we still pack­age games as if they were be­ing pressed to disc, and ev­ery­thing needs to be in­cluded in the box.

A bet­ter model is read­ily ap­par­ent. Soft­ware al­ready uses it, and has for years. When you go to in­stall Mi­crosoft’s Vis­ual Studio, for in­stance, you’re given a long list of files you may or may not need. Mark the ones you want, ig­nore the rest, and save your­self some drive space.

Oh, we’re just start­ing to see this mo­du­lar ap­proach taken in video games. Shadow of Mor­dor, for in­stance, al­lowed play­ers to in­stall the over­sized ‘HD Con­tent’ pack if they had enough VRAM to make higher-res­o­lu­tion tex­tures vi­able. Fall­out 4 is do­ing the same, with its re­cently an­nounced 58GB high-res­o­lu­tion tex­ture pack be­ing of­fer as an op­tional add-on.

Call of Duty – of all things – has de­cou­pled its sin­gle- and mul­ti­player por­tions ever since Mod­ern War­fare II. If you own any of the games in Steam you’ll no­tice, for ex­am­ple, sep­a­rate en­tries for Call of Duty: Black Ops II; Call of Duty: Black Ops II – Mul­ti­player; and Call of Duty: Black Ops II – Zom­bies.

That method was un­wieldy and left this writer’s Steam li­brary a mess, but it’s even cleaner now. Call of Duty: Black Ops III and In­fi­nite War­fare listed their sin­gle- and mul­ti­player mod­ules as DLC, so you can unin­stall it the same as any other add-on.

We’re not say­ing th­ese are the only – or even the best – so­lu­tions. But we of­fer them up to hope­fully get us talk­ing about this is­sue be­fore it gets worse.

The games in­dus­try needs to ease the bur­den of th­ese gar­gan­tuan in­stal­la­tions. Let the peo­ple who want (and can han­dle) 80GB down­loads con­tinue as nor­mal, but the flex­i­bil­ity of the PC as a plat­form should mean there’s a way for peo­ple who don’t need the whole pack­age to pick and choose, be it by ac­cept­ing down­graded as­sets or by in­stalling only one mode at a time, or what­ever else de­vel­op­ers can think up.

Call of Duty: In­fi­nite War­fare, 75GB so you can be bored by this guy for six hours

The orig­i­nal Ti­tan­fall made head­lines in 2014 for its 50GB in­stall

Doom

Shad­ows of Mor­dor: HD Con­tent Steam

Pretty stan­dard, right? So why not in games?

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