The Plague of Downloadable Games

The heavy downloading required to play many console games creates big problems for customers.

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It's afternoon on Christmas day and a boy has pulled himself and his full stomach off of the couch to cut open his brand new Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare package. He cracks it open and, inside, sees a shiny disc and a few glossy cards. He puts the disc into the PS4.

At this point, in the not too distant past, the game would start and he'd be ready, set and going. This time, however, the package comes with another, separate game—the one he really wanted: the new, remastered edition of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. That game, released in 2007 for the Xbox 360 and PS3, is now updated for the newest consoles, just before its tenth anniversary. Same gameplay, campaign and multiplayer, but with remastered graphics, sound and other technical bits.

Ignoring the Infinite Warfare menus (it is, after all, a game nobody really asked for), the boy presses the button to flip to Modern Warfare—basically, a separate game included within the new one.

Except, it isn't, exactly.

Because when he presses the button, the game prompts him to enter a download code written on one of the cards in the package. Cue fear, struck in the heart of anyone with a slow internet connection. Enter the code, press download and…

The console starts dragging the 68.8 GB file from its internet vault.

In my experience, this puts anyone's playing time back at least a couple of hours, even with a fast connection. At the speed his ISP offers (40mbps) , he's looking at a wait of less than an hour. At the speed at which his router actually operates (more like 3mbps), it's a lot more. The estimated time remaining starts at 99+ hours and drops slowly to a more accurate 12.

Downloading additional content for games isn't new, but downloading entire games is a different kind of problem, a problem that shouldn't have to exist.

Forza 4, released in 2011 for Xbox 360, came with two discs: the game disc, which had to be spinning in the console to play, and an install disc. The install disc contained four additional car packs in 2.8GB of memory. A one-time install transferred the data from the disc to the console's hard drive.

With PS4 games, like Infinite Warfare, the console automatically installs the game to the hard drive, even though they're stored on discs. It seems like a simple solution, then, to include two discs in the Call of Duty package—one for each game—instead of requiring a massive download.

This avoids two problems: wait times and data caps. A 68GB file installs much faster than it downloads, so the boy waiting to play his new game will spend less time staring at a loading bar.

But the second problem, data caps, could cost more than time. Many ISPs now meter home internet usage and set limits similar to those on your used-to-be-unlimited mobile data plan. Since the Spring, AT&T home internet plans have started at 1TB per month with a $10 fee for every 50GB over the limit. In November, Comcast also started capping data at 1TB per month.

The 68GB Modern Warfare Download would only eat up 7% of a user's monthly allowance, but it wasn't that long ago that Comcast's limit was only 300GB. It took a huge amount of complaints and FCC warnings to force the increased cap. AT&T's pre-increase plans started at 150GB. Downloading the game would've cost customers 45% of their data for the month.

It's easy to see the clash between the ISPs' wishes and customers' needs. Game developers are hurting customers further when they require huge downloads that could easily be stored on a second install disc—a method that's been used for years and that doesn't need to stop. When the download file is a complete and separate game, it deserves a complete and separate disc.

Patience is an important skill and it won't hurt anyone to wait a few hours to play a game. But when an unnecessary method of delivery starts cutting into data allowances and forcing additional charges, suddenly the game costs more than sixty dollars and internet access becomes a scarce and expensive resource.

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