The Tyranny of Loading Times

Rambo on the Spectrum. If you got this far without it crashing, you were doing very well indeed.

One of the most painful memories of my youth was staring in concern as my Spectrum’s tape player wheezed and clattered along while I crossed my fingers and hoped against hope that this time -THIS time – Rambo would load. Come on Mr. Spectrum, please, do it for me! It’s the third time I’ve tried to load this game now and it’s my favourite, so please don’t just give up the ghost on me after 15 minutes like the last time or, even worse, get to the title screen and freeze me out. For the love of God PLEASE JUST LOAD!

Does that memory sound familar? If you’re under the age of 30 then probably not, but it was a common phenomenon even in the 16-bit era that followed – ask any Amiga owner about lengthy loading times and they’ll probably dredge up memories of marathon disk swapping sessions (I remember Beneath a Steel Sky came on 15 disks – it was enough to prompt me to buy a second disk drive). You even had to put in a disk for the intro movie on Alien Breed… and then swap to a different disk to actually start the game.

Yes kids, it REALLY DID come on 15 disks.

Thank God for the cart-based consoles then. The SNES, Mega Drive, N64 et al were a safe haven from disk swapping and protracted loading times. Sure, the cartridges were expensive, but what a USP – just pop in the cartridge and watch it load up in a few seconds. Mana from heaven! Truly, we didn’t know how lucky we were…

For since that high point for ‘insta-gaming’ we’ve slipped back down the slidey slope of scandalous loading times, and things are going from bad to worse. The rot began with the PlayStation and its ever so faintly rubbish CD drive: not only was this thing horribly slow, it had an awful habit of getting terribly picky about what games it would load after a couple of years of use. Eventually it got to the point where I had to – bizarrely – turn the console upside down to get it to load certain games, and often I’d be sat there carefully listening to the ‘sctritch scratch’ of the CD drive and weighing up the odds of whether I was actually going to get to play Destruction Derby today or not. Suddenly we’d gone back to the Spectrum era of ‘cross your fingers and hope for the best’.

And then someone had the great idea of releasing Final Fantasy VII on three discs, and we were back to disk swapping again too.

Does this look familiar? Ah, the indignities of old age...

The PS2 era was only marginally better. The move from CDs to DVDs elminated disk swapping (at first anyway) and the DVD drive was a bit smarter than the PlayStation’s, but turning the console on its side brought a whole new element of danger to playing games. One slight knock of the PS2 could spell disaster for the game you were playing, causing the laser apparatus to gouge neat circles in the disc and render the game unreadable. It was the equivalent of knocking the cable to the tape player when you were waiting for a Spectrum game to load and then watching in horror as the whole thing crashed (at least it didn’t wipe the game though – most of the time).

And then we move onto the current gen consoles, which are the worst offenders of the bunch. Not only do we have to look out for ‘console wobble’ (I’m not falling for that one again, my Xbox 360 is staying firmly horizontal), we’re also heading back to the bad old days of disk swapping as games programmers’ ambitions start to outstrip the available memory (PS3 owners, with their fancy blu-rays, are permitted to laugh behind their hands at this point). However, even worse than this step backwards is the all new terror of THE UPDATE.

A friend recently popped over to visit and suggested that we have a go on Soul Calibur IV for old time’s sake. I hadn’t played on the Xbox 360 for quite a while (I’ve recently ‘rediscovered’ the Wii through games like Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles and Metroid Prime 3), so I duly spent a good five minutes locating all of the leads and plugging them in before turning the machine on. ‘A new update is available’ the console told me. No worries I thought, I’ll just click accept, how long can it take after all?

Quite a long time as it happens.

And then, when the new dashboard eventually loaded, I had to wait AGAIN for an update to the actual game. At this point we both lost interest, turned off the Xbox and just watched a film instead.

Do you know what, I really can't be bothered with this...

I understand that updates are a way to keep games new and interesting by adding new features post release. And I understand that they’re an essential way to fix bugs that were missed in playtesting. But they’re also bloody annoying. Whatever happened to plug and play? Whatever happened to just switching on a console and being able to play a game right there, right then?

It seems the absolute zenith of ‘insta-gaming’ came and went with the cart-based consoles of the early nineties, and ever since then we’ve headed towards making games – and console frontends – ever more complicated and sluggish. Next time you’re sat waiting for your console to update or you’re anxiously listening to the terrifying sounds coming from your console’s DVD drive as it tries and tries again to load some enormous level from a four-disc game, just think how far we’ve come – or rather, haven’t come – from the good/bad old days of the 8-bits.

And the bad news is that it’s only going to get worse – with internet TVs becoming more and more common, soon you’ll have to wait for your TV to update before you even get a chance to wait for your console to update…

Witness the horror of the internet TV update. This nightmare scene confronted my friend Sam when booting up his Apple TV one day.

[As penned in anger by Lucius Merriweather]