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Late last year, Sam Horti wrote about how the loot box controversy shaped gaming in 2017. The same furore has inevitably rolled into this year, and a number of politicians, universities and gaming authorities have since expressed dismay with premium videogame consumables.
Now, publisher 2K has responded to the Belgian Gaming Commission's decision that loot boxes violate the country's gambling laws, with a number of changes to NBA 2K's in-game currency and purchases tied to its MyTeam packs. It has also asked NBA 2K players who reckon the publisher's practice now "comply with local laws" to "contact [their] local government representative to communicate [their] opinion."
In May, the ESA president defended loot boxes, and warned against government regulation. Blizzard, however, has since removed paid loot boxes from Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm in Belgium—and Belgian and Dutch CS:GO players can no longer open loot cases.
Read our full coverage of loot boxes this way.
2K has removed some elements of microtransactions from its basketball franchise, NBA 2K, in a bid to comply with gambling laws in Belgium and the Netherlands.
According to Rock, Paper, Shotgun, two undated statements on the basketball arcade game's website detail how the developer has had to strip the option to buy MyTeam packs - the NBA 2K equivalent of loot crates - from the title in Belgium, whereas in the Netherlands, players will not be able to access Auction House, a feature that permits you to buy and sell your players.
In Belgium, MyTeam packs can remain on the premise that players may only use their in-game currency to purchase them, but given the law in the Netherlands prohibits "games which include 'loot box' style mechanics if the items they contain are transferable", Auction House has been removed in its entirety while 2K works on a solution.
'Crunch,' in modern parlance, is a period of unhealthy overwork during the lead up to a game's release. But in the not-too-distant past it could have also described the nature of the work itself: a crunching and culling of excess data, enough to squeeze the whole game onto a DVD or two and comfortably onto a 100GB (or smaller) hard drive.
Game sizes have always been limited by their delivery medium—Myst was famously made possible by the introduction of the CD-ROM drive—but in 2004, when dual-layer DVDs were introduced, it was already too late for the PC game shelves at retailers. Steam launched around the same time, and as broadband snaked further into the suburbs and beyond, no physical medium could keep up with downloading. Games were allowed to grow, and grow, constrained only by users' bandwidth and hard drive space. That's resulted in 100GB-plus games that wouldn't even fit on a Blu-ray disc, never mind a dual-layer DVD.
That's causing grief for players who don't have access to speedy internet connections, or who haven't recently upgraded their storage in a pricey SSD market. It's especially bad for those stuck with data caps, a maximum data allotment per month that, if exceeded, results in extra charges. Broadband Now has catalogued 210 internet service providers that impose data caps.
For PC gaming to get better for those with poor internet service, either games will have to get smaller (or at least stop growing), or our selection of ISPs will have to get better, providing quality, uncapped service to more customers. After speaking to a few game developers, I can say confidently that the former isn't going to happen. The upper limit of game sizes is only going to increase.
Audio contributes a great deal to file size, but it hasn't been the primary contributor to the growth of game sizes in general. The resolution (sample rate) of audio will depend on what sounds the developer is reproducing—Tripwire, for instance, uses 44kHz audio for weapon sounds, and 22kHz audio for speech—but that was already the case back when it released Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, one of the first third-party games to release on Steam.
The use of 5.1 surround sound audio over mono or stereo audio has been one reason games are getting bigger, but the simple inclusion of more audio has probably had a greater effect. We expect voiced characters and high fidelity audio far more than we once did.
Video, on the other hand, has broadly increased in resolution—from 640x480 cutscenes way back when all the way up to 4K—which has notably increased its footprint on game sizes. Video can be heavily compressed, though. "1500x compression factors are not unheard of," says Stardock lead developer Nathan Hanish, pointing to the H.264 codec. So while high-quality audio and high-resolution video have helped bulk up games, they alone can't account for the leaps in size we've taken since 2000.
