Friday, April 28, 2017

Reducing Disks on Later PC Game Releases - What is Lost

PC games were often re-released.  Even though they may be older, a budget-friendly price can attract a surprising number of buyers.  To keep the costs down, often games are released in smaller boxes, sometimes paper manuals turned into electronic manuals.  It is not unknown for a game to be released on fewer discs/disks than it was released on originally, without being put onto a higher capacity storage medium.  In this blog entry, I will discuss several famous examples where this occurred and what the effect of the disk/disc reduction was.

King's Quest IV

King's Quest IV (KQ4) was originally released on nine 5.25" 360KB floppies.  Sierra had a dual-media policy at the time, so the KQ4 original release boxes also included the game on four 3.5" 720KB floppy disks as well.  Sierra's games were expensive for the time but they were also on the cutting edge technologically.  KQ4 was a huge game for its time at 2.5MB and supported several sound devices, Adlib, Roland MT-32, IBM Music Feature, Tandy 3-voice sound and PC Speaker.

KQ4 was the first game that used Sierra's SCI engine.  The first two versions of the game use SCI interpreter versions that handle sound drivers differently than later versions of the interpreter.  This means that you cannot copy over a Yamaha FB-01 or Game Blaster driver to the first two versions of KQ4 and expect it to work.  Leisure Suit Larry 2 (LSL2) also has this issue in its first version.  Later versions of these games would improve the FM sound of the Adlib and IMFC/FB-01.  There were early-KQ4 and LSL2 versions of the CMS/Game Blaster driver.

While LSL2's only real improvements in later versions would be in its sound engine (and the copy protection bypass code). KQ4's later versions look quite a bit different from the earlier versions.  In order to keep KQ4 profitable, Sierra eliminated one of the 5.25" floppy disks in the later versions.  They did this with several methods.  They reduced the size and detail of certain art assets.  They increased the use of dithering and removed non-essential objects from some screens.  Finally, while there were distinct day and night screens for each outdoor screen in the early versions, the later versions simply darken the color of the sky.  This vogons post gives an idea of some of the changes :

Ironically, the later versions of KQ4 are friendlier toward lesser hardware than the earlier versions.  Sierra's newer code was better optimized for speed.  This made playing these games on lower-end AT machines like the Tandy 1000 TX less of a chore.  Characters move faster across the screen and screens load more quickly.  However, these speed optimizations broke the game when trying to enter the waterfall on 386 and fast 286 machines.  Sierra had to release a patch to fix the problem.

Of course, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, obtaining the patch was not cut and dried.  First, you had to discover that this was a bug with the game, not your PC.  That typically meant either calling Sierra's support line, finding the information in its magazine or looking it up on a BBS message board.  Long-distance telephone calls were not free in those days.  (These days, you can use Skype to video chat with anyone, anywhere in the world, for free.)  Next, you had to have the patch mailed out to you on disk unless you were lucky enough to have a modem to download it from Sierra's BBS (and knew how to use terminal software).  Downloading from a remote BBS also caused you to incur long-distance telephone call charges.

The ability to play entirely off floppy disks was something that was guaranteed to IBM PC Compatible DOS games in the 1980s, but the 1990s quickly saw the requirement of a partial, then a full hard drive install.  Pool of Radiance only came on three 360KB floppy disks but the game was compressed and could not be run off the original disks.  You could install it to floppy disks, and I believe the game required seven 360KB disks if you used this method.  King's Quest V was among the last big-multi floppy disk games that offered the user the ability to run the game entirely off floppy disks.  Running the 256-color version of KQ5 off floppy disks took an eternity.  You could also run the game partially off floppies, but most people simply went for the full hard drive option.  The Secret of Monkey Island was a game that originally allowed you to play off floppies, even the 256-color version.  By the time it was being released at a budget price, it was typically fully compressed on the floppy disks, requiring a hard drive install.

Baldur's Gate & Planescape Torment

Baldur's Gate (BG) originally shipped on five CDs, which was large for a 1998 PC game that did not rely on FMV.  It's expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast (ToSC), added another CD for a total of six CDs.  The game could install itself fully to a hard drive, taking a whopping 2.5GB of hard drive space.  This was during a time when affordable hard drives were typically in the 8-10GB range.  The game uses an installer with only FAT16 volumes in mind, so it cannot recognize the true capacity of hard drives larger than 2GB.  Despite the installer's warnings, you can still do a full install of the game if you have sufficient drive space.  If the user did not have or want to dedicate that much space to a single game, he had the option of running the game partially off the CD.  The game would set a few hundred megabytes aside to cache frequently used area data on the hard drive, so CD access would not necessarily be constant.

While Baldur's Gate was also released on DVD in 1999, thereby eliminating disc swapping (except for the expansion), not everybody owned a DVD drive at the time.  The 5CD version would be released with the official 1.1.4315 patch pre-installed.  Eventually, BG and ToSC were combined as Baldur's Gate: The Original Saga.  In this compilation, the six CDs were eventually replaced with three CDs.  The 3CD contains the content of the 6CD in the following manner, new CD1 contains the data and movies for original CD1, new CD2 contains the data and movies for original CD2 & 5, and new CD3 contains the data and movies for CD3, 4 & 6.  ToSC was automatically installed, and the version is 1.3.5521.  This includes the DirectX 8.0 Multiplayer patch.

