Why Do New Games Take Up So Much Hard Drive Space?

Red Dead Redemption 2: 105 GB of storage space required. Shadow of War: 98 GB. Final Fantasy 15: almost 150 GB. Why the hell are these games taking up so much room on your hard drive?

There are a few different factors at play here. And to be specific, we’re talking about big, AAA 3D games, not the likes of Minecraft or Stardew Valley. But in the simplest possible terms, there are three primary reasons: game files are getting bigger, game worlds are getting bigger, and available storage space is getting cheaper. Let’s examine them.

High-Resolution Game Files Are Bigger

Wind the story back about 20 years, to the early days of 3D gaming. Back then both the characters and environments in 3D games were simple, as developers were just coming to grips with the tools of a new art form. Here’s a look at what Solid Snake, of the venerable Metal Gear franchise, looked like in Metal Gear Solid in 1998.

metal gear solid, playstation, graphics, 3d,
Metal Gear Solid, 1998.

Metal Gear Solid was cutting edge at the time, offering some of the most impressive 3D graphics available on any console. But today Snake looks blocky and simple: you can practically count the polygons that make up his head, and the textures (two-dimensional images laid over the polygonal models like wallpaper to give them definition) are blocky and pixelated.

That’s because the original PlayStation had only a fraction of the power of modern PCs. Not only were these older consoles incapable of rendering more complex characters and environments, but they also didn’t need to: the PS1 could only output video at a resolution of 320×240 for most games. If you’re reading this article on a recent cell phone, that’s less than one square inch of its small but high-resolution screen.

That was about all the fidelity needed to max out the capability of a 1990s television. Accordingly, game sizes with simpler 3D models and low-resolution 2D textures were smaller: across two compact discs, Metal Gear Solid took up about 1.5GB of storage space. PC games could be bigger and produce more high-resolution graphics, but they were still a fraction of the size of modern games.

Now let’s look at a modern version of this character for comparison: Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid 5, released in 2015.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, 2015.

Snake’s face is almost photo-realistic: aside from a few angles on the eye patch and hair, it’s hard to tell this is a collection of polygons and textures and not a real person. Those textures are essential, too: they’re now packed with enough resolution that players viewing them on a 1080p or 4K television won’t see pixelated blocks (except when they zoom in close on something).

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