Microsoft’s newest update to the Xbox 360, the New Xbox Experience, released today. As we reported last week one of the cool new features is that games can be saved to the hard drive. For most games this allows them to load faster and in some cases helps alleviate graphical glitches like “pop in.”
The exception to this seems to be Halo 3. Not only does Halo 3 not benefit from storing the game to the hard drive, but it actually makes it load slower.
|Section Tested||DVD Load Time||HDD Load Time|
|Sierra 117||46 seconds||53 seconds|
|Crow’s Nest||59 seconds||70 seconds|
|Tsavo Highway||46.5 seconds||57 seconds|
|The Storm||52 seconds||64 seconds|
|Floodgate||54 seconds||64.5 seconds|
|The Ark||61 seconds||69 seconds|
|The Covenant||66.5 seconds||78 seconds|
|Cortana||40.5 seconds||48.5 seconds|
|Halo||80 seconds||65 seconds|
Bungie today posted on their forums explaining why a feature that was designed to speed games up actually slows theirs down.
To help explain why this is the case I tapped our uber engineer and Chief Caching Officer, Mat Noguchi, to answer a few questions.
What is the overall performance difference a player can expect to see when running Halo 3 straight from the disc versus installing it to their HDD? Some websites have reported that the game runs “worse” after the install.
The Xbox 360 HDD has a section for games to use called the utility partition. Games can use this section for whatever they want to; Halo 3 uses the utility partition to cache maps as they will load faster off the HDD than off the DVD. As a side note, the utility partition can be deleted when other games are played. This is why maps can take longer to load when you play another game in between various Halo 3 sessions. (As was the case with Halo 1 and Halo 2.)
So when Halo 3 runs, if a HDD is present, we copy maps from the DVD to the utility partition (on the HDD). Think of it as an on demand install of Halo 3 to some scratch space on the HDD. Halo 3 doesn’t actually know where it’s running from, so it always assumes it’s running from a DVD. This is an unfortunate consequence of new features (namely, install to HDD) being added to the Xbox 360 after Halo 3 shipped. And as a result, it means that even if Halo 3 is already installed to the HDD, it will still copy maps to the utility partition.
So then the real question is why is copying from HDD to HDD slower than copying from DVD to HDD? In the first case, you are reading from one I/O device (HDD) and writing to the same I/O device (HDD). In the second case, you are reading from one I/O device (DVD) and writing to a different I/O device (HDD). In the first case, because we are reading and writing to the same device, the total copy time is the amount of time it takes to read the map plus the time it takes to write the map. Ultimately this is because for the HDD, you read and write through the same mechanism, i.e., the hard drive read/write head, and those reads and writes cannot occur simultaneously through a single mechanism. (If they could, it would be awesome, and I wouldn’t have to document any of this. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do for other reasons.) For the second case, because we are reading and writing from different devices, the total copy time is the larger of the total time to read the map and the total time to write the map. This is because we can read from one device (DVD) at the same time we are writing to another device (HDD). There is some overhead because you can’t start writing data until you read it, but it is dwarfed by the time to copy a map. (About 128k vs. 500 MB or a ratio of 4000:1.)
There are other factors that contribute to load times, such as preloading data from the map you are about to start so that you don’t have to sit through a non-interactive loading screen; the only difference in load times occurs when we copy a map that has not been cached to the utility partition or has been evicted from the utility partition because some other maps were run. Once a map has been cached, the time to load it will be identical to running Halo 3 off the DVD with a HDD.
Why is this the case? Many other games have reportedly seen improved load times and performance after being installed to the HDD.
The technical reasons were outlined above, but for a higher level answer, we shipped Halo 3 before Microsoft finalized this particular feature. As a result, we were not able to take advantage of it (or any other potential optimizations we discovered after shipping Halo 3). Perhaps we also coded too close to the metal.
Is it possible for Bungie to update Halo 3 to better utilize the HDD install features of NXE?
While anything is possible, it would be a significant undertaking to try and retroactively patch/update Halo 3 to be optimized to take advantage of the HDD install features of NXE. The risks of doing that and the resources required has to be carefully considered against what could really be a rather insignificant change to the player experience. For now our team is focused on making great games for the future like Halo 3 : Recon and other unannounced projects but we will continue to monitor this
So far, Halo 3 is the only game that has been found to be slower when using the install to hard drive option, but in the weeks and months to come who knows what other games may have similar issues. Still, if you have room on your hard drive and you are playing something other than Halo 3 give this new option a try and see if you notice the faster load times.