Gauging Load Times in Games

by L.B. Jeffries

8 December 2009


All games need load times to set up those nice graphics and giant levels. We’re all accustomed to sitting through them with patience because we know that eventually the game will find itself and get back on track. But at what point do you finally just say no? What are the standards for saying a necessary lull has gone on too long? Technically speaking, what’s happening when a game is loading is that the console is scanning the disc for various bits of information. A guide to reducing load times explains the basics: make the files loaded as small as possible, make sure only essentials are being loaded, and try to get the heavy processing done before the game is going. I’m not a programmer and this isn’t going to be a technical guide, but you can flip through enough forum chats on the topic to know that reducing load times is a very important part of the process. And since we at least know there are ways to shorten the load times from a technical standpoint, what about from a design perspective? How should gameplay be organized around load times?

The most hellish load time sequence I’ve ever seen was sent to me by SnakeLinkSonic detailing the tedium of Sonic 360. Talk to an NPC, load. Answer a question by the NPC, load. Examine puzzle, load. Answer question, load. It ends up taking ten minutes for only about 1 minute of gameplay. It’s also very boring gameplay at that. This would pretty much be the absolute worst case scenario for a load time: there’s more loading than there is actual gameplay. A random twitter poll called up a lot of other violators that were much more in the middle of this standard. The average time that people said they would start to get ticked off with a load time was about 1 minute. One of the major targets was Grand Theft Auto IV, whose opening sequence lasts a good two minutes before you can start playing. Another was Mass Effect and their infamous elevator sequences. Lucasart’s The Force Unleashed was mentioned for having 6 to 7 second loads between menus. By contrast, Gatmog pointed out that Diablo 2 was the prime example of a game getting load times right. There are a few seconds at the start of a dungeon followed by maybe 1 to 2 seconds whenever you enter a dungeon.

The consistent theme in all those complaints is that the game has to load right when you want to be playing. A well paced game like Half-Life 2 knows loading sequences can provide a break after a heavy fight in the same way that cutscenes can be used to steady the pace of play. In Mass Effect, the main place that you run into the elevator problem is at the Citadel station. What happens is that you walk to an area, see that what you want isn’t there, and then have to get back onto the elevator that you just left. Another load sequence to get onto the ship, another load sequence once you pick a new destination, until you finally find a place with something to do, and you can get back to playing. The obvious solution is to just cut out one of these steps. From the elevator, let me choose to just go back to the ship’s navigation system. After the first time that I’ve walked through an area, there’s not much point in making me re-experience it unless I voluntarily choose to do so. That’s the argument Ron Gilbert makes in his retrospective on Monkey Island when they opted to cut out the row boat sequences in Chapter Three after the player has traversed the island. What’s the point in making them do the same thing over and over if it’s just travelling filler? In Grand Theft Auto IV, the problem is not so easily resolved. The game is just getting the heavy lifting done early so that you can play with short load times for the rest of the game. One of the interesting solutions that a game like The Darkness tried was by just playing a short movie during these periods. Given how GTA IV is filled to the brim with short TV shows that at least some players never bothered to watch, why not just play them while the game is loading? Stuff like Republican Space Rangers are great for complimenting the game’s satire and would probably have been much more appreciated since the player has to wait anyways.

It’s not that load times are unacceptable; it’s that there needs to be some kind of organization behind them so that the player isn’t going to spend most of the game irritated by them. A game should try to avoid a design where a player is going to be travelling between hubs excessively and watching too many load screens. If that can’t be avoided, it could try to have something going on during them. The thing is that it is possible to design these things so that load times are minimized. An essay at Planet Half Life describes how the Half-Life 2 mod Minerva does a great job at making loading almost unnoticeable. It explains that the maps are technically very small, “because of Foster’s ground-breaking idea to utilize every possible area to its maximum potential, and instead of expanding horizontally, he expands vertically. Rather than leave large areas wasted with inaccessible buildings, ‘fake’ corridors and rooms to give the impression of an immersive, realistic environment, Foster makes every area accessible. This doesn’t mean that one can simply travel all over the maps in any manner one chooses—but instead through the use of very creatively-placed barriers Foster is able to funnel the player around the maps in a spiraled fashion.” That’s just another solution to the problem. Enjoying a game does not just involve it having great game design and story, it’s also about how well it works within its own technical limitations.

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