One element does check all the boxes for exponential growth: textures. Like video, textures are increasing in resolution, except unlike video they aren't fond of being compressed. Images can be heavily compressed—as with jpgs—but artifacting would be noticable. And regarding Hanish's specific work on Stardock games, "[DirectDraw Surface] images have to use a GPU friendly memory layout," he writes. "They only use local block compression, and thus yield at best an 8-to-1 compression."
On top of that, textures are also growing in complexity. "In 2005 you had a texture, just a texture, which is what later people would call a diffuse texture, but it's just a texture," says Tripwire Interactive president John Gibson. "And then in the next generation, you have a diffuse texture, a normal map texture, and usually a specular—like a 'shininess' texture. So not only are you using a higher-resolution texture, because video card memory increased, and computer memory increased, but you also have three of them for every object."
Those objects—their meshes—are increasingly complex, too. A breakdown of Tripwire's games tells the story. In the mid-2000s, Red Orchestra 1 released at 2.6GB, which players thought was awfully big at the time. ("People would complain if we did a 100 megabyte patch," says Gibson.) Sound only accounted for 327MB of that release, and environmental meshes and textures weighed in at 1.4GB. Jump to Killing Floor 2, which released last year, and sound now accounts for 1.1GB of the whole. Environmental meshes and textures? 17.4GB.
"One of the quickest ways to make your game look better is to up the texture resolution," says Gibson. "Content will be authored at a very high resolution no matter what game you're making, and then you res it down to what will fit into memory. And as memory expands, people keep doing higher and higher resolution textures."
The same trend can be seen in Stardock games from 2003 to the present, beginning with Galactic Civilization 1: Ultimate Edition, which was largely bulked up by Bink video files. In 2011's Galactic Civilization 2: Ultimate Edition, textures grew to snag about 15 percent of the total filesize on their own. In 2015, Galactic Civilization 3's textures grabbed another five percent to become 20 percent of the total size. And in Stardock's latest, Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, textures account for 60 percent of the total file size, says Hanish.
Textures aren't the only culprit, of course. Some games have no 'textures' in the 3D rendering sense in the first place, and some are very heavy on high-res video and can attribute the bulk of their size to that. Everything else has been growing, too, including executables, geometry, redistributables, and so on. But "textures have grown exponentially and represent (by far) the largest absolute and proportional area of growth—at least for Stardock products," writes Hanish, so if you want something to blame, look to the mossy rocks, the peeling wallpaper, and the freckled faces.
Game sizes can be confusing. Why, for instance, are The Witcher 3 and Rainbow Six: Siege both 50GB despite one being an open world RPG and the other being a multiplayer shooter? Such comparisons indicate that the 'scope' or 'size' of a game, as we perceive it in terms of 'a world' or 'hours of story,' has little bearing on install size. Vast plains built of terrain geometry and repeating grass textures appear bigger in our heads than they actually are on disk, while a complex gun model that's physically small in-game may weigh more than we know.
NBA2K17 is 66GB, for instance, a hefty install size. Why would a game that takes place within NBA arenas be bigger than the entire world of The Witcher 3? For one thing, every player from every team is modeled and textured to a high degree of fidelity, whereas The Witcher 3 probably contains far fewer unique bodies and faces. And as Hanish pointed out when I brought up the topic, there's likely a heap of motion-captured animation data in NBA2K17.
There are other questions. How much video is included? And audio? And is it compressed? Titanfall was a big game after install—48GB—because it included uncompressed audio to lessen CPU load. We can assume that from Respawn's point of view, accommodating dual-core CPUs would increase the number of satisfied customers more than a smaller install would have.
That 48GB Titanfall install was 'only' a 21GB download, though, meaning it was heavily compressed. So why don't more games do that? An educated guess: it was only the fact that Titanfall's large install size was mostly audio that made it possible to compress it to 21GB in the first place.
It's those pesky textures again. We've established that textures have been the biggest contributor to the overall increase of game sizes, and as Hanish said, textures can't be too heavily compressed. Unfortunately, they also can't be heavily compressed during download and then transcoded at install time, because that process "is extremely CPU and memory intensive and must really be performed in the studio," says Hanish (adding later that "some flavors of dds are much more intense than others to transcode").
