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Thread: 2015: the Year that Loading Screen Mini-Games (Hopefully) Return

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    The User DemonDragonJ's Avatar
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    Default 2015: the Year that Loading Screen Mini-Games (Hopefully) Return

    Long-time video gamers may recall that Namco patented the concept of playing an auxiliary game during the loading screen of the main video game back in 1995. At that time, loading screens were a relatively new concept for video games, since most video games used cartridges, which have virtually no loading times. However, as optical discs began to become more popular, video game developers knew that players would dislike loading screens, so they began to incorporate mini-games that could be played during the loading screens to relieve the tedium of waiting for the game to load.

    However, what would have, could have, and should have been an amazing technological trend was stifled by a ridiculous patent that prevented any game developer other than Namco from featuring an auxiliary game in the load screen of a video game. While some developers were able to circumvent that restriction, most did not, and the result was two whole decades of mind-numbingly boring load screens (some, but not all) and many hours of time wasted while the games loaded. Some loading screen provided helpful hints or featured animated cutscenes, but no mini-games, which I imagine frustrated many players.

    Now, however, the patent that Namco filed is set to expire this year (and, hopefully, they shall not renew it), which I believe is a very good thing. Finally, developers shall be free to once again include mini-games in the loading screen of their main games! Of course, I worry that the expiration of that patent may be arriving too little, too late, that the current video game industry is so different from when the patent was initially filed that its expiration may make little difference.

    What does everyone else say about this? What are your feelings about the impending expiration of that patent, and do you believe that it shall have any profound effect upon the video game industry? What if that horrible patent had never been filed? Can you imagine how different the video game industry may have been if it had never existed?
    "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." -Thomas Jefferson.

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    Will YOU be ready when the zombies rise? x88x's Avatar
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    Default Re: 2015: the Year that Loading Screen Mini-Games (Hopefully) Return

    As for what affect it not having been patented would have had on the industry, I cannot say. Personally I'm not sure it would have been used that much, as the mini-games would likely just have served to distract people from the main game. I could see some interesting applications though, where the min-game actually augments and interacts with the main game.

    What affect do I think the patent expiring now will have, though? Honestly, I don't think it will have much of an affect at all. At least, not a lasting affect. Let me explain why.

    The general technology flow of game storage has followed an interestingly circuitous trend.

    First, we had single-purpose consoles. Loading time was fast because it was permanently stored in the memory used to run the game.

    Then, we moved to cartridges. The basic technology in play here did not really change; the console/game manufacturers simply separated the game electronics from the console electronics in order the enable multi-game consoles.

    Next came optical discs. Because the latency or reading from an optical disc is so high, the game data needed to be moved from the disc to RAM in the console as it was needed. This introduced loading time. Initially this was a single load at the beginning of the game, but as games became larger it became necessary to break the game up into chunks that would fit in the RAM of the console. This enabled much larger games, but introduced loading time within the game.

    This was the peak of the usefulness of Namco's patent.

    Initially with PCs, but over time with consoles as well, as persistent storage media in the system became large enough, game developers started copying all or most of the content from the optical disc to local media. This introduced three paradigm shifts: 1) drastically lower latency reading from the media, 2) ability to write to the same media that the game was stored in (remember memory cards from consoles?...yeah...), and 3) ability to store the entire game in a single location (this because more and more important as games became ever larger and outstripped the storage capacities of the optical media).

    This move drastically reduced load time duration, but because the latency and i/o speeds of the local media (hard drives) were still much slower than the system RAM, it was still necessary to move data into RAM as needed.

    Jump to just a few years ago, and SSDs start making an entrance on the market. This served as an evolution of the paradigm introduced with hard drive local storage, offering much lower latencies and faster i/o speeds than even the hard drives. As SSDs continue to drop in price, the benefits offered will further increase. Already there are M.2 SSDs that offer latencies and i/o speeds that are approaching those of RAM. With the advent of NVMe, this trend will continue.

    To add to this, the industry is shifting delivery mechanisms from physical to digital. This will both let the install time decrease in line with progressing internet technologies, and serve to make the install time simply matter less. With Steam, I can pre-load a game so that the second it unlocks on release day, I can open it up and start playing.


    So why do I say loading screen games will not affect the market in any lasting way? Because loading screens are going away. Already, those of us riding the forefront of the technology wave barely see loading screens any more (I cannot remember the last time I saw a loading screen last more than five seconds). Given another one to three years, I would expect the rest of the market to have reached that same level.


