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.