Warframe is Getting Sharper Textures
In an era where games are getting larger and larger, and consoles are about to ship with fast SSD’s that only have enough room to hold approximately four Call of Duty games, it’s rare to see a developer try and positively turn things in another direction.
However, that’s just what Digital Extremes is doing with Warframe. They’ve been impressively productive during the current work-from-home era, and right now they’re in the midst of a huge project they’ve lovingly called “The Great Ensmallening.”
Most of the file size of a game is made up not of the game’s code, but of the many different art and sound assets that you see and hear when you play. As systems get more powerful, gamers demand higher detail graphics and sound, and these detail increases generally require bigger assets…at least, up to a point. Sound doesn’t enhance much in detail beyond a CD quality standard, no matter how much Steelseries insists otherwise, and while higher resolution textures can look nice on 4K screens, there’s a balance between quality, performance, and memory usage that every studio ideally strives for.
The smaller the art assets, in general, the more efficiently the game can load and run. With less art to swap on and off the storage and into memory, your game can theoretically perform faster. But there’s also something magical called Texture Compression that helps with this process. A little like FLAC or MP3 but for visual data, texture compression algorithms can trim down file sizes and make game data more efficient by cutting out information that’s not easy to see when it’s flying by your face on-screen.
As time moves on, texture compression techniques get better, but usually development teams don’t get to go back to old assets and re-compress them with new technology. Once the game is done, it’s done. But Warframe’s development is on-going, and so they’ve been using new texture compression technology to streamline the game’s massive asset package, and cut out large swathes of data without decreasing the game’s visual quality.
In fact, the newest update that’s due out next week on PC will increase the visual fidelity in the game. The first big patch recompressed the lightmaps, and this latest one will recompress the textures. Since they were messing with the textures anyway, they decided to take a look at improving several of them. So, visual assets across the game are receiving a bump in detail and sharpness.
Not only will this work help the game to continue running great on PC’s and consoles now and into the future, it also makes the game more attractive to new players since the overall download time and install size of the game shrinks. That’s important in a world where the PS5 is about to ship with less than 800 usable gigabytes, where the Switch is limited to SD cards, and again, where Call of Duty is so large that Activision’s upcoming “fix” is to allow you to uninstall parts of the game you aren’t playing.
The file size onslaught shows no signs of slowing down, and not every gamer has infinite money to throw at bigger and bigger storage solutions. There’s only so much detail to be crammed on screen anyway, and using powerful hardware to reduce the file size load is an often-unsung benefit of the march of technology. I’m glad that Digital Extremes is undergoing this work on top of all the other content they make, and that they’re calling attention to what will only be a bigger problem going forward if other companies don’t pay careful attention to asset file size. I want to have more than five games installed at once, and I’d wager most other people do as well.