Games Tech 2

DVD9 is Fine

As many of you know, many people have been setting forth the notion that the Xbox 360 DVD9 storage format will not be enough for next generation games. This claim is pretty ridiculous for a number of reasons, and I feel like pointing them out. Check out this statement from Sony’s Kaz Hirai when he answers a question about being concerned about having higher console costs than other manufacturers.

“This console is going to do much more. We have made sure this is a console for the long haul. If you look at the lack of Blu-ray on Microsoft, what do you do if the game requires 40 to 50 gigabytes? Put it on three disks? Let’s look under the hood and see total value we are delivering to consumers. At five to 10 years, you see the lasting power of the PS2. If you go out there now, there is a lot of PS2 software out there. From a consumer’s view, who got the better value? If you look at which console is giving the publishers more time to amortize their development costs, the answer is pretty obvious.”

First, the idea that games will suddenly start taking up 40 to 50 gigabytes is humorous. What’s sad is that people believe this. Most people that believe this believe it because they see a huge leap in processing power between last generation consoles and next generation consoles and assume that this will cause us to use more storage because we now “suddenly” have so much more processing power to take advantage of. These people fail to realize that while console technology stands still for years, PC technology is constantly advancing. In fact, top of the line PCs are already more powerful then the new consoles. And when you look to the storage medium for PC games, only recently have they started to appear on DVDs. Some games are still released on CDs. So the idea that we will suddenly need 40+ GB of space is ridiculous. And as far as games requiring 2-3 discs, just look around. There is lots of next-generation games out right now that are doing great on one disc. I am not quite sure where Kaz Hirai has been shopping, but its certainly not his local GameStop.

But these same people then insist that if the space is there then it will be used. This is despite the fact that over 90% of Xbox 1 games fit on a single layer of a DVD9 disc. Earlier this year Gamesfirst did a great survey of Xbox titles and found that the average size of Xbox games in 2001 was 1.81 gigabytes, rising to 3.2 gigabytes by 2005. That alone shows that having the space does not mean it will be used. In addition, they listed the size of four Xbox 360 launch titles:

  • Condemned: 3.9 GB
  • Madden 06 NFL: 3.3 GB
  • Dead or Alive 4: 5 GB
  • NBA 06: 4.5 GB

Check out this quote from the article:

“Over the course of its life, the size of the average Xbox title increased by 77%. If the Xbox 360 size increases at the same rate, and the four 360 titles are representative of the whole, we can expect the average Xbox 360 title in 4 or 5 years to be around 7.40 gigs, and to occupy about 87% of the disc’s capacity. If the largest game deviation is the same as the Xbox, with the largest game being 3 gigabytes larger than the 2005 average, then games will be exceeding the upper limit of what the medium is capable of.

However, if the proportions hold true between systems, such limitations will only affect about 3% of games made for the Xbox 360. Additionally, we’d guess that if you look at those 26 titles that exceed average size on the Xbox, you’d find that size is not an indicator of quality, either in graphical quality or storyline. No one would accuse Doom 3 of being worse looking than Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but it’s almost 3 gigabytes smaller (Terminator 3: 5.67 gigs; Doom 3: 2.957 gigs). Half-life 2, for example, is only 2 gigabytes.”

I’m willing to bet that there will be some games this generation that won’t fit on a standard 8.5 GB DVD-9. But I think we’re still a few years away from seeing many of them hit the market, and when I see games on the scale of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls: Oblivion come out, I just don’t see the concern. Frankly, even if we look ahead to a future when there are some games that don’t fit on a single disc, I personally don’t see why it’s such a big deal to get up for one out of every twenty (fifty? hundred?) games and swap the disc once every few hours. We do this today every single time we watch a new movie, right?

Now let’s think about this in a practical way. It would cost more then its worth to fill up a Blu-Ray disc with content. Think of how long and costly development already was on Oblivion. I very much doubt that if they were making that game on a disc with more capacity that they would have made the world larger. They didn’t even use up the entire DVD9. Oblivion is already a 100+ hour game with beautiful graphics, and it easily fits on a single disc.

So we have established that developers are not going to take the extra months and years to create enough game content to fill up Blu-Ray discs. So what about high resolution textures? At first it sounds like they could just use extremely large uncompressed textures in their games. That would certainly take up large amounts of space. After all, the majority of a games size is in textures. But people fail to realize that the Playstaion 3 only has 512mb total memory. 256mb of that can be used for textures. There is simply not enough memory to use uncompressed textures. Not to mention developers have to compress textures to avoid long level load times, which people already expect to be long for PS3 games.

Microsoft knows this, and since the very beginning they have been pushing advanced compression techniques. Whenever critics attacked the storage of DVD9, Microsoft has said time and time again that with advanced texture compression it won’t be an issue. We have started to see some of this just recently.

A few weeks ago at London’s Game Developers Conference (GDC), a company called Allegorithmic, claimed that they will be able to reduce texture file sizes in games by up to 70%. had an opportunity to check it out first hand.

Their new programs, that they hope development artists will soon be using as an industry standard, are called ProFX and MaP Zone 2. Their ambition is to keep the graphical quality of game textures at the same standards as current games, whilst dramatically reducing the amount of data required for the game to work.

