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The failure of the PC Game industry…

Game developers for the personal computer are becoming scarce. More and more developers are changing their focus to develop console games- games for the XBox 360, PS3, Wii, and so on. Many of the games that make it to the PC are low-quality “ports” of games that were first release months or years earlier on the console.

Why is this happening? There are a lot of reasons, and I imagine each developer would have a slightly different explanation of their particular defection. Here are the main reasons that I hear quoted and which sort of make sense to me:

  • there is no single “PC” to develop for: when you write a game for the PC, you actually have to develop dozens of “versions” or conditional code branches to account for all the variations. Different processor architectures, CPU speeds, video cards, memory configurations, hard drive and network configurations, and different operating systems. That is just account for Windows based machines. The variations in what is considered to be a “Windows PC” covers a vast sea full of hidden rocks and treacherous currents. Half of the development team for a Windows game isn’t writing the “game” at all- they are dealing with all the differences. And after all of that effort, it is still pretty much a guarantee that 5-10% of the supposed “compatible” users still won’t be able to play the game due to some oddity
    • Consoles, on the other hand, are almost absolutely consistent. If you develop your game for the XBox 360, it will work on absolutely every XBox 360. They all have the same CPUs, memory, network, and video: yes, there are some variations, but they are almost laughably trivial compared to PCs
  • there is too much piracy in the PC market: every PC user has pirated software. Games are one of the most commonly ripped off applications out there. It is often said that for every game sold, three to five copies are illegally duplicated. Copying software on PCs is almost trivial, and there is a large and easily accessible community of people who actively remove any PC game copy protection that comes out.
    • Pirating games on consoles is much more difficult. The hardware is locked down, the OS is not easily accessible, and almost all games are run directly from the installation media. Piracy on consoles exists, but the numbers are almost non-existent compared to the PC world

There is truth in each of the above points. It is almost impossible to argue with the first point: the strength of the PC is its customizability, but that strength makes it very difficult to develop a game that provides a consistent experience and stretches the boundaries of the hardware. The choice developers face is to either develop software for the “lowest common denominator” so it will work on hardware built several years ago, or to build for the cutting edge hardware and intentionally exclude a significant majority of their potential buyers. Even then, they still have to invest in massive and expensive testing platforms, then later in support and patches to correct the compatibility issues that will invariably arise.

The piracy issue is also real. Exactly how big the impact is can be debated, but no one can argue that a lot of gamers illegally copy their games rather than buying them. The most successful PC games are the ones where copying the software is pointless: online / massively multiplayer games. But not every game is “online”, so developers spend millions creating, testing, and supporting various anti-piracy methods that they add to their games. Various limitations are built into the software: you have to insert the original install disk, you must be online, you can only install the game three times, if your PC isn’t compatible with the copy protection the game may not work at all… this aggravates the users. The really foolish part of this is the fact that the only people who suffer from these anti-piracy limitations are the legitimate, paying customers. The people who illegally copy the software end up with a program that has all of these copy protection limitations removed. Think about it: you can pay and end up with a constrained, limited, irritating version of the software; or you can steal it, not paying a cent, and end up with an easy to install program without any limitations. Something is backwards here. Some companies are beginning to realize that the impact of copy protection and digital rights management are out of whack, so much so that they have proposed a gamer’s bill of rights. Not many developers have adopted it yet, though…

The above issues will continue to encourage developers to move away from the personal computer platform. Solutions will have to be found if we want to continue playing games without buying a little dedicated box for the purpose. As gamers, we probably have to accept some changes, possibly changes we won’t entirely like. The two things that I think need to change in order to keep at least some game development happening on the PC:

  • find a way to standardize the PC: Windows and DirectX help by providing developers with common APIs. But what we need is some “common gamers platform”, perhaps with a few well defined and easily communicated variables. You’d look at the game box and see it works with a type A, B, or C machine with Performance numbers 5, 7, and 3. Windows Vista has their performance numbers for games, and is sort of a step in the right direction, but I think more needs to be done to make it easier for both the developers and the gamers
  • adopt electronic distribution and online authentication: Valve has Steam, and it provides a form of copy protection (you have to log in periodically to validate ownership) along with a way to distribute games, updates, and free bonus features. This helps reduce if not eliminate piracy of the titles that fully support it. Some of this will undoubtedly alter the way games are designed: to work well, the developer needs to provide some tangible benefit for being “online”, running a legitimate copy of the game. It also would likely require that the developers free up some of the more draconian copy protection strategies: if you know that at least one legit copy has been purchased, and only one concurrent user of that game is playing, then quit worrying about how many physical copies of the bits have been installed. Developers might form some sort of collective to guarantee that the online authentication allowing gamers to play their game will always exist, even if the developer disappears. Players would need some kind of assurance that they get at least several years out of their game.

