Yesterday Kotaku UK reported that the GAME retail group, with Activision's blessing, would be selling the next entry in the Call of Duty series slightly earlier than planned. Over the course of the day it became clear that other retailers, including online suppliers like Amazon, will also sort customers out on Thursday rather than the official launch date of Friday. The reason is simple: a Black Ops IIII disc requires a "roughly 50GB" patch before you can play it.
Cue much eye-watering, eye-rolling, and of course the odd fleck of venom directed at Activision. Launch patches are hardly anything new, but the size of this one in concert with the scale of a Call of Duty title does feel like a new level of the phenomenon. It also reflects our industry's rapid pace of change, a symptom not only of modern development and delivery methods but also the expectations that players have for a marquee title like COD. The latter point in particular is often glossed-over, but is at the core of Black Ops IIII as a product and, perhaps, this launch patch.
The reasons players in general dislike launch day patches are obvious: they just want to get in and play; not everyone has a fast connection or uncapped downloads; anticipation built up over months, maybe years, is quite brutally doused by an hours-long download bar; the magic of buying a game and sliding in that disc for the first time dissipates. The reasons AAA developers in general like launch day patches are equally obvious: the scope of these products is immense, but deadlines are tight; in this case a majority of the game's features are online-only, and the overwhelming majority of the game's players are definitely online; there's an expectation of constant maintenance and updates anyway.
Not to mention the most important fact: modern big-budget games that have a projected lifespan of multiple years do not want to be bound to the code on a years-old disc pressed months before launch.
This is why, with some modern games, the disc ends up being little more than an installer. I've got GTAV on a PS4 disc, but the first thing it does is install 45GB of data on your hard drive, the same amount of data as the digital download... because that's where the developers want the game running from. Despite having the disc, GTAV currently uses around 76GB of my console's storage.
That might not make much sense for players, but from the perspective of a development studio that may be regularly updating a game for a decade to come it's the only practical solution. I make the GTAV comparison because, honestly, not even many AAA series operate at this scale. Call of Duty is one not just because of its commercial success but because of the package - the sheer quantity of content that fans expect in return for their £50.
Customers should have high expectations of course, and year after year Call of Duty delivers extremely high production values and a swathe of content. This latest entry includes single player missions, a huge multiplayer mode, the Nazi zombies sub-game, and an on-trend battle royale mode (Blackout). In the case of Black Ops IIII this is the first series entry to ship without a story campaign (it does still include a 'Solo Missions' mode) and this is a decision developer Treyarch says was made at the start of the game's development cycle, because it reflected how the majority of players were spending their time: in multiplayer.
If we look at Activision's handy installation guide we can see that, basically, players with a disc are downloading almost the whole game.
Installing Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 from a PlayStation 4 disc
Before playing for the first time, players will need to download and install a day one update for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. This update must be installed completely in order to access Multiplayer, Zombies, and Specialist Headquarters. Blackout is fully playable once installation is about 30% complete (approximately 16-20 GB).
[...] The final installation footprint will be approximately 55 GB.
[...] The day one update package is roughly 50 GB.
Downloading and installing digital copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
The day one version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is roughly 55 GB. Download speeds may vary based on region, platform, connection type, and the speed of your internet connection.
More importantly: after the download, owners of the disc version and the digital version both have a 55GB Black Ops III install. In this context you might justifiably say that, whatever is going on behind-the-scenes, the disc is acting as nothing more than an authentication key.
I'm not saying Activision or Treyarch deserve sympathy for dropping a 50GB launch patch, or using a disc as a Trojan horse to get the same amount of data on your hard drive as a digital version. I'd also add that Treyarch has form with regards to huge install requirements: the studio's last game, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, currently hogs an incredible 101GB of space on a PS4's hard drive. If Blops IIII doesn't eventually zoom past that total, you'd be surprised.
But I also think it's important in this context to think about what Black Ops IIII is as a product, beyond being 'another COD.' What that means is it's an overwhelmingly multiplayer-focused online game that, as is now common practice, will continue to be supported post-launch with regular and significant content updates (some parts paid, some free to all). It's no surprise really that Treyarch wants to be freed of considering discs while maintaining this game in the way it needs to be.
Industry types talk about games that hit a certain scale being platforms in their own right, or games-as-a-service is another favoured one, and COD has been lurching in that direction for years (it arguably is a platform, but a weird one inasmuch as the annualised nature of the games kind of splits its own market). The question is whether this type of game is what the players want. If the massive success of COD is any indicator, then many do. A 50GB download on launch day is inconvenient, for sure, but will it really put people off buying the game? You'd imagine 99% of purchasers won't even know the bad news till they get home.
Thing is, it's hard to see there's any serious alternative among the crazy notions that pop up on forums and in my inbox. Yes, you could suggest the various COD development studios should finish their game, then treat that master disc as sacrosanct, and minimise the volume of post-launch content. But that's not realistic, and it's not gonna happen (not to mention players would probably hate that even more).
Black Ops IIII is part of what's now a decades-long lineage that has been built around its online component: it's not strictly an MMOG, but I think you could probably make a good argument that it might as well be. This game needs to launch for multiple millions of global online players, keep running smoothly with minimal downtime for years to come, and be updated on an extremely regular basis. Who knows what's happened during this game's production, and whether that has anything to do with it. But a 50 GB download on launch for an almost entirely online experience doesn't raise my eyebrows in the way it once would have.
If there is a 'victim' of the 50GB patch, then sadly it's retail. The news of the patch and early sales emphasise that you'd be better off pre-ordering digitally and pre-loading than going along to a store launch and taking a physical copy of a game home (which will only install the same volume of data). That's already the case, of course, but as more customers recognise that the disc is not really a disc anymore...
This launch patch for of Black Ops IIII reflects the latest stage of the gaming industry's transition from retail to digital, an inexorable shift, as well as the nature of online AAA development at this scale in 2018. Activision has been praised for 'allowing' retailers to sell the game early, by the way, but it's not as if people can play it early. The publishing giant has all of the power here and that's why, whatever COD players' thoughts on a 50GB launch patch may be, they'll just have to lump it.
Nobody likes downloading big updates but, at the same time, this is where video games are in 2018. And they're in that place because, for a game like COD, the audience expects ongoing support, additional content, and a consistently smooth and evolving online experience. Or does it? Perhaps one could argue it's more like 'the people want what the people get'. Either way it feels inevitable.
It's all well and good to crusade on behalf of the sanctity of the disc, but the notion that 'the full game should be on the disc I buy' treats that disc in such isolation from the video games industry as it exists now. Player expectations for a game like Black Ops IIII are sky-high; it's not enormously surprising that Black Ops IIII has a few expectations of its own.