That's not to say that compression doesn't occur (Steam itself compresses games and decompresses them after download, Gibson tells me). Nor does it mean developers don't take pains to decrease download sizes. It just isn't practical for every type of data, and isn't nearly as vital as it used to be.
Oculus VR coder Tom Forsyth, who previously worked on games for the PC, Dreamcast, and Xbox, recalls the crunching required to squeeze games onto discs back in the late '90s and early 2000s. He built utilities to compare compressed and uncompressed textures, to determine which looked acceptable in their compressed state and which had to be left uncompressed. He also hunted down duplicate textures and other unnecessary bits and pieces. While working on StarTopia, Forsyth even invented his own audio compression format to solve a problem with the music—with a week before shipping. Solving these problems, sometimes at the last minute, was necessary, as "you either fit on the disc or you didn't."
The same space-saving efforts happen today (Hanish described more-or-less precisely the same processes), but because an extra 200MB no longer blocks a release, and Steam won't take a bigger cut for a bigger game, there's far less incentive now to set a hard size limit during development. If shaving off a gig means a delay, or means resources can't be allocated to pressing bug fixes and improvements, it probably isn't going to happen.
"It's an infinite rabbit-hole," writes Forsyth. "You could spend years on compressing this stuff. But nobody has the time. Especially as you only really appreciate the problem once you're close to shipping. So do you delay shipping by a month to reduce the download size by 20 percent? That's a terrible trade-off—nobody would do that."
No developer I've spoken to denies that, with enough time and work, bytes can probably be taken off of any final build—at least until you get to some theoretical lower limit. But does cutting 50MB matter for a 30GB release? That's especially questionable when, as Gibson points out, the game is probably going to grow after release anyway. Free Killing Floor 2 updates have added new maps, modes, skins, items, and so on since its release.
2D games and intentionally low-poly, flatly-textured games will continue keeping the low bar low. Stardew Valley, for instance, is only a 462MB download. But Forza Motorsport 7 is a 96.5GB download, and there's no sign that the upper bar is going to stop rising.
"The moral of the story is: buy stock in ISPs and hard drive companies," jokes Gibson. And that's how it is. As our hardware gets better, developers are going to want to use more and more of our memory for higher quality audio, video, geometry, and textures—which means bigger games. We have little choice but to rely on our internet service providers to make fast, uncapped connections affordable. Unfortunately, ISPs, many of which pushed to repeal Net Neutrality regulations in the US, are not great allies. But at least our big, big games are going to look shiny (or specular) as hell.
Another year over, a new one just begun, which means, impossibly, even more games.> But what about last year? Which were the games that most people were buying and, more importantly, playing? As is now something of a tradition, Valve have let slip a big ol’ breakdown of the most successful titles released on Steam over the past twelve months.
Below is the full, hundred-strong roster, complete with links to our coverage if you want to find out more about any of the games, or simply to marvel at how much seemed to happen in the space of 52 short weeks.
Sports games come in many shapes and sizes. Football Manager and Rocket League have almost nothing in common, but they’re both undeniably sports games. Meanwhile Fifa has added a story driven campaign, and Pyre is a fantasy RPG that plays like a sport.
To try and help, I’ve broken this list down into four broad categories. Sports Simulations, which attempt to realistically depict a sport, Sports Management games (self explanatory), Arcade Sports, which depict a stylised version of a real sport, and Fantasy Sports, which are wholly invented.
There’s obviously a lot of crossover, since even Rocket League is loosely based on football, but hopefully this will help you tell your QWOPs from your Fifas.
Developer: EA SportsRelease Date: Sep 2017Link: Official site
EA's annual football series is on a high right now, with the addition of a surprisingly compelling single player story mode. Unlike PES, Fifa's strength is in a Xavi-esque short, quick passing game. If you’re looking to play online, Fifa will be your football sim of choice, as a strong and healthy online community ensures it's always easy to find a game.
