Why are game downloads so ridiculously huge?
The first Doom game is famous for how little space it takes up. Because of it’s absolutely tiny size, almost any device can play it. The latest Doom was approximately 50 GB, a far cry from the games of the past.
Doom is famously small. When games came on floppy disks, fewer disks meant less overhead expense and a more seamless player experience. It also reduced the risk that something could go wrong. Programming was simple, elegant – textures and sounds were limited, and yet Doom used it’s few pixels to great effect.
Sonic, another small game (meant for a console this time), famously took up a levels’ worth of space for the SEGA opening soundbite. The scale of the levels themselves was so incredibly small that a second-long clip of someone saying ‘Sega!’ consumed as much space as a level. That is insane. Audio, even the crispest, clearest mp3s around, can no longer say that.
While some ambitious games like Doom were technically 3-D, many more were much simpler – Sonic, Metroid, and other 90s games were all 2-D, and yet they all came out difficult and engaging. A number of other trash games came out alongside them, but the shining stars of 90s nostalgia still hold up to this day. The concepts themselves were fairly new to the world: Personal computers and consoles alike were still a fairly new consumer product, still heavily associated with businesses in the case of PCs and children for consoles. Customers, therefore, were making room for something new, not accommodating it unconditionally.
The Graphics, and The Next Step: 3D
The next generation of consoles and computers were significantly more powerful, and as such the games could afford to take up a little more space. A little. Still, that little meant that things looked very different. The distinct polygonal art seen in Final Fantasy, Banjo Kazooie, and other favorites was the best, least-intensive art they could make at the time. You’ll notice shadows are limited and that textures often repeat.
The Nintendo 64 had about 4 MB of RAM – games to fit it could be a maximum of 64 MB, although many were much smaller. Articles say that all of the games for the 64 could fit on the Switch, which is still underpowered compared to other consoles! And yet, so many iconic games come from this era. Ocarina of Time, Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie – the world was an oyster. Other games on other consoles came out, but Nintendo – having watched Atari shoot itself in the foot – didn’t make a habit of producing bad games, or letting third parties make bad games for them.
Game length, too, was incredible for the limited storage space: polls say that Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie both take 11 to 12 hours to beat, and longer to 100%. If they didn’t provide hours of entertainment, that money might go elsewhere to keep the kid distracted. A small game had a big hill to climb, and it still didn’t have a lot of space to do it in, both on the shelf and on the actual console. Games would much rather be longer than look great.
I recently watched a video covering Silent Hill 2, a game for the PS2, which came only four years after the Nintendo 64. I was very impressed by how good it looked; while the main character was definitely blocky, and the fog and fire effects looked like they were sponged on, the frame rate never dropped, and the pre-rendered cutscenes could have blended in with games much younger. Game storage had moved from cartridges and the occasional floppy disc to the new and much better CD-ROM. Silent Hill 2 was 1.8 GB. The device to load it, the PS2, had a RAM of 32 MB, and that was plenty to run it. Games like those pushed the boundaries of what could be packed into a disc!
Levels could have more complexity. Silent Hill 2 features constant fog and enemy combatants with sometimes unpredictable behavior. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas still stands as a worthy open-world entry. The content, too, became more adult as the consoles and PC games proved their worth as much deeper than what a quarter got you in the arcade. Halo, for the Xbox (which came out only a year after the PS2), is one of the most revered Xbox games of all time – it’s lasting cultural impact is the stuff game designers dream about.
The great thing about these games is that even though they took up more space to look nicer, you could still generally tell how long the game was by the file size, although people were no longer ‘making room’ for a ‘toy’ – they were creating a space for legitimate art and leisure. Computers were more widespread, now, although not every family had one. Games were turning into art, into something most people wanted or already had experience with. Consoles, while almost always hot Christmas items ever since their conception, started turning games into ‘must-buys’. As such, sloppier games and games that took up a lot of space now had permission to exist. Games didn’t have to be so brutally efficient in their coding..
The Xbox 360 had entered the market, and LAN was becoming outdated. The console and the increasing internet speeds of the time meant that players didn’t have to get together to play together for everything anymore. Gaming consoles as well as computers are now capable of downloading large games directly from the internet, where before a disc or a cartridge or something would have been more efficient. This is around the time games start bloating. Characters look really good – Grand Theft Auto 4 looked downright realistic compared to San Andreas, and adults who had played both could tell. Games, even for the PC, could be really effective sandboxes. The player had room for a whole world now, after all.
Big games were usually still pretty long, but they were also becoming unpredictable. The Darkness, a game I really liked, took up 6.8 GB – Sonic ’06, meanwhile, takes up 5.6 GB. Games could become boring much faster – unlimited potential and limited handholding meant that games like Minecraft could be really fun for hours, or get boring in thirty minutes. Storage space for PC games is no longer a promise of quality or length.
Even Better Graphics – How Big Is Too Big?
Doom takes up 50 GBs to download. While it is decently long – PCGamer says it took them 20 hours to complete the main quest, and HowLongToBeat says 12 hours – it’s also significantly bigger than the first Doom, which provided somewhere between 5 and 6 hours for just the main quests, at a mere 2.39 MB. You don’t have to be a math expert to tell that the ratios are way different. The textures that go into making Doom Guy’s gun now take up more room than the original game ever did. And is it worth it? How many copies of Doom could you actually download on your computer? Borderlands 2, another game on both PC and console, takes up 20 GB but provides around 30 hours of entertainment with just the main quest. The twist is that Borderlands 2 is 4 years younger. In the time between GTA 4 and GTA 5, between Borderlands 2 and Doom, between Gears of War 3 and Gears of War 4, game studios have ballooned all the trappings that come alongside the game. However, the concepts of games themselves, at their core, don’t take up any more space than they used to. But that’s not universal: puzzle games and games with stylized art don’t take up nearly as much space as the Triple A open-worlders do. Baba Is You, a puzzle game with timeless graphics, takes up only 200 MB. Hades, a cartoony roguelike game by an indie studio, takes up 15 GB – and that one’s from 2020. Hades is also capable of providing many days-worth of replays complete with story advancement.
Games stopped getting bigger for levels. They started getting bigger for detail. New Halo games are not longer than the old ones, on average, but they are still bigger. The detail of the levels is consuming valuable space that gamers with mid-tier rigs might like to save for other things. Like other games. Games that don’t hold themselves to hyper-realism in every new generation are finding their job much easier, but the Triple A studios are struggling to justify the expense and space consumption of a game that gets a ‘B’ on Steam. Triple A studios have come full circle, and are beginning to shut themselves out of parts of their market that they’d otherwise be guaranteed.
An unintended side effect is that indie studios are providing much more accessible games. A triple A studio is forced to let go of otherwise guaranteed customers because their game sizes and specs are keeping up with the top-of-the-line computers, not the mid- and low-tier ones the indie studios are aiming for. They take less resources, they provide a different experience – but they’re much closer to that original era of gaming where their spot on a computer was very far from guaranteed. Small games can be just as fun and charming as big ones – especially when their size comes down to texture and engine lighting over more substantial things like story and gameplay, or AI.