Why Killzone Shadow Fall is almost 40GB (it used to be 290...)
Guerrilla's technical director on the next-gen fight between fidelity and file size.
At an event at Guerrilla's Amsterdam offices this week, the developer confirmed that the final version of PlayStation 4 launch title Killzone Shadow Fall clocks in at 39.7GB (in Europe, anyway: some localised versions of the game, needing fewer audio tracks in different languages, are closer to 37GB). Using Sony's PlayGo system, which allows a game to be played while it's still streaming data off the servers, Shadow Fall will be playable after a 7.5GB download.
There's been some consternation about the file size of next-gen games since Sony's UK boss told Eurogamer that Killzone was "cracking on for 50GB" and Nividia suggested that the PC version of Call of Duty: Ghosts required 50GB of hard drive space. (Infinity Ward has now reduced that to 40GB.) With the new consoles moving towards digital delivery and servers struggling to distribute titles like GTA5, how would our poor internets and hard drives cope with all that data? And why is Killzone so big in the first place?
It seems that the high quality art assets used by the PS4 are the main culprit. "The bulk of it is textures," Guerrilla's technical director Michiel van der Leeuw told me. "I think we're probably a lot larger than the other cross-generation games, because we have no assets that have been made to a lower spec." He also pointed to the much larger, more open design of the game's levels compared to previous Killzone games. "The surface area, I'm just guessing here, must be five to 10 times bigger than Killzone 3 was."
But he took pains to reassure me that the studio had worked hard to optimise the file size and get players into the game as quickly as possible. The next-gen consoles present something of a push-pull challenge for developers: on the one hand, their powerful GPUs and large amounts of RAM can handle extremely high fidelity assets, but on the other, the push towards digital distribution has made consumers more sensitive to file sizes.
This conundrum is perfectly illustrated by the fact that Killzone 3 was actually bigger than Shadow Fall. (Digital Foundry clocked the Blu-ray at 41.5GB.) Unconcerned by file size, Guerrilla had duplicated textures for each level to make the game stream from disc more quickly, and included high-quality videos several times over in different languages. It soon became clear that this approach wouldn't work on PS4, and Van der Leeuw's team had to go back to the drawing board.
"I think at some point the disc image that we were generating was around 180 gigs," said van der Leeuw. "And if we would have put all the levels in, which we didn't, because then the disc image generator broke, it would have been around 290 gigs of data.
"So we had to completely re-architect how we deal with data. And we did a lot of work - this is actually something I'm extremely proud of - to optimise our disc access pattern. Sony made special libraries for us because we were the first ones hitting these sort of problems. I think it's something that a lot of people will need to be doing in future."
"I think we're probably a lot larger than the other cross-generation games, because we have no assets that have been made to a lower spec."
For players who choose to buy Killzone Shadow Fall from the PlayStation Store, Sony's new PlayGo system alleviates the game's unwieldy size - to an extent. Van der Leeuw reckons those with decent internet connections will be able to download the first 7.5GB, start playing while the second level downloads and then play that, all in a single evening - and then have the complete game downloaded by the next morning. But he acknowledges that even this could be more streamlined.
"Realistically, I think a lot of people can do this... It's just that the initial chunk of 7.5GB is quite big. I think if we would have known exactly how everything would work... I think next time around we'll try to see if we can design something that doesn't jeopardise the game which will make it even friendlier. But I think all things considered, this being launch and we've got like 2 minutes 44 from disc to the first level and no installs, I think it's already a massive improvement over previous generations."
Whether played from hard disc or Blu-ray, van der Leeuw is particularly proud of how fast and seamlessly the game loads; it's been a pet project for the tech director, who hates how slow modern games have become to operate. Guerrilla has completely eliminated in-game load times after an initial 30 seconds, and removed all logos and splash screens from the game's start-up routine. It may take a while to download Killzone Shadow Fall, but once you have it, the game comes to you very quickly indeed.
"To me, that's still something that fills my heart with joy when I see it. You insert the disc and go straight to menu," he says. "People here worked very hard... We had to ask legal and Dolby, the epilepsy warning stuff, the logos from Havok - we had to negotiate with them that we could put it in the credits and not the title screen... All the rules are built around the previous generation. I'm really happy that we're one of the first ones in, and I hope it's an example that people are going to follow.
"I get as annoyed by all these screens as you do. I'm 36, I don't have a lot of time to game, when I do I don't want be distracted by things that have nothing to do with playing the game... We came from a day and age with a cartridge, you stuck it in and like, 'bleep!', and you were playing the game. And slowly that has degenerated into experiences which are more beautiful and big and prestigious, but they feel... heavy. To me, it's about feeling. The feeling of something that, you say play and it starts to play - it feels qualitatively beautiful."
Van der Leeuw talks animatedly at the best of times, but it's when talking about the "immediacy" of loading Shadow Fall - not its stunning new lighting techniques or 1080p display resolution - that he is most passionate by far. If next-gen gaming means huge file sizes but never seeing an in-game loading screen again, then I'm with him - it's a price worth paying.