Developer: KonamiRelease Date: Sep 2017Link: Official site
While Fifa will draw in those interested in the single player story or online multiplayer, PES is my preference for local multiplayer, or when I want to sink into the signature Master League. The two games also play slightly differently, with PES leaning more towards long passes and lofted through balls for a faster paced, more frenetic game.
Developer: Visual ConceptsRelease Date: Sep 2017Link: Steam
Basketball is one of the few annual sports franchises not dominated by EA, and 2K's NBA series is one of the few that releases on PC. 2018's installment confused people by adding a strange MMO-esque hub called The Neighbourhood, but what really matters is that the slamming and jamming is as strong as ever.
Developer: Sports InteractiveRelease Date: Nov 2017Link: Official site
It’s hard to overrstate the enormity of Football Manager. It is consistently one of the most popular games on Steam, its scouting network rivals real life clubs and once a player received an international call up from the wrong country because of it. It's also incredibly absorbing and fun, even more so since they added the streamlined variant Football Manager Touch. Play it with care: it is all-consuming.
Developer: Out of the Park DevelopmentsRelease Date: Mar 2017Link: Official site
It's strange how few other sports have a Football Manager equivalent, but understandable that the highly stat-driven baseball is one of those that does. Out of the Park Baseball doesn't seem to change that much from year to year, but the underlying game remains an engrossing way to live out your Moneyball fantasies.
Developer: Playsport GamesRelease Date: Nov 2016Link: Official site
Another sensible sport to adapt into a management game, Motorsport Manager is half about the strategy, half about the cars. Between races you’ll spend time improving and upgrading your vehicle, then make strategic calls like what tires to use and when to make a pit stop, but all without having to bother getting your hands dirty actually steering the thing.
Developer: Sensible SoftwareRelease Date: Jan 1996Link: GOG
"I don’t like football but I did enjoy Sensible Soccer" is a thing I’ve been told by more 40-year-old game journalists than I care to count. By stripping the sport down to its essentials, SWOS finds a purity in the tick tock of precision passes. GOG only stocks Sensible World of Soccer 96/97, so expect to be stuck in the days of David Seaman and Ian Wright.
Developer: Out of the BitRelease Date: Early AccessLink: Official site
Super Arcade Football is built on the classic top down approach of Sensible Soccer but with some more modern touches, the most impressive being a physics defying slow motion aftertouch shot. Unlike SWOS it also works online, making it much easier to get a game against a human.
Developer: Bennett Foddy Release Date: Nov 2008 Link: Official site
QWOP is, in many ways, the anti-sports game. Most sports games are about using easy, accessible controls to allow anyone to simulate being a peak athlete. QWOP on the other hand uses an overly complicated control scheme to make the relatively simple act of running a 110m hurdles (yes there are hurdles, most people don’t make it far enough to realise that) astonishingly difficult and hilarious. It’s the Eddie the Eagle of sports games.
Developer: Spike ChunsoftRelease Date: Early AccessLink: Steam
Is wrestling a sport? According to Vince McMahon it’s 'sports entertainment', which is close enough for this list. Unlike the awful official WWE games, Fire Pro Wrestling World leans into the fact that wrestling is a performance, subtly pushing players to put on an entertaining match, rather than just trying to win. That, coupled with its astonishing Steam Workshop-supported character creation makes it unique among wrestling games.
Developer: Roll7Release Date: Jul 2014Link: Steam
OlliOlli's great success is in taking all the fun of older skating games like Tony Hawk and distilling them down to two dimensions. The simplicity of OlliOlli's side on approach makes it easier to learn a track while constantly embellishing your performance with tricks and flourishes.
Developer: Captain GamesRelease Date: Aug 2014Link: Official site
I was actually surprised to find viral mobile hit Desert Golfing is available on PC, but it is, via the Windows Store (remember that?). It's a strange, minimalist game that can lulls you into an almost zen mindset. Each hole achieves a lot with a simple geometric layout. Crucially, there is no going back, so every wasted stroke is there forever.
