As Loading Times Shrink on PS5 and Xbox Series X, I'll Miss Loading Screens
Loading screens have been a key part of the gaming experience for years, so what are we losing with next-gen consoles' shorter loading times?
Loading screens are a staple of gaming; they’ve been around since its beginning and have changed incredibly over time. These short breaks between games are at the root of so many emotions that players feel in-game, or at least that’s how they’ve affected me. But they also serve practical purposes – clever developers have constantly found ways to fill these small breaks in content with even more content. But as we move into the next generation of consoles with the PS5 and Xbox Series X (which will likely be the current generation by the time this article is published), which have targeted loading screens with deadly precision using high-speed Solid State Drives (or SSDs), it’s a good time to look back on the good things that came out of loading screens, and what games will lose as they shrink their loading times from minutes to seconds.
In the original Mega Man titles, load screens were instant – a quick fade to black when entering a level, and then those iconic slides to the next room. In fact, you may be surprised to find that a lot of older games have instant load times, a detail we all have passed over during playthroughs of Super Mario 3. That’s because those old cartridges that you’d slap into the NES were essentially the great-great-great-grandpappies of modern SSDs, the drives you’ll find in a PS5 or Xbox Series X now. Cartridges weren’t able to hold a whole lot of data, but when it came to transfer speeds, they were blisteringly fast. That’s why all you had to do to play Banjo & Kazooie was put in the cartridge, turn the console on and blam, you’re playing the game.
Load screens actually came along with the advent of CDs as the main media format for games. They offered a much higher amount of storage space, but came with the downside of not being able to transfer all that data at once. And so, loading screens as we’ve known them for the past 25-some odd years were born, ready to frustrate gamers or at least give them some time to go get a glass of water. Yes, this is me talking to you, dehydrated gamer. Go hydrate yourself, then come back and finish reading this article.
But as consoles crawled out of their primordial cartridge-based ooze and into the modern era of CDs, Blu-ray, and 4K resolutions, developers had to find some way to make the time spent between action-packed platforming or first-person-shooting entertaining, or at least serve a function. You couldn’t just leave a player sitting there, staring at their reflection in a black TV. That’s how people start thinking about what they’re doing, sitting there waiting for a game to load when they could be doing something much more productive and it all just spirals downhill from there. Instead, developers filled load screens with other things; small enough to not take up too much data so load times wouldn’t be lengthened, but entertaining enough to not bore players. These loading screens didn’t just pad out the time between action: they improved the overall experience of some games.
Playing One Game While Another Loads
My personal favorite among the different genres of load screens is the mini-game, where developers decide that the best way players can spend their time between gameplay is with even more gameplay. To be honest, I don’t have many recent memories of load screens that actually have games inside of them; they’re all from the PS2 era, and specifically from the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai series of fighting games.
As it turns out, there was a good reason for that. Namco actually filed a trademark all the way back in 1998 with the U.S Patent and Trademark office for what it called “auxiliary games.” This patent ended up including any games jammed into loading screens, which is why for a while, you’d mainly find these loading screens in (you guessed it) Dragon Ball Z: Budokai games. Largely, these games weren’t even all that great. They required mashing a button as fast as you could to make Vegeta do more pushups, or spinning the joystick as fast as you could to grow Sibamen. Did I mention they were simple?
Still, these quick games between high-intensity bouts in Budokai were a lot of fun for me as a kid. It’s a shame that other developers haven’t really tried their hands at making more loading screen mini-games since Namco’s patent expired in 2015. I suppose it’s not really all that important anymore unless some crafty developer makes a mini-mini-game you can play for about seven seconds.
Hints, Tips And Tricks Without GameFAQs
Another big one in the many different flavors of loading screen is the hint screen. You’ll typically find these in RPGs, although they do show up in other games. They’re some of the most utilitarian loading screens; they have a distinct purpose that isn’t really to entertain so much as it is to inform.
