Valve patents “instant play” game downloads

Play a game on Steam before the kettle's boiled

Steam owner Valve has plans for a new method of downloading games, allowing players instant access to software while it’s installing.

The system is found in a new patent filing, which you can view online here and here. While it has the rather dry title of “Tracking file system read operations for instant play of video games, and for client-side discarding and prefetching of game data”, the implications could be significant for players and developers alike.

It seems to be based around communicating which parts of a game users typically need to access first, possibly based on what a number of players do first in a game. For instance, one part of the patent details how it will “calculate a statistic for individual blocks of game data based on when those blocks were accessed during game sessions of N users”.

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The technology may have been in the works for a while, as the patent was originally filed on March 17 2020, before being published today (September 21), as spotted by SteamDB creator Pavel Djundik.

If Steam implements the system, it could also bring benefits such as clearing up hard drive space by automatically removing unused data, or pre-fetching data ahead of when it’s needed, which could improve loading times.

Perhaps best of all, as Djundik points out, “This feature does not require game developers to change anything”, which could mean smoother delivery for players without any additional work load for creators.

While several games on Steam already allow owners to start playing before they are fully installed, this new method of downloading – and, crucially – playing games could be part of Steam’s strategy for its upcoming Steam Deck handheld. As a portable machine, it’s easy to imagine how an instant play system could be useful for on-the-go gaming.

It’s also worth noting that both Sony and Microsoft consoles allow players to start playing before a game is fully installed, although typically a large chunk of the game must still be downloaded first. How or if Valve’s patent differs in practice remains to be seen.

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Elsewhere, Sega has revealed the full list of retro video games that will be playable in Yakuza spin-off Lost Judgment. The roster will feature arcade and Master System games, including Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Fantasy Zone, and Sonic The Fighters, plus many more.

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