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Tech Focus: Data Streaming and the Future of the Optical Drive

This week's release of Battlefield 3 presents a certain proportion of the Xbox 360 audience with an unenviable choice: buy a hard drive or other form of storage media device, or face up to playing a woefully inadequate version of the game. The arrival of BF3, along with other hard drive optimised titles such as id software's Rage suggests that the requirements of game development now outstrip the capabilities of optical drives.

Make no mistake, the difference between Battlefield 3 running with the "HD content" installed and running the game without it is absolutely remarkable. The game is awash with low resolution textures and it's difficult to imagine that DICE would want any one to play through the game with assets as rough as these.

"There's nothing magic about it," BF3 executive producer Patrick Bach told Gamerzines.

"It's the same thing we do for PC and PS3, so there's nothing extra. I think the controversy about this is that we actually let you do it on 360 for once. So what it does is it gives you the same abilities, kind of, as the PC and PS3. You can actually stream information from the hard drive. That's new for Xbox 360, but it's not a new idea for the gaming industry as a whole. No one has really tried to do it properly, so us doing it will create question marks."

Rage and Battlefield 3 get best performance from a 360 hard drive install - is the age of the optical disc nearing its end?

So why is the hard drive install necessary? The problem developers are facing is that the 512MB of RAM in current generation consoles simply isn't enough, so the solution is to stream in gameplay assets - visual and audio - on the fly. Up until recently, on Xbox 360, this has been achieved exclusively by using the optical drive.

The 360's 12x DVD drive can offer some very fast seek and transfer times, and development tools offered by Microsoft allow developers to strategically place content on different areas of the disc. The closer the laser moves to the centre of the disc, the slower data transfer becomes, so developers can prioritise content by moving it to the faster areas of the disc. Up until now, that has proved to be enough: even up against PlayStation 3 titles that partially install to the hard drive, the Xbox 360 has proven to be competitive in terms of streaming and loading times in general without requiring any mandatory installations.

Battlefield 3 and Rage are two recent cross-platform titles where the Xbox 360 version has suffered considerably when the developers have not had access to the hard drive, or other forms of mass storage media.

However, as the demands on streaming have increased, the ability to keep high detail artwork streaming in quickly enough has now seemingly moved beyond the spec of the optical drive, necessitating the install of the most challenging material to a faster medium. With id software's Rage, there is also a very significant difference between the gameplay experience when played with and without a hard disk install: texture pop-in is a bit of an issue even in an optimal configuration, but it's so much worse when the HDD is not available.

Rage on PS3 also demonstrates quite convincingly that even when the hard drive is available, there are still some issues with performance. Responding to the gripes of PS3 Rage players, John Carmack recently tweeted that the level of RAM occupied by the PS3 OS in combination with the lack of unbuffered IO gives the Xbox 360 version of the game a significant advantage, something borne out in the Digital Foundry Rage Face-Off I completed earlier this month.

So, how does DICE's decision to go for optionally installed content work out for the 360 audience in particular? In short, there is going to be a section of gamers that only gets to see the game with visibly diminished visuals. Quite what the percentage is who don't own any kind of mass storage device remains unknown.

"The thing with the 360 is that you need to be able to give consumers a game where you don't have to install it on a hard drive, because there are 360s without a hard drive. So we need to give you the option of installing it, rather than just demanding it. You could call it a 'standard-def' version for the 360 if you don't have a hard-drive," explains Patrick Bach.

In fairness, Microsoft has offered up a lot of different options to ensure that BF3 users can easily benefit from the enhanced "HD" texture pack without having to shell out the cash for one of Microsoft's premium-priced hard drives. The additional content itself weighs in at around 1.6GB, so that means that even users with entry-level Xbox 360S "Slim" consoles should be able to accommodate BF3's lush visuals by installing directly to the 4GB of internal flash storage, with plenty of room left over for player profiles and LIVE downloads. [Updated: For reasons unknown, it appears that DICE has disabled installs to any device other than the hard drive]

About the Author

Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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