The implications of such a technology would be far reaching. As the current trend of digital distribution gains momentum a huge emphasis is being placed on games being made smaller and thus downloadable quicker. Their claim is that the current tool of choice for most games artists, Adobe Photoshop, is not ideally suited to making textures for games.

I was doubtful of this technology; however the company ran a demo that persuaded me otherwise. In the demo they had a bathroom full of beautiful textures, then with the flick of a button the bathroom took a more hellish look – all the while the textures looked the equal of Half Life 2.

The next demo was of a game that is due to come out for the XBOX Live Arcade called ‘Roboblitz’. Due to the requirement to get the game under 50MB, the developers needed to keep the textures as small in filesize as possible. Using the new texture system the overall size for all the textures was less than 280KB – watching the game (which runs on the Unreal 3 engine) I was amazed.

Confused by the fact that I hadn’t heard about this technology before, I spoke to one of the men behind it directly – Dr Sébastien Deguy. He assured me that there were no catches with his system, that if a game contained 1GB of textures he would be able to reduce that to 300MB and lose no quality. When I asked why everyone wasn’t using the program at the moment he explained it was due to people needing to be retrained in learning a new system. He was optimistic however, that soon all games companies will be using their new texture tools.

And Allegorithmic is not the only company out there working on compression technology. There are quite a few out there that are doing some impressive work. Also, a few days ago Frank O’Connor, a staff member at Bungie Studios, had this to say about texture compression:

Everyone does and should use compression of some sort, not to save space, but to speed loading and smooth out the gamer’s experience. Compression techniques have advanced enough now that the resulting textures should and do look completely uncompressed to the average viewer.

Here is another thing to keep in mind. In an interview with Jim Cardwell, president of Warner’s home video division, he had this to say about the Blu-ray specification:

“We wanted the player to be capable of playing back a [9GB] high-definition red-laser disc, which we call BD-9,” says Cardwell. “[The disc] would have a high enough capacity for our movies, and it would have a lower cost than the [25GB] BD-25. The advantage would be lower costs to manufacture the disc, because it could be manufactured on existing [DVD production] lines. Certainly, most of our movies will fit on a BD-9. The issue will be how much enhanced content will we put on there. For basic movies, most will fit on BD-9.

Although the Blu-ray Disc Association has not formally announced the format, Cardwell reports that it has “been proposed and accepted by the BDA.”

So, a BD-9 disc is nothing more than a dual-layer DVD with roughly 9 GB of capacity, manufactured on the same processes, and read by a red laser… but still called a Blu-ray disc (thanks to using a different codec to decode the content). Capacity-wise, the disc is basically the same as a dual-layer DVD-9 (at 8.5 GB), but is cheaper to manufacture thanks to being made on a well-known and tested manufacturing process.

It’ll be very interesting to look back at the game discs from the PS3 launch and see just how many actually were “real” Blu-ray discs (25 GB+), and how many are BD-9 discs (~8.5-9 GB, or basically identical in size to dual-layer DVD-9). I would be willing to bet that most of them will be BD-9.

The only game that I can think of that has been reported to take up a lot of space (22 GB) is Resistance. But in an interview with Un-official Playstation Magazine, the developer stated that the 22 GB “game” size was made up of localized content. So instead of having an English version of the game, a French version, a Japanese version, and so on stored on separate discs, all of that localized content is simply being bundled on one disc. So, the disc capacity isn’t being used in any meaningful way to improve the game. I am willing to bet that after the game is released, and people are poking around the file system, they will find that there isn’t any reason the game couldn’t have shipped on a DVD9.

Also consider this comment made by Ozymandias:

Since then it appears that the drive has been upgraded to a 2x drive, which would enable transfer rates of 9 MB/s. Assuming a full 50 GB Blu-ray disc, at this speed you’d need just over 90 minutes to read the entire disc through memory. Of course, you can’t fit all of that data into system memory at the same time, so you’ll either be streaming a great deal (hard even with faster optical drives) and/or caching data to the hard drive. There’s a reason the PS3 is so expensive – once Sony committed to Blu-ray as a corporate strategy, they were also forced to bundle the hard drive in every box to help mitigate slow disc data transfer rates. PS3 games need that hard drive to load in any reasonable time – just look at the PSP for an example of the effects of a slow optical drive on game loading times.

One last thing to think about. Put yourself in the shoes of a game developer faced with loading game assets into memory from a slow optical drive. You’re going to have to be clever and find ways to try and make sure the data is laid out on the disc where it’s most quickly accessible. You might do things like burn chunks of data to the disc in multiple locations to cut down on seek times, or duplicate assets such as level textures in each level’s package so they can be read serially on level load. In other words, you might start storing data inefficiently and duplicatively to better conform to the drive’s poor speed characteristics. It’s not too hard to see how a game could quickly balloon in size while not adding any actual value or gameplay.

So, is Blu-Ray really big deal when it comes to games? Should you believe the hype Sony is putting out? Hopefully after reading this the answer is clearly “no”.