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There's a load time arms race in the video game industry

The metaverse, mobile games, and cloud gaming market are all racing to load their games faster and faster.

Writing about the video game industry in the last year has meant taking wide detours through the world of metaverse platforms (ugh) mobile games (not my cup of tea but always neat) and cloud computing platforms (something I've been excited about since the days of Gaikai).

These segments of the industry have different business challenges and goals, but there's a common thread that developers have brought up in conversation: the universal need for faster and faster load times.

The battle over load times is a familiar one for game developers. As long as console and PC games have been prominent, devs have struggled to reign in 2D and 3D engines to get the most graphical performance out of limited hardware capabilities. Audiences in different genres have had different tolerance levels for long load times, but the trend has always tacked towards more speed as soon as possible.

That trend has accelerated with the rise of fast-loading social mediaapps. Developers are now fighting for players' attention on their phones, even if the user isn't playing a mobile game. Graphical rendering technology is very fast these days, but if your game has a load time beyond 10-15 seconds (maybe even faster), your players' attention might wander back to Twitter or TikTok.

Companies across the video game business are already reacting. There's more and more chatter among developers about how to get players into their games as fast as possible.

Where is this having the most impact? Let's take a look.

Fast software, slow phones

We recently highlighted Google's new Gamesnacks platform, which delivers simple HTML5-based games to users around the globe. The platform's biggest wins have been in regions where the population has a growing interest in playing games, but the hardware and internet infrastructure might not be as powerful as what you see in the United States, Europe, China, or Japan.

Gamesnacks founder and general manager Ani Mohan described these users as people who are "coming online" to the internet, and don't have baked-in expectations or tolerances about software that the rest of us do. They prefer mechanically simple games played in short sessions. The longest game time they see among players is about 20 minutes.

Not only do these games load fast (in a matter of seconds), but users are also getting used to the idea that they don't even need to install these games. They're embeddable and run inside of "super apps" that also are home to chat sessions, ecommerce tools, and payment platforms. 

As better phone technology becomes more accessible in these regions, these users might be surprised if they engage more deeply with conventional platforms like the App Store, and find they're expected to download games, install them, make a profile, go through a tutorial, and then step onto the conventional treadmill of free-to-play monetization. Some will go through that rigmarole, especially if they want to play the mobile shooter offerings from Activision Blizzard, EA, and Ubisoft

But there are already shooter titles you can play using simple web apps! If the genre has any appeal to this new userbase, they don't need to rely on conventional developers to deliver their preferred experience.

A screenshot of Pocket Battle Royale

It's easy to write off this phenomenon as an emerging markets trend, but it's 2022. Wordle was the first big "game of the year," and has beat out Elden Ring on some social media trending metrics. Not only is Wordle doing well, but so are the numerous Wordle fast-followers, like Heardle which was recently purchased by Spotify.

While Wordle is getting more players into casual games with the press of a button, the stewards of the conventional casual games market are slowing down the experience for their players as much as possible. Crossword and match-3 games are now loaded with ads, or gatekeep progression with microtransaction-infused energy systems. Games like Angry Birds punish players who don't check in on a daily basis. 

There are justifiable reasons for these systems, especially when your company has investors to answer to. The cost of user acquisition is high, and in-app spending is still increasing (though in-app advertising might be a better source of revenue). But if the monetization begins to get in the way of a fast, soothing experience, someone who comes along offering something better could kick the legs out from under the market.

Clouds on the horizon

Cloud computing first landed on my radar as a college student for one reason: I couldn't afford a proper gaming PC. When exciting new games dropped on PC, I just looked longingly from a distance and dreamed of a future where I could play any game I wanted from any device.

Gakai's promises of breaking Moore's law didn't pan out, but Nvidia, Microsoft, and Google have now delivered different versions of that dream with GeForce Now, Xbox Cloud Gaming, and Google Stadia. They work pretty well too! Stadia's stumbles have highlighted how this tech isn't ready to be at the center of a platform, but Microsoft and Nvidia have shown how making it an ancillary offering is helping players try out new kinds of games.

Microsoft's cloud team made an aggressive pitch for this with the launch of Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox Cloud Gaming just a few months ago. Their argument was that plenty of players would gladly trade graphical fidelity for a version of the game that loads instantly. Asobo Studios' head of Flight Simulator Jorg Neumann spoke with childlike excitement about picking up an iPad and hopping into the game with hardly any load time. 