Install sizes have ballooned considerably with the newer version.  The old version gave a recommended install of 557MB, but the new version gives a minimum install of 1035MB (but you can get it down to 880MB). Fortunately if you are strapped for space, you can elect not to install the data and movies from the new CD2 & 3 and some of the data and movies from CD1.

Weirdly, neither the 5CD installer nor the newer 3CD installer for BG would run in my Windows 10 64-bit PC unless I booted Win 10 into safe mode.  After that, using the directdraw patch located here : fixed the issues with the fog of war looking oddly angular.  These fixes should work for other Infinity Engine games which suffer from the same issues.

Planescape: Torment (PST), which uses the same engine as Baldur's Gate, originally shipped on four CDs in 1999.  It was very well-reviewed but not a lot of people bought it.  Unlike BG, I am not sure if the 4CD version was ever patched (to v1.1.)

Eventually PST was re-released as a bargain title.  It was easy to obtain in a jewel-case two pack with Soulbringer.  The budget version of PST was reduced to two CDs and patched to v1.1.  The 2CD version came with the official "Leprechaun Annah" or "Easter Egg Morte" mods.

Most of the data files for Infinity Engine games like BG and PST are stored in .bif files.  On the original releases, they remain in that format.  However, with the 3CD of BG and the 2CD version of PST, they are stored on the CDs as .cbf files.  In other words, they are compressed on the CD to save space.  When installed to a hard drive, they are uncompressed into .bif files.  So if you do a full install of BG off the 3CD of BG you will suffer no performance issues compared to the 6CD version or the DVD version.  The installation will take longer, however, but there will be fewer disc swaps.   If you must play off CDs, then the game will take the .cbf file, uncompress it and then copy it to the cache folder.  The decompression may result in larger areas requiring twice the time to load.

The 2CD version of PST is another issue.  Installing the data and movies content off CDs 2-4 of the 4CD had to be done manually.  The same applies for CD2 of the 2CD.  The files will remain in the cbf format until cached.  In this case, there are cbf decompression utilities that you can use to do the job before beginning the game.

In short, the fewer CD releases come pre-patched and with compressed data files which the games decompress either during an install or when seeking that data for the first time.  You can also decompress them with 3rd party tools like cbf2bif to eliminate the extra load times resulting from decompression.  But if you have to play them off CDs, areas will take longer to load, unless previously cached, then the older CD releases.

The Longest Journey

The Longest Journey was one of the best traditional adventure games of 1999.  It was also one of the few adventure games of the period to gain any significant and positive attention from the mainstream gaming press.  Like PST, it was reviewed a lot better than it sold.  It came on four CDs when it was first released, but when Funcom decided to re-release it in a small box as a budget title, they were able to condense it onto two CDs.  They also made the game friendlier to newer OSes like Windows 2K, XP and Vista.

TLJ is a very talky game, every character has voice acting.  Funcom added compression to the voice samples and were essentially able to fit everything on one disc except for the movies.  You can do a partial install of TLJ, but the install will be 680MB for the 2CD version instead of 190MB for the minimal install of the 4CD version.  The 4CD version gave the user the option of playing back lower resolution movies for slower systems, but the 2CD version removed the low res movies to save space because the hardware then available would always be powerful enough to run the high res movies.  In order to run the new sound engine, the developers rebuilt the game.

The 4CD version will always be at Build/Version 1.42.  It cannot be patched, but there is a fix included on CD1 to get by the police station crash bug in Chapter 3.  The 2CD version can start at Build 1.47 and can be patched to Build 1.61.  Each Build increase fixed bugs and crashes, which suggests that the rebuild was buggier than the original or the original has bugs that were never fixed.

I have both the 4CD and 2CD versions and was able to compare the two.  The 4CD is much friendlier to 1990s-era systems than the 2CD.  The main difference is in the sound.  When I ran both versions in my Pentium III/600MHz machine, the 2CD version (patched to v1.61) often displayed a level of hiss not present on the 4CD version.  Certain sound effects like April walking sound more like noise than steps.  Other sound effects have a harsh metallic sound not present on the old version.  The introductory movie was full of hiss.  I used a Diamond Multimedia MX300 Aureal Vortex 2 card, which was popular back in 1998-99 and my favorite PCI sound card.

At first, I came to the conclusion that the compression used was poor and very lossy.  However, the in-game voice acting was clear and did not suffer from lots of hiss.  So I decided to try the 2CD version in my Windows 10 64-bit PC.  My CDs came with v1.47, but the game would not run until I patched it to v1.61.  When I got the game to run, the hiss was gone.  There was no longer an obvious decrease in sound quality compared to the 4CD version running on my vintage machine.  I came to the conclusion that the 2CD's decompression routines were not optimized for my card.

I would note that in-game voice acting would occasionally stutter for a moment on the 4CD version with my vintage PC.  I remember this occurring when I first played the game with a Sound Blaster Live! over fifteen years ago on a system with similar specifications and it continued when I was recording the 4CD version with an Diamond Multimedia MX300 Aureal Vortex 2 card recently when researching for this article.  Setting the Worstcaseframerate from the default of 10 to 7 in the Advanced Options tab that appears before the game starts, as described in the readme.txt file, seemed to get rid of almost all the stuttering for me.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

As for obtaining patches, I bought a used copy of Daggerfall at a thrift-shop in about 2000. The game was on CD, but also included in the box was a floppy disk with a patch/update to a later version (more up-to-date patches were available online). I do not know if this was something added to the box by a subsequent owner, or if it originally shipped that way.