Part of this is that gamers will have to become more tolerant of being online to play “single player” games. But if I don’t have to worry about future re-installs being blocked, and if I get some sort of benefit from being online, I think I can sign up for that. Particularly if it means that at least some kind of healthy PC game industry persists into the future.

5 comments to The failure of the PC Game industry…

  • Oblivions

    I need to add a bitch about consoles and games that makes me very angry. When a game decides to a) jump from system (I submit Final Fantasy) or b) new evolutions of a system (PS1 – PS3, etc..) in such a short span of time. PS had it right to at least make the games backward compatible. I now have a collection of ‘obsolete’ systems around just to be able to play my favorites.

    I’m not against evolution, but it got so pricey I leaped out of the console sea in a hurry.

  • Interesting comment, Oblivions. Both Microsoft and Sony made their “new” game consoles (the PS3 and XBox 360) backwards compatible to at least some extent- although Sony is removing that compatibility with the latest PS3 models.

    You see the console upgrades as expensive yet my perception is that consoles are cheap. A new generation comes along about every 3-5 years, and costs about $500: call it $100 a year for new console hardware. Compare that to maintaining a PC ready to play the latest games: probably about $500 to $1000 a year. That is five to ten times as expensive. If you are fussy, like myself and some of my friends (Hi, Shane!), you can easily spend two or three times that amount every year on new PC hardware. Ouch!

    That is my observation… but maybe if I played different PC games, like real time strategy games, the need to upgrade my PC wouldn’t be so frequent. I’d still hazard a guess that I’d spend a lot more on my PC upgrades than on consoles. And consoles drop in price fairly fast: the PS3 is down around $350 now (from a start of nearly $700), and the XBox 360 is dropping down into the $250 range. Given that the games cost $70 each, and I typically buy four or five of them a year… the games for a single year cost more than the console hardware. If Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo started pumping out a new console every year, I’d be a bit miffed… but even then, I drop more than that on a new video card for my PC every year or so.

    I guess the whole cost discussion is relative, though- no matter what a console costs versus a PC, they both cost quite a bit.

  • Shane

    I was always in the mind set that consoles were sort of a waste of money, but nowadays I am almost tempted to get some sort of console system.
    My problem, would be trying to decide which one to get 🙂

    I play very few games on my pc these days Eq2, AoC, BF2, and that is about it. Keeping a computer up to date, and running with the latest hardware for the latest and greatest games, are kind of a pain to be honest.

    Especially when you shell out big bucks for a brand new system, only to have your onboard sound card crap out, so you have to go and spend another 100 bucks for a new soundcard, but what fun is slaying things, if you can’t hear them die ;P

  • Shane, I pretty much felt the same way you do for many years. I still prefer the PC in many ways, and doubt I’d stop playing PC games entirely until they pry my keyboard from my cold, dead hands. In my mind, consoles were always “less”: less graphics, less sound, less depth. And worst of all, little or no network connectivity.

    But the latest generation of consoles changes a lot of that for me. PS3, XBox 360, even the Wii: they all connect to the Internet, have pretty good graphics (the XBox 360 and PS3 especially), great sound, and good games. In many cases, games are now released on the consoles first, then on the PCs as an afterthought, sometimes not for years. The one real strong point for PCs has to be MMOGs- I suppose that will change too, but I’m skeptical about playing a massively multi-player RPG without a keyboard.

    As for which console… that can be a tough choice. The Wii is ideal as a “party game” system: friends come over and, instead of playing cards or a trivia game, you get out the Wii. The games for the Wii tend to be colourful and kind of childish, and are very easy to get into and out of. Since I have no friends, the Wii isn’t really for me 😉

    PS3 and XBox 360 are both aimed more at the (I hate to use this word) “hardcore” gamers: most of the games take more time to get into, and are more appropriate for someone who is going to take that time to figure out how the game works. The graphics on both the PS3 are more like what you are used to on the PC: not quite as good as the top end PCs, but often pretty impressive due to the fact that the graphics can be carefully optimized for the system. Currently, the XBox 360 has a larger selection of games, and many more of the games that you or I would immediately recognize. PS3 has fewer games, and many of the games are Japanese imports with “different” artistic and game play styles.

