The Mystery Behind PlayStation 3’s Sometimes Mandatory Installations

Tired of mandatory hard drive installs on PlayStation 3? Blame Blu-ray and DVD.

Capcom took a public stoning last month when “Devil May Cry 4″ was released on PS3 with a mandatory 20-minute installation not necessary on Xbox 360.

Since then, Capcom VP of business development and strategic planning Christian Svennsson told me his company didn’t realize the issue would “blow up.” He says the company will take the response into account for future releases.

Figuring out why some games require these installs has been like pulling teeth. Publishers don’t want to talk about it, and Sony won’t come clean for them. I contacted multiple parties — chiefly Capcom, Sony, and Ubisoft — while researching this story and hit stone walls at almost every turn.

Nonetheless, we’ve been getting close to an answer, and everything comes back to a developer spending enough time to understand the unique characteristics of Blu-ray. It’s Blu-ray’s “fault,” but not because it’s slow tech. It’s just different tech.

This is what I’ve learned:

The PS3 version of “Lost Planet” requires installs, too. As does “Lost: Via Domus” and “Hot Shots Golf” from Sony. But “Dark Sector” and many other PS3 releases don’t.

The issue arises from differences in the reading techniques of DVD and Blu-ray. By nature, the outer and inner parts of a disc move at different speeds while a disc is spinning, regardless of format (CD, DVD, Blu-ray, HD-DVD, etc.). While DVD drives can read data at those differing speeds, Blu-ray reads at one speed. Combine that with the extremely large size of Blu-ray discs, and simply dumping existing DVD data onto a Blu-ray disc will inevitably result in longer load times.

Installations are a way around this issue.

When a publisher asks you to install a game on PS3, it’s because they’re moving some of the disc data to an area of your console that has much faster read access: the hard drive. You get vastly reduced loading times, but have to sit through an installation.

There are other ways to combat this, as we can infer from “Dark Sector,” “Call of Duty 4,” “Burnout Paradise” — all multi-platform titles without installs. Based on conversations we’ve had with several developers, catering to Blu-ray is hardly impossible, but requires work. Some developers copy their game’s data on the disc multiple times, giving the drive more areas to seek the same exact data from. Others spent time optimizing streaming techniques.

Bethesda Softworks executive producer Todd Howard recently publicly confirmed the duplicated data technique as a strategy on his company’s “Fallout 3.” “Small things like this can make a huge difference over the course of a game,” he told PlayStation: The Official Magazine.

Some games, like “Unreal Tournament III,” make the process optional. Epic Games recommends doing it, but if you want to save space, they won’t stop you. In my weeks playing “UT3,” the reduced loading was worth the trouble. The seconds saved between firefights adds up over hundreds of matches.

Readers, do you mind installing games? Is making it optional the best solution?

Have a hot tip? Is there a topic that Multiplayer should be covering and isn’t? Maybe know more about this installation mystery than I do. Drop me an e-mail.