Indications that Valve is developing a 'play the game while its downloading' feature for its Steam PC software store have emerged. SteamDB creator, Pavel Djundik, noticed that Valve has been working on a technology which is referred to as "instant play", for this very purpose. This in-the-background development has been revealed on a recent posting on Free Patents Online, as Valve sought patents for its implementation(s) in May this year.
You might have heard of similar technologies on PC and consoles. In the HEXUS news section we reported on Xbox One FastStart back in June 2018, a system which introduced a download method which identified which files were needed to begin playing and prioritized the download of those files first. However, it seems like FastStart was a false start, as I can't find any more official info about it after a blog post about FastStart test games for Insiders published in Oct 2018.
On the PC side of things, stores like Battle.Net (Blizzard) and Origin (EA) have some similar technologies implemented for some games. As I understand it, the games which play nicely with these systems have been designed to work in that manner – so some development time has been expended to let you 'play the game while it's downloading', and these are much smaller platforms than PC-dominant Steam.
One of the killer features of Steam Instant Play, according to the patent papers, is that it is a platform solution that will work with any games on Steam, new or old, once the technology is implemented. In brief, the technology is described as working as follows; the Steam Instant Play system checks though the read operations of the game executables and determines priorities for downloads from this. Using this method, Instant Play should work for any title, allowing Steam to download start-up priority files, and continue to download in the background as you begin playing.
From the above description, it is pretty obvious that Instant Play will work better with some titles than others. Also, the system will probably get better the longer it has been gathering telemetry and has been in place. Logically, the download optimization apple-cart could be upset with developers regularly updating games and depending on the ways access to big DLCs and so on are provided.
Tracking file system read operations for instant play of video games, and for client-side discarding and prefetching of game data
United States Patent 11123634
Client machines running game executables of a video game(s) may utilize a file system proxy component that is configured to track read operations made by the game executable during a game session, to generate access data based on the tracked read operations, and to report the access data to a remote system. This telemetry approach allows the remote system to collect access data reported by multiple client machines, to catalogue the access data according to client system configuration, and to analyze the access data to generate data that is usable by client machines to implement various game-related features including, without limitation, “instant play” of video games, discarding of unused blocks of game data to free up local memory resources, and/or local prefetching of game data for reducing latency during gameplay.
I'm not sure whether it is within Valve's scope, but the Instant Play functionality could be smoothed or enhanced with some cloud game streaming capabilities too.
Before I sign off, it is worth commenting that Valve hasn't officially announced anything along the lines of Instant Play at the time of writing. This could be another one of those patents which comes to light but never precipitates a real-world application or product.