    Price-wise, all three consoles can be had right now for somewhere between $250 and $400. There are high end versions (bigger hard drives, game / controller bundles) of the PS3 and XBox 360 that cost a little more, but both Sony and Microsoft have significantly dropped prices recently. Games are usually a bit more expensive than on the PC: $70 rather than $50, for example. If you get an XBox 360, you might want to factor in the cost of XBox Live, their network service: $5 a month, or about $60 a year. And of course you need a display to hook it to: you might be able to use your computer monitor if it has a DVI connector, or your TV set (composite or DVI). Or there is my route: buy a dedicated display just for the console.

    What I found with my XBox 360 is that I go through cycles where I don’t play it for several months. I haven’t really played a game on my XBox since about May. Then a bunch of new titles are released (usually in the fall), and I go crazy for a while: I bought at least seven or eight games between November and February last year.

    Has the console been worthwhile? Undoubtedly, it has been entertaining, and there are lots of times I need a stress relief that it has been “therapeutic”. Has it saved me money? Absolutely not: within not much more than a year of buying my console, I bought a Mac, upgraded my PC twice, bought a new web server, upgraded Irene’s PC, and bought a second Mac. If I made a conscious decision to never upgrade my PC again, I could save money by playing games on a console. And certainly I’ll be prone to buy games for the console when I have the choice of either, just because I hate the aggravation of games not working on my PC. I probably delayed a couple of upgrades for several months by playing games on the XBox 360. But it hasn’t been economical 😉

    Oh, and with the recent price drops on the consoles, there are some folks thinking that we might only be a couple of years away from the next generation of consoles. PS4, XBox 720, WiiII: good lord, the names alone make me nervous 😉

  • **You see the console upgrades as expensive yet my perception is that consoles are cheap. A new generation comes along about every 3-5 years, and costs about $500: call it $100 a year for new console hardware. Compare that to maintaining a PC ready to play the latest games: probably about $500 to $1000 a year. That is five to ten times as expensive. **

    If it’s 3 years instead of 5 it’s $166 a year. 😉

    I have to have a computer for all the things I use a computer for … reading your blog for instance. ( It’s essential 😉 ) Can I afford to keep my computer “bleeding” or even cutting edge? No. But the cost of a console *IS* my gaming budget. Fortunately I tend to play a game to death and don’t mind being a couple years behind the curve.

    To me what has really hurt PC gaming is the narrow focus on graphics and sound as the only measure of a game’s worth. Consoles have come and gon over the years but I have always found PC games to be more rounded, more intricate, more thought out and more interesting. In other words, better *games* even if at tiems surpassed by consoles for looks and sound.

    But as more and more effort is spent on making games cinematic, with movie production pricetags the entire gaming industry has become focused on the bleeding edge with the few folks able to afford uber systems demanding ever better graphics to justify their expense while gamemakers have to spend ever more and need to make sales to justify the costs of production.

    It’s blockbusteritis.

    Consoles tend to come to the fore from time to time because of the reasons you said: a ready made market and the cheapest way to get fancy graphics into the hands of people without huge pocketbooks. But soon enough the same drive for improvement and control leads to what Oblivions mentions: Quick generational turnover. Soon consoles aren’t that “cheap” anymore, not when have to buy or upgrade every couple of years and you have to have a computer as well.

    I’m still using and happy with a 6+ year old machine. There hasn’t been a huge change in computers in the last half decade like there was in the 90’s. Eventually, I suspect, some folks will tap into the fact that if you don’t want to go cutting edge there is a huge baseline of fairly compatible “good enough” machines and users out there. They just have to offer something better than the bestest ever game graphics… they will have to write better more interesting, more creative games.

    I see MMORG’s as part of that as there are literally a ton of small ones out there ( small and “massive” don’t really go together … but you get my drift ) Any game that makes use of AI will find a more welcoming home on a PC than a console as well, and I expect that in the future we will see a renewed interest in AI for games, though in new ways that we have seen in the past.

    And for the average teenager, all of this is moot anyway, because for them 6 months is fooorrrrrreeeevvvveeeeer and they have already forgotten what they played last summer much less what they played it on. 😀

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