Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Loading screens. Why haven’t they died?

by Dave Lamb

I recently put in 60 hours in the world of Skyrim. It’s a seriously big game and anyone who’s played it knows you start to fast travel a lot to move around it quicker. I started to realise I was spending a lot of time staring at loading screens as every time you fast travel or enter a building you’re greeted with one. Here’s what a section of my gameplay looked like.

Fast travel to the Dark Brotherhood’s guild location.
Loading screen.
Enter the Dark Brotherhood’s guild
Loading screen.
Speak with NPC for a quest and exit the Dark Brotherhood’s guild.
Loading screen.
Fast travel to quests location.
Loading screen.
Enter cave to begin quest.

Loading screen.

That's nice but I just want to play the game.

There’s 5 loading screens here for little over a minute's worth of gameplay and that’s ten kinds of ridiculous. I started to wonder why this is still a problem and if we’re always going to have to endure it.  Jak and Daxter is game which was made in 2001 and had no load times. It was seamless and it played and looked great. The lack of loading times really helps it feel like a living and breathing world. You can often see areas that you've visited in the background with animated and moving objects. I remember thinking at the time that soon all games would start to be made like this but alas, that was not the case and Jak and Daxter is still quite the technical feat over 10 years later.

For anyone who hasn’t played Jak and Daxter I really recommend you pick up the HD remake of it. It’s one of my favourite games on the PS2 but I never really liked the direction the sequels took despite their positive reviews. Why they thought they needed to add in guns and make it into some kind of third person shooter is beyond me. This also started to make it feel a lot like Ratchet and Clank.

Here's a screenshot from Jak and Daxter. The player is in the hub world but you can see one of the levels in the distance between the rocks.

When you enter a building in Skyrim that separated by a loading screen, it does kind of feel like you’ve been placed in a box that is somehow disconnected from the world you were previously exploring. Imagine how impressive it would be if you could look outside and see the world going on without you. That goes for the outside looking in too, every window in Skyrim is completely opaque and reveals no signs of life from the inside.

Here's a window in Skyrim. They may as well have just bricked it up.

So how have we landed ourselves with this plague of loading screens? Basically they are a result of moving to disc based media. Most of you will remember there was no loading screens in the days of cartridge based consoles as loading from them was essentially instantaneous. The industry transitioned to the use of discs because they were far cheaper and offered greater storage capacity. Any N64 kids out there might realise that for the first few years there was no voice acting in any of the games. This was because to produce a cartridge with enough memory to fit this on was just too expensive and only happened later in the consoles’ life cycle. The largest N64 cartridges were around 64mb, compared to a 650mb CD that the PlayStation used.

So are we destined to spend the rest of our gaming life reading repetitive/uninteresting facts about a game while it loads? As annoying as loading screens are I don’t think they are here to stay. The industry could start putting games on SD cards but doing so would be still way more expensive than that pressed piece of plastic you call a Blu-ray disc. One of the latest rumours about the next Xbox console is that all games will install to the hard drive and I think that’s the answer here. Xbox 360 owners already have the option to install games to the hard drive to slightly improve loading times and PS3 owners already regard this as the standard approach to their gaming.

If all games installed and a faster hard drive was used, loading times could be greatly reduced. Before you all complain about pregame installs there also is another rumour that games will install in the background while you play then which would make the process trouble free. You could play a game out of the box and still have the benefits of a pre-installed game on the fly.

Will the next generation solve loading woes?

Some of you may also be aware of solid state hard drives (SSD). These are drives that used memory chips instead of magnetic discs found in traditional hard drives. These are much faster and to give you some idea, the PS3 can read data from a Blu-ray disc at around 9MB/s whereas data can be read from an SSD at around 500 MB/s. If this was used the industry would have essentially gone full circle to loading solid state media again.

I’d really love to see the next Xbox and PlayStation featuring an SSD but I doubt they will due to the cost of production. My predictions are that the next Xbox and PlayStation will use Blu-ray discs but hard drive installs will be utilised more to decrease loading times. By the time we come to the generation after that internet speeds will be at a level where we’ll be either downloading all our games or they will be streamed to us like the somewhat failing Onlive service currently offers but is sadly looking to be ever so ahead of its time. The next Sony console is to be announced on February 20th so it looks like we won’t have to wait long to find out whether we might finally defeat the evil loading screen. Unfortunately, despite my constant bellyaching about loading screens, you are all going to have to wait that that little bit longer.  

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