Infographics: How Game Distributives Have Increased Over Last 30 Years
We are looking at 14 well-known game series, most of which appeared in the ‘90s, and how their distributive size increased since the release of the very first entry
Nowadays, PC gamers seldom buy physical copies preferring downloading a game from a digital store. Still, some titles release physically, taking two, three or even more DVDs. And if these were CDs — oh my, can’t imagine how big the box could be. However, when Steam launched, the digital era took some time to speed up as the service did not work as smooth as intended and there were only a few games at start. So, users would purchase physical copies and install games from a CD or DVD.
No matter the distribution way, the size of games has been increasing ever since, and users have to either download gigabytes of game files or install them from a pile of disks.
This situation, in fact, is not something extraordinary. Around 30 years ago, the size game could still appear too big to fit on one data storage unit, i.e. floppy disk at that time. Just like Beneath a Steel Sky, for example, that was released on 15 floppy disks, which is about 21.6 MB in total. So big the adventure game was.
So why do you need to download so much data to install a game?
The most obvious reason why games weigh so much now is that games themselves are getting bigger. Instead of linear corridor levels, developers make huge open worlds which you can explore broadwise and depthward. For instance, GTA V is 81 km2 while Greece in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is said to be 256 km2. Not only these worlds are huge, but they are also highly detailed. And these details, in their turn, are highly elaborate too. The ground is covered with vegetation, snow acts like real snow, and buildings are no longer square boxes.
Another factor is graphics. With games going HD and UHD, the texture size grows accordingly. And the more objects there are, the more textures you need to cover them all. It could be weapons and all sort of equipment, characters, enemies or just surroundings. Even a small object can be of high quality despite the player not paying much attention to it (although it’s not always like this). Hence, more disk space.
Another space-consuming resource is sound. While 20 or 30 years ago games could have midi-audio tracks and just a few dialogues were voiced, now it’s not the case. Every NPC you run into might have something to actually say instead of showing you a text pop up. The music quality improved greatly since the game size is no longer limited to a small capacity data carrier. And as devs have more space to store game files, they might not bother to compress them — so, no OGG-files for you. Besides, in addition to the original score that you can hear in the background, games often have in-game radio with several stations, which is an additional couple of hours of music.
Localization files matter too. The text itself doesn’t need much space, but if we speak about localizing textures and audio files, you will need an extra package of files.
What we can’t forget about is the data carrier and hard disk storage capacity. In the ‘90s, floppy disks and CDs were used, so games could have different versions. For instance, the ones on CDs would have better audio or voiced dialogues. Developers were limited by their capacity and had to compress files and find other ways to squeeze everything onto the disk.
And don’t forget that back in the ‘90s the average hard disk capacity could be just several hundred megabytes, and then — a couple of gigabytes. Now, however, with games distributed digitally mostly and data carriers having more capacity and being cheaper, developers don’t need to worry about such nuances. This way, they can afford to release a game on 35,550 floppy disks.
Having highlighted the reason of games taking up so much space, let’s look at 14 well-known video game series that have been around for a couple of decades and see how their distributive size grew over time and what changes they had.
Sid Meier’s Civilization
The oldest series on this list, Sid Meier’s Civilization, started in 1991. Graphics were simple, even schematic at some point. Units were mere icons with no animation, and the same goes for cities and NPC settlements. You didn’t get to listen to the narrator commenting on the course of history or watch a victory video. The sequel, released 5 years later, looked more detailed: instead of icons, units and cities were represented by 2D models with simple animation. Besides, the game now included videos for each wonder and victory. The third entry remained 2D, but the level of details including the terrain and infrastructure increased significantly. All units were animated and had movement, idle and attack mode animations.
The way Civilization looked changed when the series entered the era of 3D in 2005. All elements in the game were represented by 3D models including unit, cities and various objects on the map like trees and resources. Instead of animated videos. leaders were now modeled characters. Though the background was a static image.
In the following iterations, the graphics quality increased letting you see the land and units up-close and being amazed by the detail. As far as leaders go, players could meet them in person in their throne room or cabinet.
The latest iteration features its own engine, and though graphics are more cartoonish, you can zoom in and see every bush and stub. Leaders, with live mimics, hair and accessories moving, remind characters from Pixar movies. And don’t forget about DLCs that add new civilizations and game elements.
Released in 1995, the game was a breakthrough in gaming although the graphics are not that impressive anymore. There were no 3D models. Instead, sprites were used. But it didn’t matter as the gameplay was what sold the game. Like Gabe Newell said, ‘’Windows was the second highest usage application in the U.S. The number one application was Doom.’’
