Talking Point: The Wii U's Limited Hard Drive Space and Future Install Headaches

It's not just about installing eShop games

Splinter Cell Blacklist, on every platform but Wii U, has install options either mandatory or optional. According to analysis from Digital Foundry there are possible trade-offs on Nintendo's system as a result, with longer loading times and some weaker textures that are improved with an optional install on the Xbox 360. Although that's just one example, the ambitious and processor-straining Grand Theft Auto V is a more important landmark, and one that poses questions for whether the current Wii U SKUs' on-board memory could be problematic in the future.

To start with a brief and by no means comprehensive history of installs on the Xbox 360 and PS3, in the early years — and even today — installing elements of a game from the disc is very much optional on Microsoft's system, perhaps reflected in the modest space afforded throughout its lifespan by all but the most expensive models. For PS3 owners, however, mandatory installs have been a common part of everyday life, as the 2x read speed of the PS3's blu-ray drive simply isn't fast enough for some games and developers; adding an install to the process seems to be the easier option. The situation in recent times continues to evolve, though often the 360's drive keeps installs optional, while Sony's system typically requires some installation with triple-A blockbusters, particularly.

To come to the Wii U, to date no games have had mandatory or optional installs ahead of playing the game; you simply pop the disc in and — updates allowing — get on with it.

To be clear, the topic of interest for this article isn't related to someone going on the eShop and downloading a retail game out of choice, but on physical retail copies having downloads that are optional and mandatory; we don't mean game updates and patches, either. If looking at the relevance and potential issues with major games in the context of the PS3 and Xbox 360, it's minimal enough that we could simply put on our coats and stop this article here. There is a greater context, however, as we're looking at a system that Nintendo will surely wish to be active on the market for at least five years, so looking at recent trends and examples points us towards potential pitfalls in the future.

In current terms, the potential benefits of installs are seen off — to an extent — by the Wii U courtesy of its thoroughly decent disc drive. Utilising a proprietary Blu-Ray-esque format, the Wii U teardown by anandtech.com suggested that the drive goes along at a fair lick (22MB/s), comfortably quicker than the 360 and a good deal faster than the PS3. That's a win for the Nintendo engineers, meaning that — aside from assets utilising temporary memory and the system's architecture — games have a good shot of processing and bringing flashy effects to the screen with disc reading alone.

As highlighted in the Splinter Cell Blacklist Digital Foundry Face-Off, however, the Wii U version has some pop-in and lower texture quality due to the absence of the optional texture pack that can be installed on the Xbox 360. Fairly superficial, perhaps, but the Wii U version reportedly struggles a little in the framerate department, while load times with installs on other systems are noticeably faster, with timings up to four times longer on the Nintendo system. With little on the system's hard disk, all the more assets are being taken directly from the disc and putting the drive through its paces.

It's a noticeable feature with processor-hungry third-party games; when playing titles such as Assassin's Creed III it's tempting to worry for the disc drive's state of repair, as it incessantly whirls away to generate the dense forests and action scenes on screen. Again, similar fates befall the 360 and PS3, to an extent, and let's not forget the consistent clicking and whirring of the Wii disc drive over the years.

Yet looking forward, Grand Theft Auto has thrown up a conundrum. It's not coming to the Wii U, at the time of writing, yet this summer it was confirmed that both the 360 and PS3 versions will have a mandatory installation of 8GB. Is it for slicker graphics and a smoother experience? To an extent it is, but only because it's a title pushing the systems to their limits. Here's what Rockstar Games said on its website:

Grand Theft Auto V is the largest and most ambitious game we have yet created, and takes full advantage of every ounce of processing power available in the current generation of consoles. In order to provide the best possible experience for such a massive and detailed world, the game will have installation requirements on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 systems. For Xbox 360, Grand Theft Auto V will ship on two discs; Disc 1 will be used for a one-time mandatory install and Disc 2 will be used to play the game. After the install, players will be able to enjoy both Grand Theft Auto V and Grand Theft Auto Online without any need to switch discs.

For system owners with cheaper 360 models it could be a surprise headache, while Sony gamers are likely to have expected a large install anyway. What GTA V does do, however, is fire an early warning that as game engines become more complex — in polygon counts and the AI behaviour being processed — the days of popping in a disc and playing with that alone may become more of a rarity. It's here that the Wii U SKUs, in their current state, may face an additional hurdle or two in not only attracting big third-party games, but actually providing the infrastructure to support them.

The point is that Nintendo's games don't, by their nature, typically employ the visual style and CPU-straining effects of many multi-platform blockbusters. The stylistic choices of Nintendo are often all for the better, in that respect, and we've seen gorgeous blends of realism and fantasy in the likes of Pikmin 3, though with tricks employed that kept the file size, for one thing, modest. Large publishers such as Activision and Ubisoft, in action games particularly, very often aim for photo-realism as far as possible, eschewing the fantastical bright style that typifies much of Nintendo's own upcoming lineup. With large, connected open world environments also being a prominent feature in so many high-profile games, there's a lot of work for consoles to do beyond raw visuals, too.

The PS4 and Xbox One will have 500GB hard drives as standard, and installs will be a part of life for gamers on those systems — in both cases there'll apparently be the ability to play as content installs, taking away excessive waiting to play. The Wii U's infrastructure makes equivalent "install as you play" features tough — maybe impossible — to replicate, and third-parties will surely dodge almost all mandatory installs when the Wii U systems only have 8GB or 32GB of memory to offer. Anyone can point and say "that didn't hurt the 360 too much", but that's almost the past now, we're talking about the next five years. Developers can perhaps play around with the resources available to load more onto temporary memory while playing, while continuing to ask a lot of the disc drive, but that's then putting the spotlight on developers to spend money and time on compromises that may not have enough of a financial return. Graphics engines are likely to remain pleasingly scalable and capable for the Wii U hardware, but limits will still be pushed.

So what can Nintendo do about this? Like the HD systems that have come before, new iterations can be released that have a lot more on-board storage; if millions of Wii U systems in the wild have this extra memory built in, devs may be tempted to start following the Rockstar example and insist on mandatory installations, telling those with less memory to pick up external hard drives. That's the message Nintendo gave when the current models were revealed, too, that we should be pleased to save the money on the unit and get external hard drives when ready. That's absolutely fair and valid right now but, again, we're thinking further ahead.

Nintendo has other priorities right now, clearly, than concerning itself with producing new Wii U models with more storage; it has to improve sales and secure the platform's medium term viability before all else. As time goes on and developers shift work solely to the One and PS4, keeping the Wii U's place at that table isn't just dependent on showing these developers that it's worth scaling and adapting for Wii U, but also showing infrastructure support. Running everything off a disc is becoming increasingly rare and challenging, with GTA V perhaps being a reminder, so Nintendo may need to adapt to that reality.