Xbox Cloud Gaming's touch controls

He and Xbox Cloud Gaming vice president and head of product & strategy Catherine Gluckstein both made pitches about "democratizing" the world of video gaming for players who can't afford high-end devices. That's a noble dream, but it might also just be raw marketing canniness. Microsoft already knows that more and more of its Cloud Gaming customers use touch controls to play conventional games, indicating they have preferred video game habits based on their experiences with other platforms.

Microsoft lost the mobile gaming war years ago when it retreated from the smartphone market. But if smartphone users are expecting games to load and play as fast as their social networking apps, using cloud technology to close the gap might be how the brand turns Xbox into a household name for primarily mobile players.

And then there's the metaverse

The first moment something "clicked" for me about load times was when Blankos Block Party developer Mythical Games acquired cloud streaming developer Polystream.

I hadn't really heard of either company before that news story. But Mythical CEO John Linden made a comment to GamesBeat that caught my eye: "A lot of people want to be part of these immersive 3D worlds and be able to jump in quickly and interact and socialize and then leave," he said, before noting that running Blankos Block Party on Polystream's platform allowed the developer to shrink the client down to 5MB. 

Linden and Mythical Games' vision is to use this technology to push the world of a blockchain-fueled metaverse (make of that what you will. I'm not a fan.), but talking about the need to compress the client size was also something that ControlZee CEO Robert Anderberg brought up with the making of dot big bang. Anderberg didn't even want his game to need a client. It runs natively in Google Chrome on "the shittiest version of JavaScript you can possibly get." 

Dot Big Bang's hub world

If Anderberg (who dismissed the need for blockchain tech in user-generated content platforms) and Linden are in agreement on something, that's probably worth paying attention to.

Anderberg's vision for dot big bang is also to catch up with a common piece of technology used by young players across the globe: Google Chromebooks. It's another recognition that simple hardware isn't a reason that players avoid seeking out complex video game experiences, especially if developers rush to meet them at their level.

Dot big bang might not be a conventional "metaverse" product, but it's chasing many of the same fundamental principles that RobloxCORE, and other competitors are. But to use those platforms, you still need to download an app. Anderberg's been getting whole development environments running on a smartphone browser.

Flash is dead, but soon all games might run as fast as The Flash

The advent of near-instantaneous load times has implications in other parts of the market as well. Vampire Survivors has run the road to success by being dirt cheap, loading quick, and only needing 1GB of memory and an Intel 4 Pentium processor or later that's SSE2 capable to run. Engineers at first-party PlayStation studios have slashed the load times on games like Horizon Forbidden West and Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales so much so that it now feels weird to experience load times in third-party game Dying Light 2.

And as platform-holders everywhere start to push the power of game library subscriptions, making sure those games are playable as fast as possible will likely be a key factor that retains users. If a game doesn't play as fast as a Netflix TV show does, why am I not on Netflix?

I'm being a bit pie-in-the-sky here, but the mad rush for speed may not be a consequence-free pursuit. For one, developers pushing for faster speeds are responding to what may not always be a fundamentally healthy user relationship with technology. Some users struggling with compulsion or addiction may be sucked further into these experiences. 

Teaching users to expect more instantaneous products may drive negative behavior elsewhere in the technology world, like how Amazon's same-day delivery process has had a human cost on delivery drivers.

And if we're being nostalgic here, load times may have been the cost of graphics rendering, but they were also a space in video games that could be approached with intentional design. If Namco hadn't held onto its load screen patent until 2015, the industry might have been building micro-games for load screens that added to the overall experience. Load screens are a convenient space for tips that can help less-experienced players. And they're often a spot to highlight great artwork or meditative music produced by parts of the development team that don't get as much recognition.

Load screens have also been great "exit points" for players, a chance to realize they've had enough and let their mind drift back to the obligations of the real world. Sure, games are fun, but we all have to eat and pay rent.

If users are going to respond positively to faster and faster load times, few developers will justify the economic cost of not following that trend. Nostalgia will only work for the market when the market can properly capitalize on it. 

I'm mostly pretty upbeat about the potential of faster and faster loading times. I like that It takes less than a minute to turn on my PS5 and hop into a huge open-world game like Horizon Forbidden West. Hearing that it's helping bring new audiences into the world of video games is heartening to hear.

But a decade of tech and game industry trends showing how incredible technology can be exploited through basic human psychology means this trend deserves a close, critical eye, not just a champion's voice. At the very least, I predict that some regulatory body will be setting guidelines for app and game UX practices in the next decade, and load times might very well be part of what they examine.

The future's coming in fast. If we're getting people onto digital high-speed trains, I'd rather they were protected by safe, intentional design, not tied up to the railway tracks.

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