To install the game, you needed 4 floppy disks or a CD, which included a higher quality soundtrack. It received updates over a couple of years until The Ultimate Doom was released, which came with the updated version of the original game and a new episode. In the meantime, the sequel released in 1994, bringing Hell to Earth in 30 new levels. The game engine, however, remained the same id Tech 1. That is why the ‘90s Doom games were quite similar to each other and didn’t differ much in size.
However, in 2004 things changed when Doom 3 was released bringing the series to the real 3D. In terms of gameplay, the trequel was different compared to the ‘90s games. Now, it was more of a horror, set in dark corridors of the UAC's Mars base. You didn’t deal with waves of enemies but fought off demons that crawled out of dark corners and jumped out of portals. Doom 3 was build using the id Tech 4 engine, which supported unified lighting and shadows allowing to create a really terrifying experience.
In the early 2010s, the game was re-released with enhanced graphics and came with all the expansions and The Ultimate Doom collection. But that was nothing when DOOM hit shelves in 2016, giving us the good old Doom experience we had in 1993. Vast and detailed levels that you could explore in many directions, enemies that could be smashed and torn into pieces in many ways, the high-quality soundtrack that’s worth being listened to at a concert. The game uses id Tech 6, which supports a variety of technologies including HDR bloom, water physics, volumetric lighting and smoke, destructible environments and a lot more. All this makes the visual part of DOOM simply stunning.
The Elder Scrolls
The Elder Scrolls series started in the times of DOS, so early games look and feel quite obsolete nowadays. Just like Doom, the game used the 3D environment and sprites for character models and special effects. Surprisingly, the world was much bigger than in the later installments. For instance, Daggerfall features thousands of places to visit and hundreds of thousands of NPCs — more than Skyrim has. But the world was not as detailed and mostly procedurally generated, and dialogues were not voiced.
With Morrowind, the series turned to actual 3D. And while the size of the game world got much smaller in terms of its area, it felt huge anyway. Cities were all unique, not generated automatically, buildings furnished and filled with numerous objects you could take. Equipment was varied, ranging from all sort of clothes to deadly weapons and alchemy tools. The soundtrack got rid of its ‘90s tunes and sounded like something you would listen to at a Philharmonia.
Oblivion used an updated version of the Morrowind engine, now named Gamebryo, that supported high-quality light and shader effects, realistic physics and Radiant AI, a system for controlling NPC characters. Besides, the game world expanded twice in size. There were not as many clothes as there were in Morrowind, but players could now ride a horse, which made journeys shorter.
In 2011, the series switched to a new game engine, Creation Engine, which could handle better graphics, improved animations and Radiant AI, and an increased amount of foliage. The size of the game world didn’t change much, however, but it felt more live with danger waiting for you in every corner of the map. A few years later, Skyrim received an enhanced version that featured improved graphics.
The latest installment, TES Online, includes all regions that appeared in the series so far, so it’s like several TES games in one with up-to-date graphics and tons of content.
X-COM (later known as XCOM) is a series of tactical strategy games that revolves around an international organization defending Earth from alien invasions. Apart from tactical battles, the games feature base building and management: players need to do research to acquire new technologies, train troops and equip them.
The first games were released back in the ‘90s and featured isometric 2D graphics. However, with the fourth and fifth entries, the series tried something new. 1998’s Interceptor combined strategy with space sim bringing the series to the 3D environment. This was followed by Enforcer, a third-person shooter.
Mere a decade later, the X-COM games were reimagined with XCOM: Enemy Unknown released in 2012 and the Enemy Within expansion to follow. Built using the Unreal Engine 3, the game featured similar gameplay with a modern appearance. Finishing research, launching the Interceptor or squad landing is accompanied with a short cutscene. However, players had only one base and troops’ outfit was not that customizable compared to the original games.
The comeback was followed by a tactical third-person shooter that served as a prequel to the series of a sort. Taking place in the 1960s, the game focused on The Bureau that led to the creation of the XCOM organization.
In 2016, the franchise returned to its root genre when XCOM 2 released. The sequel was built using Unreal Engine 3.5, hence the picture looks more modern. Besides, there were a few changes related to gameplay. For instance, the main base became mobile and players could travel the globe to fight off the invaders, while levels are procedurally generated.
The famous series about a British archaeologist extraordinaire is still going strong, starting with the original Tomb Raider released in 1996 on PlayStation, PC and Sega Saturn. It featured evolutional 3D graphics, quite dated by today’s standards. The year 1997 saw the release of Tomb Raider II, which ran on the same engine as the original, albeit with tweaks that fixed camera issues and polygon bugs. It also included dynamic lighting and a larger number of polygons. Tomb Raider III, the last of the trilogy, took a safe approach, which meant similar gunplay, more puzzles and mysteries. The engine was upgraded once more and now supported triangular polygons for greater detail. New weather effects were also a welcome addition.
For Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, a new engine was used that supported a big range of graphic effects and realistic geometry. Besides, Lara’s model polycount increased to 5000. However, it was riddled with bugs and bad mechanics like a stamina bar. Among the better ideas, it has was the ability to choose dialogue options.
Tomb Raider: Legend from 2006 was a better game with remarkable graphics and overall more polished gameplay. New ‘’fluid movement’’ control system was far more approachable, and the game impressed with its realistic physics, still a rarity at that time. Tomb Raider: Underworld continued to impress with its hybrid lighting model and a weather system. It was non-linear, with big elaborate puzzles.
With Tomb Raider (2013), Lara Croft returned with another trilogy. Developed by Crystal Dynamics on their own Foundation engine (modified Crystal Engine), it was a true return to form. Borrowing a lot from the Uncharted series, it also boasted pseudo open world with non-linear exploration. Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the latest game in the trilogy, were more of the same. The latest version of Foundation engine supported TressFX hair simulation, material effects, deformable snow and realistic skin rendering.
The legendary first-person shooter that followed in the footsteps of Doom released in 1996, and unlike its predecessor featured full real-time 3D rendering and 3D acceleration, making it look more graphically advanced. As the game was distributed on CDs, it allowed including high-quality soundtrack composed by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor.
The sequel released a year later and used a new engine, id Tech 2 or Quake II Engine, which supported colored lighting effects and skyboxes, making the game look stunningly more impressive than the original. In multiplayer, three customizable character models were available, each with their own sound effects, while in Quake you could just change the color of the character.
Quake III Arena was built using the updated id Tech 3 engine that brought several innovations to the series like vertex animation, shaders, mirrors and volumetric fog. Players could choose a character from a variety of models, each having their own taunt.
It took a while until the series returned with Quake 4 that was built using the same engine as Doom 3, id Tech 4, which supported dynamic per-pixel lighting and shadow volume. The game also featured multiplayer with common modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag.
This was followed by another multiplayer installment, Quake Wars. It was more like a Battlefield game, with class selection and controllable vehicles but more objective oriented. The engine was an updated id Tech 4 which now supported the MegaTexture technology, allowing to use large texture to make levels look unique.
In 2010, Quake III returned in a form of Quake Live, first as a browser plug-in and then as a full game. It was the same Arena, with a few changes and additions like over 100 maps available for different modes.
The final entry in the series is the most advanced so far. It is developed using a hybrid engine, which allowed implementing a new feature to the series like virtual reality and Vulkan API support. The game also added new characters, who could be customized, each having an active and passive ability.
The Fallout series started in the late ‘90s and instantly became a hit bringing the world of Mad Max to computer screens. The first games were isometric and didn’t feature 3D graphics. Not all dialogues were voiced and there was no music like you’ve been listening to on the radio since 2008 — well, other than the original score. Hence, the game could fit on one CD. However, the game world was quite large with numerous cities and NPCs. Fallout Tactics featured an increased resolution, so the textures needed a bit more space, but it was the same isometric 2D.
It all changed when the series received its 3D form with Fallout 3 and onwards. The new games featured a big open world with a variety of places to explore, voiced characters with a unique appearance, lots of usable objects and radio with several stations. Besides, new gameplay elements like crafting were added.
Fallout 4 switched to a new engine taking the series next gen. Visitors to the Commonwealth saw improved visuals, better animations and physics. Armor could consist of several elements, each customizable. Weapons became customizable too so the player could create a gun to suit their game style. And the biggest innovation was base building that allowed players to create a settlement similarly to Minecraft. Using a big number of assets, you can create a settlement from scratch, linking all electric elements into one grid and assigning settlers to work.
Fallout 76 is the newest in the series, and though it doesn’t feature NPC characters, it is said to be 4 times bigger than Fallout 4. And while the two games share the same engine, the MMO iteration looks a bit better. The roleplay system changed, again, giving place to a sort of deck building.
Grand Theft Auto
When Grand Theft Auto released in 1997, it offered the freedom that few could think of. Going around a big city and doing what you want — at least what the game could handle at that time — that was incredible.
The first parts were top-down games so you could not see the world in great detail. Dialogues were not recorded — just distorted payphone conversations. No radio as you enjoy listening to now. There were just around 60 vehicles — road transport mostly. However, with each new iteration the game got bigger in all the ways possible.
