Gaming has always been somewhat of a luxury for a lot of players. Depending on the system being used, the cost of entry can oftentimes be more expensive than some people are able to afford, which is of no fault of their own. However, the size of games in 2023 is a clear indicator that the cost of gaming unfortunately doesn’t stop at the system and games themselves, but can arise in the cost of storage as well.
It’s easy as a player and a consumer to find yourself almost feeling soured towards the industry as a whole. It can feel like a real punch in the gut to wait years for a game like Starfield to come out, only to find that in addition to the price of the game, you’ve got to drop just about the same amount of money on a hard drive to store it. While it is still infuriating to see the download size of games in 2023, it’s equally important to understand just why these games are as large as they are in the current landscape.
How Did We Get Here?
I didn’t start my gaming journey until I was able to save up enough chore-money to buy my own Nintendo DS Lite, and at that time the cost of entry was the $150 USD for the DS itself and the $30 or so dollars it would cost for each game. I didn’t have to worry about how big my library got because it wasn’t limited by the size of each game when they were contained to a single game card.
When I moved up to my first Xbox 360, the situation was the same. Sure, I was bound to the 250GB hard drive if I was downloading games off the Xbox Live Store, but I never racked up that much save game data on my collection of physical disks. However, once the eighth generation of consoles launched in 2013 with the Xbox One and PS4, I joined the ranks of players who were more than a little surprised to find that it became necessary to download games to the hard drive, even when they bought the disk.
The problem was that there became a new reason not to buy games, especially being as young as I was at the time. It was no longer just a matter of finances or time, but I had to consider how much I could even fit in the first place. Buying a new hard drive and setting it up can be just enough of a hassle for many people to simply uninstall games they play less, which limits the amount of variety you’ve got on your console at a time regardless of what your collection of game disks looks like.
While it can be easy to point the finger at the companies who make the console or the games, their side of the story needs to be heard. Consider not only the sheer size of the games that are being released, but the quality. Resolutions increase and textures get more and more detailed, as do the simulations and animations used to keep games looking as good as they do today.
Many of the games before that generation were simply less intensive and complex, and so they were able to be read by the optical drives in a game console. However, once games started getting a bit more intricate, the read speeds of an optical drive simply can’t process the amount of data on the disk, and so companies had to move toward downloading the games locally to ensure a faster and smoother gaming experience.
Once you really start getting into it, it starts to make sense as to why these games simply were not compatible for the hardware of the earlier console generations. First, the size of the playable space in games was growing exponentially, to the point where it’s almost incomparable. Look at the difference between the map sizes in Red Dead Redemption and RDR2, for example. The size of the map in the first game was calculated by RockStarNiko on the GTA Forums to have been an already whopping 12 square miles, but ppguy323436 on Reddit calculated the size of RDR2’s map to be 29 square miles in comparison.
While just the sheer size of the map alone is a statement, but using the same example of Red Dead Redemption, you can see a night and day difference between the two graphically. While the technology wasn’t even available to make the first game look photo-realistic in 2010, there’s just no way that a disk drive even today could read the amount of data used for the game fast enough to be able to play it without grinding to a halt. Even still, recall the load times in games from that era (Here’s looking at you, GTA V) and it’s clear just how much information was required to make them run.
Quality Comes At a Cost
Once the overall size of games started to reach a point where they had to be read off the console’s hard drive, developers were no longer limited by the read speeds of a disk drive, and more so by their imagination and technical ability. As such, games started becoming larger in size, both in-game and in the storage they require. You just can’t hold Red Dead on a flash drive.
Another statistic to keep in mind when thinking of games — Starfield being a great example — is the sheer scale of the effort that goes into making them. Starfield was reported to have a budget of over $200 million and was developed by a staff of over 500 people to make it all come together. The companies in charge of these productions invest immense amounts of resources into these games, to the point where the sum of all their efforts simply can’t be compressed down into a more convenient size.
That being said, as you play games like Starfield and Red Dead Redemption, you see exactly where those resources go in the sheer quality of the game. You can wander the world in-game for hours talking to people who give you quests to go fight or talk to some other people, but each of those characters had to be recorded, designed, animated and sent through the immensely complex pipeline that leads to the final result.
All of that effort, that work of hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of dollars amounts to 101GB on the hard drive of my Xbox Series S, and now that I see it, I really understand why. It’s absolutely heartbreaking having to delete almost everything on my console just to play one new game, but considering how much I’ve gotten to do on a side quest line while barely touching the main story, I cant help but feel grateful for how much effort was put in by the developers.
While it’s easy to be frustrated that you’ve got to allocate so much storage for games like Starfield, remember just what you’re getting for that cost. Relish in the fact that developers are finally technically capable of giving us what we want to play, but they just ask for some storage in return. I think that’s a pretty fair trade for getting to wander the stars.