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January 04, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why do console games need to 'install' from a disc?

On why you spent hours installing games on Christmas Day instead of playing them

Video Games Technology
Person holding video game controller Deeana Creates/

Maybe your kid (or you ...) received a PlayStation or Xbox as a gift lately. Eager, bordering overexcited, even, you boot it up, ready to play a game or two with friends and family.

Then the install screen hits, and the whole plan is just ruined.

Curious to know why today's console video games all seem to require torturous install times, despite being on a disc, we reached out to Philly's gaming guru, Drexel University's Associate Professor of Digital Media Frank Lee, for an answer.

There's in the ballpark of 80 million people who've jumped on board with either a PS4 or Xbox One. And though new consoles are always pegged as upgrades, one obvious downgrade seems to be that, despite buying discs at retail, you still generally have to go home and install the game -- and then download an update, more often than not. It's not totally unlike buying a PC game. What's the deal with that? Why the need for a game install from the disc when there wasn't a need with previous consoles?

The main reason for this is the tradeoff between cost and speed of the different memories combined with the ever-growing size of the games. Let’s use your PS4 as an example, though the same idea applies to all the consoles, including Xbox One. Basically, there are three types of memories used in PS4: One—internal RAM, which is eight gigabytes. Two—Internal Hard Disk (HD), which is 500 gigabytes. And three -- external game disk (read by an internal Blu-Ray Player), which is 50 gigabytes.

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RAM is small in size and fixed at eight gigabytes, but the amount that is available for use is actually much less than that, since the system uses up space. But RAM is the fastest, whereas HD is relatively large in size (from 500GB to 4TB) but relatively slow versus RAM.

But when you compare HD to the Blu-Ray Player, HD is on the order of four to six times faster in read speed than Blu-Ray — 25 megabytes per second versus 160 megabytes per second. Because the games have gotten so large, you cannot load the entire game on RAM, meaning pieces of the game must be swapped in and out of RAM. To keep the wait time to a minimum, most modern games simply install most, if not all, of the game from the game disk onto the HD when you first put it in.

As for large updates on "day one," unfortunately, in order to meet a ship deadline (e.g. before the holidays), some companies haven't done the necessary quality assurance testing, so the games ship with problems of varying severity. To address this, games will often have “day one" updates of varying sizes to address the issues discovered between when they finished the game to when they actually shipped it to the stores. Perhaps the availability and the assumption that everyone has high-speed Internet access make companies more cavalier about these large "day one" updates. Just imagine if we had no Internet … if there was a critical bug in the game, they would have to send out all-new physical copies of the games! Then I’m sure because of the costs involved, games would go through much more thorough testing, like the early cartridge-based consoles.

What's it actually installing? Because you still need the disc to play.

These days, it’s installing the entire game to the Hard Disk. Requiring the game disc to play is -- for the most part -- for copyright protection.

Why so many updates? Have game developers just become real perfectionists these days?

The updates are there to fix bugs in the game. There are more updates now because games have become larger and more complex. Keep in mind, the original PlayStation games came on CDs with the capacity of 600 megabytes; PS4 games on Blu-Ray discs have the capacity of 50 gigabytes, or about 100 times larger, meaning there is a lot more room for bugs in the software.

Do you think game discs will stick around for awhile? What's the argument for keeping them, at this point? They don't seem to do much except feed Gamestop's profit margins (used games and all). 

The argument is that 50 gigabytes is still a massive-size file to download on an average Internet connection in the U.S. (~ 50 to 100 Mbps, or roughly six to eight megabytes per second). Even at those speeds, downloading 50 gigabytes would take about one to two hours. While I don’t know what the psychological threshold or “reasonable" wait time for something like this is, I think it would be on the order of minutes, not hours. So, if the speed to download the entire thing comes down to minutes, then I think disks would no longer make sense. But that is the future and the shift is already happening right now toward downloadable games with the rise of [the online merchant] Steam for the PC, as well [as] many games that are available both as a downloadable and as a physical disk on current consoles.

What do you make of Nintendo reportedly going back to cartridges with the Switch? Will that eliminate the game installs we see with the other consoles?

Switch is designed more like a mobile game machine than a console. As far as I know, the official specs have not been released, but my guess is it won’t rely on large HD volume and instead have fixed flash memory, meaning it will have much smaller internal storage. Switch feels like less than a console but more than a Gameboy. I don’t think they are trying to complete with consoles, but rather define a new market like they did with the Wii. I’m skeptical, but then again you can never count Nintendo out.