And in the early 2000s, the series moved from the top-down view to the 3D era. Players explored the world again, but now from a different and more detailed perspective. Don’t forget about voiced dialogues and varied radio stations, which featured hours of music of all sorts. Starting from GTA III, cars no longer looked like moving rectangles — you could see the interior and damage them in all sorts of ways. With San Andreas, players received an opportunity to dress and look as they like, visiting the barber and shops.
The number and kinds of vehicles increased drastically, and these were not only cars but bikes, aircraft, heavy machines, submarines — you name it. In any case, the setting became more varied. Started in the city, the series then took players to rural areas, forests and mountains, and even underwater. Hence, the range of vehicles.
GTA IV was set in a city and introduced the franchise to the HD era, meaning the series received its modern realistic look. There were more than 100 vehicles available, with authentic driving physics and damage system. Besides, certain game mechanics were ahead of some newer games.
The latest entry, GTA V, features almost 300 hundred vehicles and over 200 minutes of music. The world is the largest in the series so far, and quite varied with all sorts of biomes. The game is often updated, adding new content to the online mode, like outfits, vehicles and missions.
Been around since the late ‘90s, the city-building series revolves around creating an elaborate line of production and trade. Players explore the island, develop their settlements and build infrastructure. Workers transport resources between mines and factories, or between different productions. Ships take the goods and resources across the sea. All in all, that’s complex gameplay with many elements.
At first, the series used 2D graphics, but starting with Anno 1701 it entered the world of 3D, which gave the game a completely different look and level of detail. In fact, developers changed the game engine several times, always looking for the most realistic and credible picture, making it possible to examine every single element of the world on a different scale. And keeping in mind that the game is about building and production — the number of such elements is huge.
There is also a nature that needs to be shown. Before your settlement is a vivid village or city, there are forests and mountains around. Besides, Anno series is set on islands (and one game — on the Moon), so there is a huge amount of water in the game that has to look natural and act just like the real sea, with waves and reflections. And they managed to achieve that even when water surfaces had only flat geometry — with the help of shader effects.
With each new game engine, the devs enhanced graphics, improve lighting and shaders, and add new features such as fabric simulation. The last two installments can boast an incredible level of detail. For instance, the game will react to the dynamic day and night cycle. Thus, lanterns illuminate city streets and players can see what’s inside buildings. All this combined, makes the game look authentic.
The bold assassin has been present in the game world since the beginning of the millennium and with the first game brought something new to stealth action games. The levels were not huge compared to sequels but still offered certain freedom of movement — 47 could go both outside and inside, exploring alleys and closets. There were several ways to get rid of the target, which added to the variety. Games to follow, offered new locations and weapons, while the graphics quality increased. But these changes were gradual, meaning the game didn’t change a lot at first.
It changed when Blood Money released in 2006. The game was developed using the same Glacier Engine as the prequels but featured several innovations. Gameplay-wise, Agent 47 could now take people hostage, climb pipes and set up accidents. Levels became much bigger and could feature a crowd of up 2000 people.
With Absolution, the series started using the second version of the Glacier Engine. Hence, game size dwindling as it gave the game higher quality graphics and new gameplay features. For instance, Agent 47 could see through walls using a special ability. Missions were divided into several parts allowing for some sort of nonlinear walkthrough. Targets could be eliminated by using weapons or by organizing an accident. Luckily (not for the target), there was always something to choose from.
The latest installments use Glacier Engine 2, just like Absolution, and though they do not feature a big list of levels, the ones listed are literally massive. Not to forget about NPCs all having different appearances There is a lot to explore in each, looking for a new route or escape, or killing method. This allows a high degree of replayability spiced with online competition score.
One more strategy series on this list, Total War, has always been about massive battles — not to forget about the turn-based mode. Starting with the first entry, the game featured battles with hundreds of warriors on large and vast areas. You could zoom in and out to navigate your troops through the battlefield. However, the character models were poorly detailed 2D models, so it was impossible to tell one from another. And battle levels didn’t feature many details, only trees and water objects. No foliage, whatsoever. Fortunately, the following games became much more detailed.
In just two years, the series significantly improved graphically. Units, still 2D models, were no longer a set of pixels as you could distinguish their clothes and weapons. The world looked better, though it still lacked some detail. And with Rome: Total War, units finally became 3D. You could zoom in and observe your legioner from all sides, seeing their armor and weapons. Besides, the ground was now covered with grass, so your troops were no longer marching on a flat surface. The world map became less schematic and looked more like the one in Civilization. For instance, you could see forests, not only settlements.
And so the series developed. The units became more detailed and even stopped looking like the army of clones, meaning there could be different character models in one formation. The era and setting changed too, bringing new armies and techniques, which required certain improvements. Thus, introducing the fleet needed realistic water physics, while ships featured a detailed damage model. The world in whole got more detailed both on the world map and battlefield.