Developer: Jan Willem NijmanRelease Date: Nov 2012Link: Official site
Originally a bonus game for people who backed the SportsFriends Kickstarter, Tennnes is a simplified tennis game with a flexible approach to rules. The game does not mind if, for example, you jump over the net and play on the other side of the court. If you liked SportsFriends, you'll like this.
Developer: PsyonixRelease Date: Jul 2015Link: Official site
I've had Rocket League installed on my PC for nearly two years now, and I still find myself jumping in for a quick 15 minute game every couple of weeks. The premise is simple: it’s football with rocket powered cars. What makes it work is the strange physics: the ball seems to be moving almost in slow motion, resulting in great slapstick comedy and much rage on the part of PC Gamer editor Sam Roberts.
Developer: De Gute FabrikRelease Date: Dec 2014Link: Official site
SportsFriends is a bundle of local multiplayer indie games loosely themed around sports. Hokra is a very fast, minimalist ice hockey game, BariBariBall is a blend of Super Smash Bros and volleyball, Super Pole Riders is a strange pole vaulter jousting game and Johan Sebastian Joust is a kind of full contact musical chairs played with motion controllers. What they have in common is that they’re all a amazing fun with a group of friends.
Developer: Cyanide ReleaseDate: Sep 2015Link: Official site
The Blood Bowl board game is as old as I am, which is testament to its enduring appeal. It is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and entertaining games I've ever played. Dice rolls are required for everything, meaning sometimes players fall over and die because they ran too fast. The digital port is solid enough, but the real charm lies in the time tested rules.
Developer: Mode7Release Date: Feb 2015Link: Official site
Frozen Synapse's trademark interpretation of turn-based combat, where both sides plan their moves and execute them simultaneously, turns out to translate really well into sports. A paired down version of American Football featuring big stompy robots on a small pitch, Frozen Cortex excels at replicating the execution of a single play, but lacks the back and forth of larger, more fluid sports.
Developer: Supergiant GamesRelease Date: Jul 2017Link: Official site
Pyre is essentially an RPG with a sport instead of random battles. The story and atmosphere are the kind of strong stuff you'd expect from SuperGiant (who also made Bastion and Transistor). The sport itself can end up a little one dimensional, as attacking players can’t move without the ball, there's little point in the passing game. Still, the way in which the fiction and the sport combine is a unique delight.
Next year, the National Basketball Association will officially enter the world of esports by way of its NBA 2K League. Managing director Brendan Donohue has now billed the association's esports involvement as "a long-term play" that he reckons will span multiple decades.
In conversation with Gamesindustry.biz, Donohue suggests the NBA is confident of its place in esports and that the success of the NBA 2K series makes the jump a "logical" step.
"We have great data on NBA fans, and that's a massive audience," says Donohue. "We see that NBA fans are more likely to play video games, and actually more likely to engage in esports than fans of other sports. We think there's a pretty nice marriage here.
"I don't think you have to be a fan of 2K to enjoy watching. That's one of our advantages: the NBA 2K game, and basketball more broadly, are globally recognisable. You can watch having never played the 2K game before and understand what's going on. That gives an advantage with that more casual audience. [Games like League of Legends] are awesome games, but they can be intimidating [to watch] of you've never played them."
Donohue points to the fact League of Legends finals have pulled bigger audiences than the Oscars, and that awareness isn't something he or his team consider an issue. That said, Donohue also describes revenues as "a secondary goal right now", and that building scale is their current focus.
He continues: "There's a significant appetite for the game in the US, but more importantly globally. We have a free version of the game in China that has 34 million registered users. That suggests there's a global appetite for the game; in fact, I don't think people understand how big the 2K game is globally.
"This is a long-term play for us. We expect this to be around for decades, so the primary goal is building an audience, doing that in the right way, and creating an environment where our players can be successful. We're confident the revenues will follow if we do that right."
The NBA 2K League is set to kick off next year. Gamesindustry.biz's interview with Donohue in full can be read in this direction.