Some people wonder why, unlike consoles, PC games need a long installation process to put files in local storage, rather than being played right away from the disk they come in or streamed directly from the Internet.
FASTER LOCAL RESOURCES
Compared to optical disks or even the Internet, access to files from a local hard disk or SSD is much faster, resulting in much faster loading times even if the games are set up to cache (or temporarily store) important files locally.
For example, if you set up the game, especially resource-intensive AAA titles, to high graphical settings, the sheer number of resources that need to be unpacked and processed is enormous. With that in mind, data transfer speeds needed are often more than the speed that can be attained through an optical drive or an Internet connection alone.
At least if you want a smooth gaming experience.
This is why, even on consoles, sometimes you are prompted to “install” game files into local storage for best performance. The only difference is, this process is less complex and requires far less user intervention compared to the usual ‘Installation’ process that a PC gamer needs to undergo, and this has to do with the more open nature of PCs in general.’
MASSIVE DIFFERENCES IN PC SPECS
The second reason PC games need to be installed is a massive disparity between PC specs. While you might be running a top-spec machine with the fastest optical drive available and the fastest internet connection, which makes it easy for you to run your PC games ‘streamed’, some other users might not have the same specs.
Installing the game into your local drive leverages the much better speeds of the local drive, which even at the very worse, is much faster than the speeds of a low-spec optical drive or Internet connection.
Put differently, it is much easier to program the game to run smoothly based on the lowest common denominator when it comes to specs.
STREAMLINING THE PROCESS
Next, we look into the issue of having multiple ‘ways’ of getting your game ready for play, compared to just one, common process. In the past, multiple ‘ways’ that do not involve ‘installing’ games have been explored, including the ‘Tray and Play’ initiative by Microsoft during the age of Windows 8.
The issue now stems from having to prepare multiple ‘processes’ for the user to choose from. Not only does it increase complexity for the Game Studios to have to prepare their software for use, considering that they now will have to code multiple ‘processes’ for the user to choose from to be able to play their game, but it also increases the possibility of user error. This, in turn, will require that they prepare the appropriate support, which can be considered as increases to the overhead costs of preparing the game.
As such, to keep things simple (and costs low), most Game Studios have decided to keep to one common way – the old way of Game Installations – of getting games ready to play on the PC. This will help keep the experience streamlined and will minimize chances of user error (and address the need to prepare support for such situations).
THE RISE OF ONLINE DISTRIBUTION
One factor we need to consider as something that will probably be the focal point in any shift from the ‘old way’ of having to install games is the current rise of Online Distribution Services for Games. Outlets like Epic Store, Ubisoft Connect and Steam are increasingly becoming the main avenue to get brand new game releases.
Rather than having to install games from files on a physical disk, you can now get your installation files online.
At the moment, that is primarily the only difference – you get your installation files from somewhere else. But conveniently, some of these outlets have already automated the process of keeping your game ‘updated’ enough that they no longer require you to download a separate bunch of things to have to install later. An example of this is Steam, which keeps your game updated with almost transparent downloads in the background.
With that in mind, it is not too much of a stretch to think that at one point in time in the future, even the PC ‘Game Install’ process through these services can be made into a more intuitive process that only needs the user to click once to agree, similarly to how it works on consoles.
With all these factors taken into account, it begs the question. Now that PC components are getting better and with the current mass exodus of games into Online Gaming Distribution Services, will the ‘old way’ of having to install games ever be replaced?
For one, there is the rise of the game ‘Streaming’ services like Google Stadia and Nvidia Now that will do away completely with the need to install games locally. Instead of having game files put into local storage, the game itself is run on a remote cloud server and only the ‘Output’ aka the gameplay experience itself is streamed out through the Internet to you.
Of course, doing things this way will require that you have a very fast Internet connection with very low latency, and currently, that is the primary roadblock against the wide adoption of such a technology.
Also, as mentioned before, there seems to be a more niche push at making the Install Process itself less obvious to the users and more automated, as to make the experience more Console-like for PC gamers. As mentioned before, Microsoft’s ‘Tray and Play’ initiative is such a push, and while it was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining mass acceptance, it should pave the way for something better in the future as we move more into games being distributed online rather than through physical copies.
Looking at all these factors regarding ‘Game Installs’, I hope it is clear now why most current games need to be installed, and how there is hope in the future that this rather inconvenient process can be replaced with something more intuitive for users.