Total War: Warhammer II is the most massive game in the series. Armies now consist not only of humans but of a variety of different races. In addition to melee and ranged weapons, players can use magic spells, flying creatures and giant monsters. Battles can happen on open areas and between tall trees, while the world map in terms of details reminds of the fantasy world of Heroes of Might and Magic.
The war series gave us a different look at online battles as players no longer fought in closed arenas or box-like levels. Now, they have open areas which they could traverse on foot, wheels, trucks, water or air. You couldn’t just start shooting — first, you needed to find an enemy.
There were several countries, each with their own army uniform, weapons and vehicles, while the number of max players was 64 (not speaking about mods here). However, there was little detail such as foliage, so you would be running in a more or less flat world.
When switched to a new engine, Frostbyte, the series received not only improved looks but also destruction physics, so now players could destroy the environment, which allowed to alter the map outline in newer entries. Not to forget the graphics that improved and became more realistic with every new game released. Character models and weapons are customizable, sound effects make you believe you are in the real warzone — the real warzone. Besides, starting with the third entry, the series received a singleplayer mode, which offered a fully-fledged campaign with its own levels and characters and was similar to Call of Duty that featured driveable vehicles.
The latest game, Battlefield V, uses the latest Frosbyte 3 engine and features the biggest map in the series, Halvoy, that was created specifically for the battle royale mode. While both small and large scale maps appeared in the series, not depending on the release year, with every new iteration these levels got heavier.
Call of Duty
The first-person shooter series started in the early 2000s with the first entry to be set in the WW2 setting. Later entries took place in different locations and periods, including both modern times and sci-fi. Besides, in 2008 Zombie mode was introduced to the series with World at War.
The very first Call of Duty used id3 Tech, a game engine that Quake 3 was built on. But starting with the sequel, the series used its own engine called IW Engine, which allows 60 FPS on both consoles and PC. The engine is updated with each new game, not only improving graphics, sound and animation but also adding new features and technologies, or allowing the creation of bigger levels. This way, a new CoD game has always something new to offer, whether it is a new setting, exosuits, driveable vehicles or parkour. After all, playing Call of Duty is not just shooting, it’s more like being a part of a Hollywood blockbuster, so constant improving of the series is out of the question.
For instance, in Ghosts, the new engine version introduced support of interactive smoke, fluid dynamics and realistic lighting system. In Advanced Warfighter, the developers implemented a new audio engine that improved the sound quality as well as new lighting, improved physics and facial animation systems. Infinite Warfare introduced weightlessness to the first-person franchise.
The latest installment, Black Ops 4, runs on the updated BO3 engine and among other things features a better dynamic water simulation system and improved dynamic movement. But engine changes are not all that Black Ops 4 can boast. The entry got rid of a singleplayer mode and brought Blackout instead, local battle royale, that features the largest map in the Call of Duty franchise.
The newest series on this list, Far Cry is a relatively new franchise created in 2004. Unlike many other shooter series, Far Cry has always stayed true to its roots – single-player open world design with an emphasis on exploration and story. The original wowed the audience with a huge world and smart AI. Each entry featured a different setting and added new elements to the gameplay. Spin-offs, however, looked at the series from an unusual perspective.
The sequel was just as brave as the first, but of most of its ideas proved to be divisive: your weapon could jam at the worst moment, and malaria was just as fun as in real life. The game was massive, yes (there was a lot more freedom than in the first, which was mostly separated into levels), but graphics were muddy and the gunplay mostly unsatisfying.
The most beloved episode with the highest ratings is probably Far Cry 3. It was the first game running on Dunia Engine 2, and you could tell: graphically, it impressed to no end, and the gunplay was miles better than before. It even supported playing in co-op.
Far Cry 4 can still be considered one of the prettiest games in the series – mostly because of its art direction. In many ways, it copied Far Cry 3, and the gameplay was almost identical with a few additions like rideable elephants. The story was moved to the Himalayas, so players could take a rest from jungle running and diving.
Far Cry 5 is the same story: a big, open world in rural America with mechanics mostly unchanged from the third entry but polished to be almost perfect, save for little things like animal taming from Primal and fishing mini-games. It also featured a fully-fledged multiplayer mode and a robust level editor with assets from other Ubisoft titles.
As you can see, games evolve in various ways, bringing new gameplay elements, enhanced visuals or modes to newer iterations. Though most of them grow in size gradually, there may be certain size leaps depending on the changes that happen to the series. That said, in a few years a 100-150 GB game might be a usual thing independent of the genre and franchise.