Programming & File Size

Home Forums Previous Months 31 – August 2019: UFO: Enemy Unknown Programming & File Size

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  • Simon Ashtear

    I’d like to start off by confessing that I’m an idiot. I have a very weak programming background. If I don’t know what I’m talking about, I welcome input, corrections, and explanations.

    One of the things that always amazed me about X-COM was its file size. I’m looking at the file size of the Steam version of X-COM and it’s 16 MB. I originally had a CD copy, but that could easily have fit on just 4 or 5 floppy diskettes. It came out in 1994, computers weren’t as powerful, so games were smaller back then.

    One of my favorite X-COM clones is Ghost Control Inc. and that’s a whopping 326 MB. It has a retro aesthetic, small map size, small resolution, and I just have to wonder, where did all that bloat come from? Visually, it doesn’t look, sound, or play much more impressive than the original X-COM.

    Good grief, I’m looking at another infinitely replayable game I remember with a vast universe and was previously on DOSGamesClub, Starflight. GOG’s copy of Starflight 1+2 together needs 48 MB. Now I KNOW that can’t be accurate or representative of it’s original file size.

    I recall learning about the life of the late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. He was a gamer and a leader, but also a programmer. There were stories about him coming onto a project, working through the night, racing against a deadline, and doing what no one thought could be done. It would be difficult to overstate his contributions. Without him, without his talents, HAL Labs, Pokemon, Kirby, Smash, and Earthbound might never have succeeded.

    Now, when some big AAA games are released, it’s not uncommon to see a 50 GB patch on day 1. What are today’s programmers doing? I worry that somewhere along the line, we lost something. I can’t think of any modern “brilliant” or “genius” programmers besides Iwata or John Carmack. I invite readers to correct me.

    How have game file sizes become so big? Is it just the graphics? Just the high-fidelity audio? You don’t need those for a great game to hook you and stand the test of time. X-COM is a shining example of that. How did it cram so much into such a tiny package?

    A lot of it goes over my head, but I’m trying to learn how old games were programmed. I’ve seen a video about Micro Mages, a modern NES game that was supposed to be programmed with NES restrictions and limitations in mind. Programming under those limitations breeds a certain kind of creativity and innovation.

    I’m not sure what my final point is. X-COM did a lot, with little on hand. And I don’t know if we’ll see creative talent like that again.


    To note, DOSBox, the MS-DOS emulator which is needed to run many of those old games and comes packaged together with many GOG games, is 24MB (standalone Windows version) – a large size mostly because it requires a lot of functionality, emulating many different hardware configurations.

    XCOM for MSDOS, installed, weighs around 10MB, I imagine people from GOG when packaging didn’t want the user to have to go through the installation process from a disk that doesn’t exist, so it is packaged preinstalled.

    OpenXCOM, the opensource port to run XCOM on modern systems is itself 16MB (standalone Windows ver).

    Indeed, most of a modern game is graphics and audio – I see nothing wrong with that, but if you find offence there is usually “RIP”ed versions around on torrent sites, which remove the music, lower the quality of texture files to improve compression, and often remove videos and cutscenes – saving considerable space. Those are an alternative if you are particular about disk space.

    One downside of increasing compression to reduce file sizes is increasing asset loading times – most players much rather spend more time downloading or installing than waiting for the game to load.

    The thing with doing a NES game – and I have attempted so myself – is that the work to do anything is phenomenal, easily say 10-100x times the work to do the same for a modern platform.

    As an aside, the largest NES game is Dragon Quest IV, at 1MB, already quite huge considering the limitations of the platform.


    “How have game file sizes become so big? Is it just the graphics? Just the high-fidelity audio?”

    Essentially, yes. 100 KB of OPL instructions can play hours and hours of music, but the same amount of space can only hold 5 seconds of MP3 audio.

    The same sort of thing can be seen in graphics, where a single texture for a modern high resolution 3D model can be larger than all of the graphics in an old low res 2D game combined.

    The code itself is larger as well, but I don’t think that’s nearly as significant a factor as the audio and visual data.

    Here’s a nice article about this very subject with some interesting quotes from game developers:


    What’s also very different is the way disk space is perceived by game developers now vs then. Back in the day games were distributed on floppy disks, so if a game didn’t fit on a single one, it meant production costs would be a lot higher. Also shipping a game on many disks is cumbersome for the player, so there was a strong focus on keeping game size to a minimum.

    With the introduction of the CD-ROM and later DVD and Blu-ray, keeping games small in size became less and less important, to the point where we are now.

    Evil Taco

    Thanks for the recommendation for GhostControlInc, I’ve added that to my wishlist now. 🙂


    I also refer you folks to this tweet
    this tweet


    Without counting compression, graphics size goes up on the square of the resolution. You have a 10×10 image, that is 100 pixels you have to save. You have a 20×20 image that is 400 pixels. Back in the 90s, I had an 800×600 monitor: 480,000‬ pixels. Today I have a 1920×1200 monitor: 2,304,000 pixels. So every image you make is going to take a LOT more space. Plus, you have to make a lot more of them, as you have to texture every part of a 3D model.

    Now, compression technology has gotten a LOT better, which helps. There have also been some amazing work done in generating graphics through algorithms, check out but so far hard disk space is cheap.

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Home Forums Previous Months 31 – August 2019: UFO: Enemy Unknown Programming & File Size