    The real game changer, though, is just barely starting to peak out onto the market. Streaming. Several big players (nVidia, Valve, Amazon, and I think AMD) are working hard on technologies to allow seamless, high-quality, streaming of games from the cloud to your device. Once these technologies are ready for prime time (hint: it will be much sooner than you think), multi-second loading screens will become a thing of the past. Simply connect to your GaaS (Gaming as a Service) provider, select the game you want to play, and start playing it. On the provider side, the delivery of the data files to the server running your game will be small enough to not matter. At worst, game install times will enter the time bracket that many people see load times today (5-15s). Over time, we will see a shift in how the fundamental architectures of games are designed, moving away from tightly-coupled single-instance systems and client-server concepts to fully distributed systems. The affect of this is that concepts that we currently take for granted (local installs, different experiences for different hardware, minimum hardware requirements, local install footprints, just to name a few) will completely disappear, and high-end gaming will become as simple and accessible as youtube/netflix/etc have made video watching.
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    The User DemonDragonJ's Avatar
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    Default Re: 2015: the Year that Loading Screen Mini-Games (Hopefully) Return

    X88X, are you saying that loading screens will soon be non-existent? If that is true, does that mean that Namco completely screwed over the entire video game industry with their selfish patent? Do they not realize that they deprived the industry and its players of many potentially very awesome (and likely many more potentially very terrible) loading screen mini-games? I would not at all be surprised if some high-ranking executive at Namco was currently in a dark corner, laughing, and saying "Ha ha, suckers! Our patent may soon be expiring, but it does not matter! We monopolized mini-games for two decades, and if we cannot have it, no one can!"
    "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." -Thomas Jefferson.

    "Those who would trade their freedoms for security will have neither." -Benjamin Franklin

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    Anodized. Again. Konrad's Avatar
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    Default Re: 2015: the Year that Loading Screen Mini-Games (Hopefully) Return

    The purpose of a patent is supposedly to stimulate research and development of great new things for the betterment of capitalists and consumers alike, because few companies will invest a lot of time and resources into working hard at inventing new stuff just so their competitors won't have to.

    I view patents as legal monopoly privileges. And perhaps Namco did selfishly enjoy their patent advantage. But it could be argued that "the entire video game industry" was no less selfish in choosing to allow so much of their customers' time to be wasted when they might have instead paid a (probably modest) licensing fee towards the patent holder. It was, after all, Namco who pioneered this "technology" as a marketable commodity, they are not at fault for keeping their customers entertained while their competitors' customers were forced to stare at loading screens.

    To exasperate the matter a little more - the various entertainments meant to engage a gamer's attention while waiting for bulk data transfers to complete would themselves impose some additional load/wait times. Meaning that, outside of specific types of games/applications and a narrow (now long gone) technological era, the value of this patent would be somewhat dubious.

    I agree with x88x - frustrating loading screens are basically nonexistent now unless gaming on legacy equipment. There are now too many fast storage options. And hyperfast memory options. And a synergy of caching, buffering, preloading, multiprocessing, and emulator technologies are all involved now - even on low-cost gaming platforms like smartphones and consoles and Dollar Store trinkets.
    Network lags/disconnects/timeouts probably account for far more stare-at-screen boredom than any sort of fetch-and-execute data movements these days, and they are a different enough issue that the original Namco patent seems to be inapplicable.

    Perhaps you've personally endured "mind-numbingly boring load screens ... and many hours of time wasted while the games loaded".
    And yet still ... you bought and played the games - yes? And you were not alone.
    And yet still ... market momentum kept on aggressively pushing forward with newer games to play and newer game systems to play them on throughout the entire timespan covered by this patent.

    Therefore I believe this patent did not really have any kind of "profound effect upon the video game industry" at large. If anything, this selfish patent lockout helped shape gaming towards tolerating effectively zero delays from load screens. Had it been an open patent, constant irrelevant minigame entertainments might have evolved into a de-facto gaming tradition/standard - which I personally think would have worked out worse in the long run because I enjoy playing a complex full game far more than being constantly interrupted with simple-minded time-killing minigames.
    My mind says Technic, but my body says Duplo.

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    Will YOU be ready when the zombies rise? x88x's Avatar
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    Default Re: 2015: the Year that Loading Screen Mini-Games (Hopefully) Return

    Quote Originally Posted by Konrad View Post
    If anything, this selfish patent lockout helped shape gaming towards tolerating effectively zero delays from load screens. Had it been an open patent, constant irrelevant minigame entertainments might have evolved into a de-facto gaming tradition/standard - which I personally think would have worked out worse in the long run because I enjoy playing a complex full game far more than being constantly interrupted with simple-minded time-killing minigames.
    This is a very good point, and one that I neglected to mention before.

    If a game manufacturer puts a mini-game in the loading screens for their large game, that gives them a financial incentive to make that loading take up more time, not less. There is probably some balance point where it would be more profitable to keep it under a certain duration, but still, more than 0.

    I would agree with Konrad on this side of the argument; I think that much more damage could have been caused by mini-games gone awry than good could have been gained by quality mini-games.
    That we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.
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    Why must hard drives fail together? TheMainMan's Avatar
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    Default Re: 2015: the Year that Loading Screen Mini-Games (Hopefully) Return

    In my opinion, this patent would only really have been useful for console games where you can predict the duration of a loading screen with any accuracy. I've been replaying through Skyrim recently with it on my PCI-e SSD and the load times are just long enough to tell they're present. If a mini-game had been stuffed in, it would definitely artificially extend the time it takes to get back into the game. Part of the reason I enjoy playing legacy games IS the reduced load times; very few things are as satisfying as watching the loading bar blast to the other side of the screen and getting right back into the action. If Westwood had been able to put mini-games in the loading screens for free, the Command and Conquer collection would probably never have come off my shelf after the first play through.
    TheMainMan

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