To keep these hints digestible, they’re usually short snippets of information; not a whole lot to go off of, but a gentle push in a general direction. In Skyrim, reading that the Dragonborn can get married at a temple in Riften could easily spark off a player’s quest for love. When something like that happens, loading screen hints are successful.
“These loading screens didn’t just pad out the time between action, they improved the overall experience of some games.”
Of course, there are also tips in loading screens: little tidbits that remind players how to play the game they’re waiting to continue playing. I make that sound a whole lot more disingenuous than it actually is – sometimes these tips are completely necessary. I leaned on them heavily during my playthrough of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which took me a little over two years to finish after multiple breaks because of other major releases or work. I’d end up coming back to the game vaguely remembering where I was and what I was doing, but not remembering how everything in the massive game worked. Loading screen tips and hints fleshed out that information for me and got me back on track to actually beating the game. I can genuinely say that without its loading screens, my time with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey would have been much more difficult.
Something Nice to Look at
This is the most common kind of loading screen in my experience, and the kind that a majority of people absolutely loathe. I’ll call Skyrim out again because it’s such a big part of that game’s loading screens – you’ve got your hint in the bottom left corner and a big ol’ model of something on the screen off-center. All you can do is make the model spin around faster so you can see how detailed it isn’t, or zoom in and out. These screens were the bane of my existence when I was playing Skyrim on an Xbox 360 in high school, and have been in almost every game that I’ve played since.
That counts double for games that came out on the PS4. In the time that I spent waiting for Red Dead Redemption 2 to load up, watching a slideshow of different old-west themed pictures, I could have beaten at least one Yakuza game and spared myself constant ridicule in the DualShockers Discord (I’ll beat Yakuza 0 soon, Kris, please give me time). Numerous games on the PS4 had me waiting minutes to play them, offering up nothing more than a still shot or a short slideshow. While these can sometimes help grant players an idea of where they are, in GTAV they only signaled that now was the best time to run to the bathroom or stare at Twitter for about five minutes.
But not every loading screen like this was terrible; some actually made games even better. Going back, it’s impossible to ignore the loading screens of the PlayStation 2 Ratchet & Clank games. You’d see the long-eared Lombax and his little robot pal hop into a spaceship and take off for your chosen destination, followed by a few clips of the ship zipping across outer space. At the time, it gave me a real sense of scale. My 10-year-old brain was just going “wow, they just traveled so far!” and I was in awe.
Mass Effect mastered the same practice, but with different applications. Sure, you’d see the Normandy jump through different mass relay stations, but outside of that the game had gorgeous, busy animations showing Shepard on the move. If you were taking the elevator down in the Normandy, you could see the cabin sliding down in a constantly-updating blueprint of the ship. The same applied to getting around the game’s larger areas, like the Citadel.
Loading screens like these actually grant a bit more immersion when they’re initially experienced. Instead of player characters magically moving somewhere we get to actually see them move, and that grants some more context to fast traveling. I’ll squeeze in a mention of Marvel’s Spider-Man here because fast travel in that game–seeing Spider-Man taking the train–is absolutely brilliant and serves the same purpose. It gives the world a more lived-in sense while granting a bit more context to the player’s movements.
I know we’re all eager to say goodbye to loading screens. Hell, even I am. I’m tired of watching the Wild West pictures in loading screens for Red Dead Redemption 2, and I’m tired of how long it takes for a game of PUBG to load up. When I play a game, I want it to be like that experience players had in the ’90s on Nintendo consoles; media in, console on, and I’m playing a game almost right away.
But the past 25 years have given developers the time to figure out what to do with those stretches between gameplay, and admittedly, some of them got it right. When a loading screen is done well, you don’t mind that you have to wait 30 seconds or a minute. You can spend that time watching some animations, playing a mini-game, or otherwise entertaining yourself with whatever else is packed into that small time frame. So while we’re all celebrating that the Xbox Series X will load games in a fraction of the time it takes the Xbox One X to do the same, let’s all take a moment and remember those brief respites from our gaming adventures and how they helped tie together those experiences.