How Loading Bars Really Work

The loading bar (or percentage) sits the near bottom of our screen between levels and every time it’ll have its repeated quirks. It goes slowly from 1% - 10% then races to 80% and hovers maddeningly at 95%. Every gamer has sat in silence looking at this, wondering just what the heck is going on. We learn the repeated quirks of our game’s load time and without knowing it, that loading quantifier is only really there to keep us sane. Or to keep us from walking away.

How Loading Bars Really Work

That last part about keeping us sane is probably the most important part of the user’s neverending battle with the load bar. Don’t get me wrong, this article is going to dig into the finer points of why your load bar is so whacky. Also why it will never ever move at a steady 1%,2%,3% predictability. Indeed it’s often nice to have a quantifier in our mind as to exactly when this thing will be ready for us to use but it’s a luxury load bars will never achieve for the simple mechanics of just what is going on in your machine. First, though, it’s important to know why they are there and why loading markers in games like Anthem are probably a bad idea… “Has it crashed? Who knows.”

The Psychology Of Load Bars Keeping Bums in Seats

Be your load bar a slowly filling pie diagram, a percentile number going up or well… just a good ol’ fashioned bar – these are here to serve the singular purpose of keeping you sat where you are. In a weird way, they are a kind of lie. If the load bar is at 50%, that in no way means your game is halfway loaded. Alas, our feeble human brains need to quantify what the machine is doing in some way and the load bar knows this. The Last of Us handled this poorly as its levels took a long time to load and we only got treated to a percentage marker by the time it hit 80%. First time players would be left wondering if everything was still working.

In this modern age, our brains more than ever, have been trained to enjoy the completion of tasks. In a way, that’s the very seed that gives life to videogames. But in the case of load bars, it’s a mantra serving to help us understand how the machine is completing a task – to make it relatable.

Ever seen a bunch of new unlocks for your character in Apex Legends, totally disinterested but examining them in the menu just to make that “this is new” marker go away? Well that’s all to do with your brain’s very subtle enjoyment of doing what it has evolved to do – complete tasks. The load bar makes the repeated tedium of the load screen that little bit more endurable. But why is it still so frustrating to make sense of when it jitters about so randomly? 

The Rocky Road of Data Transfer

Like all rocky roads, the one that leads to a successfully loaded game is bumpy. When we think of the term ‘data transfer’, the first thing that springs to mind is a copy and paste job. While not completely accurate, think of your saved game loading as a glorified copy and paste job. The instructions for exactly which specifics to recall for your specific save are in that ‘instructions snapshot’ – your save file. But bear in mind that not all tasks are created equal. Halo 3 did a great job of masking this with its 'loading ring' which seemed like a fluid animation. However, some levels revealed a change in the pace of the ring, proving yet again that the very nature of file transfer is a staggered process. 

For the script of the loading bar to attempt to show you some kind of progress, it can only update what it shows you after the completion of a task. So if it pauses for ages, it’s likely to do a big file transfer as part of the load sequence but may only display as 5% of the job. Likely something big like blanket map lighting effects. Where things start to get really impressive is when games play cinematics while an invisible load sequence is going on in the background. To that end, your machine is performing the hundreds of mini tasks required to load the next segment and playing you a video (or even more impressively, a real time sequence).

Cory Barlog, Creative Director of 2018’s God of War, argued with his colleagues at Sony Santa Monica a lot about this. His idea was to run real time, context initiated cutscenes while your machine took a moment to work like crazy to deliver a continued smooth experience on the other side of that cutscene. His colleagues called him crazy for even thinking it as this also tied into his master plan for the camera never to leave Kratos from start to finish. Cory stood his ground however and, somehow, Sony Santa Monica figured it out, earning God of War a recognised place in technical achievements of game development. Indeed, if you manage to play God of War from start to finish without ever dying, you’ll never see a load screen as the team pulled this bold move off so well. 

Anybody who has a lot of experience modding their games with Nexus Mod Manager will be familiar with ‘load order’. They can’t just slap on a bunch of complex mods and expect them all to work. They have to be loaded in order of dependency or one may cancel the other out as the sequence of instructions can lead to an override of certain elements. The same rule of thumb applies to every game you play. Y will not load into the outputted game if X wasn’t loaded first. So part of a game developer’s job is to understand in what order their assets need to get placed into the game before it’s playable. 

Do Loading Bars Have A Future?

Unfortunately, the way we have set up our infrastructure of data in this modern world means loading sequences are here to stay. That is, until some groundbreaking new method of data storage and transfer is discovered. Cloud gaming could be the solution to our load screen woes but bringing its live service to a point where a game not only runs smoothly but also loads instantaneously is a long, long way off. 

As a result, a games developer is left with the typical loading screen decisions to make. Do you go to the effort to create a cool animation that runs its course like the popularly maligned DMC? A simple percentage number? Or you do you try to bend the rules as Cory Barlog did, and hide all evidence of a load with cutscenes?

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