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Why do some games take up so much storage space? We asked developers

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Modern game systems sport huge hard drives, but they don’t have unlimited capacities – and with the size of many modern games, it can become a real problem. That’s doubly true for those who live under ISP download limits, as AAA titles can take up huge portions of your monthly bandwidth allowance.

Although the recent news of a 170 gigabyte install size for the upcoming PC port of Final Fantasy XV turned out to be just rumor, few gamers were incredulous about it. Games that need over 100 gigabytes are now reality, and install sizes are going up with alarming speed.

Why is that? Most gamers may have assumptions about the answer — but we wanted to get the real story straight from the developer’s mouth.

Video games are art, man

Most of the game that’s filling up your hard drive is art. Turn10, developer of the upcoming Forza Motorsport 7 — which weighs in at just shy of 100GB — claims that models, lighting, and textures all play a big part in leading its mammoth storage footprint.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“For Forza, the largest contributors to install size are the improved quality and quantity of the experience provided in the game,” said a Turn10 representative in a statement to DigitalTrends. “Improved materials, textures, and lighting quality at 60 frames per second.”

With more than 700 cars in the game, it’s not hard to see how this could become an issue. No two cars are alike. Yet it’s not just visual art that consumes space. Audio also gobbles storage, and sometimes more so. In some cases, that’s because it’s uncompressed.

“You have to understand what is in those files that are taking up all that space,” Zach Barth of indie developer Zachtronics told Digital Trends. “Titanfall for PC required 48 GB [to install], but 35 GB of that was just the game’s audio files.”

“[Respawn] made the choice to store them on disk uncompressed because low-end computers couldn’t decompress that audio on the fly without killing the framerate,” Barth explained. “This wasn’t a problem [on consoles] because they tend to have dedicated hardware for decompressing audio.”

He also cited in-game cinematics as one of the worst offenders for filling up your hard drive, though he said that with the kind of games Zachtronics puts out, game install size is not something he’s concerned with. “Our games are small because their files are small” he said, pointing to recent releases like Schnzhen I/O.

“Our games are small because their files are small.”

Cliff Harris of Positech Games feels much the same way about the titles he puts out. His games are tiny compared to the AAA monsters. Texture size plays a big part in that, as Positech Games doesn’t rely on cutting-edge graphics for appeal.

“Textures can get out of hand really quickly,” he told Digital Trends. “1,280 x 1,280 textures are around 3.6MB, while 2,560 x 2,560 becomes 14.7MB. A 4K texture could be as much as 64MB. That isn’t compressed for downloading, though.”

Compression is something that Harris has a strong belief in, suggesting it didn’t happen anywhere near enough in larger studios. He was quite scathing of the developmental practices that can lead to the larger footprints of AAA games. Having spent time working at such developers, he’s had a close-up view of the inefficiencies present in the gaming industry’s biggest developers.

“In a big studio, a team of 100, maybe even 300 people work on the game — but one person puts the installer together,” he said. “Literally 99 percent of the people developing content don’t even know how big it is, let alone care. Also, the final file size will only really become apparent towards the end of development, and when there is crunch, everyone is firefighting, and nobody has time to worry about it.”

When big games meet limited bandwidth

While the lack of oversight is a major contributor to game install sizes, Harris suggests the current situation of monster games is partly a generational and locational problem. While older developers have a pedigree of working on systems which had to be constrained by the likes of compact physical media, younger developers don’t understand those limitations.

“Even consoles have huge hard drives now,” he pointed out. “They have forgotten how to develop smaller assets.”

There’s also a disconnect between developers and their audience. “Games are developed in big cities, by young people in tech-hubs where the studio has fiber, everyone has fiber, and the idea of download size mattering is laughable,” Harris said. “It’s not a concern they can identify with in any way. Plus, there are still some idiots who mock a game for being a small download size. Yes, that actually happens.”

This, he claims, leads to complacency and wastefulness, something that just wasn’t possible when developers were worried about cramming an entire game into a few megabytes of space on a cartridge or disc.

“If you sell on three stores on three different operating system versions, one gigabyte becomes nine.”

“That means leaving sound as Wav files instead of (way smaller) OGG files, using HD textures even for tiny elements that are never seen at full size…” lamented Harris. “[They also] leave mip-maps on when they won’t be used, always use 32-bit color when some textures are greyscale, and even ship audio for 10 different languages to everyone, regardless of region.”

“There is just not that automatic background process that occurred in the heads of older developers like me,” he said. “It’s a lost art.”

Living outside of one of the world’s major tech hubs can make living with large install sizes much more difficult. Harris, who lives well away from the nearest fiber line, struggles with that problem – just like the millions of gamers who live in rural areas.

“I work from home surrounded by farmland. My internet is ADSL copper cable run over about thirty wooden telegraph poles before it hits the nearest cabinet. Upload speed in perfect weather is 1Mbps. Uploading a one gigabyte file would take me forever. If you sell on three stores on three different operating system versions, one gigabyte becomes nine gigabytes.”

Beyond his struggles as a developer, Harris’ physical location and lack of connectivity gives him an uncommon perspective in game development — a true insight into what it’s like to be a rural gamer, where special technology is often required for high-speed internet.

“As a rural broadband user, a lot of us have download caps. There are games that I wouldn’t install if they were free, because the time and data cost to me is way, way too high.”

Big games mean big installs

As games become more detailed, art assets will only take up more space, further widening divides between those who can and can’t tolerate massive install sizes.

We could place the blame at the feet of developers and demand that they opt for more optimization in the process. As Harris described before, there is a lot of inefficiencies in putting all the pieces of a game together. Addressing those would be a good place to start.

“The biggest win by far [would be in shipping] only localized content, especially when it is a game with a lot of recorded audio,” Harris said on the topic of optimizations. “Also, it’s amazing how many games ship with content that is not even in the game, like old placeholder user interface graphics, or content that was removed and replaced, but the art assets are left in.”

production line
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The types of games being made also has a big impact on install size. Harris points out that even factoring in his own optimizations – he informs us that he always “sets the installer compression to maximum” –his latest game, Production Lines, comes in at a minuscule 117MB. AAA titles aren’t going to be able to reduce to that sort of install size, but that’s not to say more studios couldn’t try out more optimization.

That’s something Turn10 said it employed with its upcoming Forza title.

It’s amazing how many games ship with content that is not even in the game.

“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 in a statement.

Even with that compression in place, perhaps no surprise that Forza Motorsport 7 ended up as big as it is. The game is a flagship launch title for Xbox One X, Microsoft’s new 4K game console, and the fastest game console ever made. It’s all about stunning visual quality, and that demands extremely detailed art assets.

“We built Forza Motorsport 7 with the goal to deliver the most comprehensive, visually stunning and most technically advanced racing game ever made – and the footprint size is evidence of this. We use various technologies to reduce the size of the footprint, while balancing the importance of preserving the highest-quality experience,” Turn10 told us.

Turn10’s statement shows the balancing act of crafting games which are sold partly on their visuals. Even if developers are willing to compress their game down to make its distribution easier, and keep its install footprint reasonable, there are limits to what’s possible.

The rise of 4K-optimized consoles will only accelerate the problem, and that’s bad news for gamers like Harris, or those with smaller drive sizes. It begs the question – is there a point where gamers will say enough is enough? So far, large install sizes haven’t had any noticeable impact on sales or popularity of games, but rapidly ballooning games are test the limits. Would you download a game that’s 200GB in size? 500GB? More? You may have to ask yourself that question within just a few years.

Jon Martindale
Jon Martindale is the Evergreen Coordinator for Computing, overseeing a team of writers addressing all the latest how to…
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