Wednesday 25 July 2012

The state of PC gaming (Part 1)

This is intended to be a series I'll occasionally add articles and opinion too. This is Part 1 and will explore how console hardware restrictions and piracy affect on the PC market.

In a full disclosure, I am a PC gamer; born and raised.. That is not to say I don't like consoles... in fact I love them. I have owned many consoles in my life from various generations (although somehow never Sony. Not sure why). Sonic Jam on the Sega Saturn is still one of my favourite games of all time and sits under my bed right at this moment. Some of my favourite gaming experiences have been playing consoles.

I just can not get into consoles as much. Perhaps it is simply that when playing a console you're playing it and nothing else. I like being able to alt-tab and talk to friends, check something quickly on the internet or if the game is a grindy-game... have some music or a TV show playing. Consoles definitely have their place but for me PC comes first and always has really.

One of the most disappointing conversations to read between gamers is the PC vs. Consoles discussion. 99% of the time it is idiotic childish gibberish, but there occasionally are some interesting points floating around. In a competition of equals there is no winner in terms of which is the "better" but for the last few years there is a clear winner in terms of sales; and this has some implications for the industry as a whole.

Hardware Versatility: The 'Crysis' Example
A console is a console, it will not change in any significant way. Yes the new Xbox360 is smaller, quieter and kinda sleeker but it is essentially the same hardware. In fact they cannot change core components such as graphical chips because the console needs to be the same for its entire lifespan for game development and re-playability of old games.

This is good and bad. Good because developers know exactly the hardware set-up their game will run on. Console exclusive titles can be specifically catered and that does show in the quality of games. Although even with this knowledge, games still feature production bugs with cross-platform console games. But why is the fixed hardware bad? Think about this: At time of writing the Xbox360 is nearly eight years old. This is a long time for technology industry. The first iPhone was launched five years ago, the first iPad just under two years ago and look at how that industry has changed. Gamers still expect graphics to improve with each game, but eventually developers will run out of the power (in fact they already have) so they employ tricks to draw every ounce they can. Sony have said they expect the PS3 to last a minimum of ten years (link). That's insane.

PCs are quite the opposite, but this creates another problem. PCs come in all shapes and sizes, and generally if you want to have a PC with the highest graphics potential you will spend many times the money you would spend on a new console - but the result you end up with will be staggeringly powerful in comparison. But because the hardware set-up is so varied, game developers will have to put more time ensuring the game will work on the various possibilities. If you couple this with the fact there are more console gamers, and console gamers also pay more for their titles at launch... it is easy to see why businesses will focus on the more lucrative market. 

This focus on the console side of things, and it being so behind the PC market in terms of graphical power, provokes PC gamers to feel that they are being 'short changed'. This is where Crysis comes in. Why is a game that is over five years old still one of the best looking games on the market?  Why is the first Crysis better looking than its sequel, made by the same developers? Crysis was created specifically to explore the full power of PC hardware. From a business standpoint it makes perfect sense to include consoles in a sequel, but from a visual standpoint developers are forced to release a game that looks worse than its predecessor because the graphics hardware is older and of lesser quality (Please Note:  I am not saying Crysis 2 looks bad, but it is comparatively worse than its preceding game). 

To PC gamers this represents an annoying state of events, and understandably they feel that they have sacrificed 'something' because a title that they made successful has produced a visually lesser sequel to include consoles. Are they right to whine/cry/shout insults at Crytek? No. Are they right to blame consoles for this? Not really. But it would be wrong to ignore the state of affairs. I will not lie, the very first thought that crossed my mind when I played Crysis 2 for the first time was : "why does this look worse than a game that came out 5 years ago?" 

The Piracy Problem
Let's be honest: PC gamers pirate more. Does piracy exist on consoles? Sure. Is it larger than you think? You better believe it. You think Microsoft disabled Xbox Live permanently for chipped consoles because it is insignificant? No! Fact is due to the PCs versatility it is just easier to pirate on PC due to having a versatile operating system as the platform. If it was as easy on consoles, it would happen more. People want free stuff. Actually, more depressingly, people believe they should have free stuff. 

Being easier on PC has had some unfortunate repercussions. This is a little speculative in places but I shall try to keep some logical thread going :
  1. Publishers will not make the full expected amount of money on the PC market. Tie this to the fact there are less PC gamers/sales generally, leads to a massive incentive not to make PC games. Publishers exist in a highly competitive marketplace and they must be ruled by business sense (to think otherwise is naive and unfair). Capcom cited piracy as their only reason to not release Super Street Fighter 4 on the PC (link).
  2. Publishers stop caring as much about the PC market. Or at least...they pretend to stop caring. We still give them money so they probably do care, but because of the 'piracy problem' they feel they can get away with releasing broken versions of their game. The argument seems to be "well, so many of you people will just pirate it, we will not commit our full resources to the game". This has some truth to it, but really it's a great way for them to release bad versions and then point at us and say "you brought it on yourself". Unfortunately, this will not sit well with the tens of thousands of gamers who bought the game at full price.
  3. Then comes the DRM. Briefly put, to ensure that games are not pirated Digital Rights Management (DRM) has to be enforced. This can be done in many ways, but the most talked about is an Ubisoft making their games require persistent internet connection (excessive Ubisoft DRM is being dropped thanks to the backlash they received : link). Again, you can see their point, but again, paying customers are the ones that suffer. This may sound a flimsy argument, but the people who enable games for piracy are absurdly technologically capable. Nearly every form of DRM has been broken. Oppressive DRM frustrates consumers who then they think they have a valid reason to turn to piracy (they don't, but they think they do). I have personally had experience of not being able to play a full-price Ubisoft game because their servers were offline - this is an unacceptable situation. Knowing that somewhere out there are people who paid nothing, can play whenever they want, and without DRM software on their machine hurt. You should never be punished for being a loyal, full paying customer due to the crimes of others.
So look at the downward circle. Less games on the market, bad versions of games, intrusive DRM to play a game you have legally purchased at full price. No wonder this gives people the incentive to commit piracy more. I have felt the temptation myself but I try to stick to doing the right thing when it comes to the video games industry. These days I feel I have to do extensive research on a game before I buy, and have often felt deeply unhappy that I have spent hard earned money on a product that just is not very good, or I have to jump through hoops to even play. Who wouldn't feel the temptation of piracy when the game might be rubbish to play? But this perpetuates the downward spiral.

Valve have got it right with Steam, at least ideologically. The CEO of Valve has said that "Piracy is a service problem" (link) and what he means is that 'piracy declines if you offer a good service to the customers' and I believe he is 100% right. Steam has shown it can be done. Apple has shown it can be done to an extent with the music industry. You can protect your products and you can get great sales numbers out of PC gamers. It has opened the door for the huge indie development that the PC is now experiencing (and the consoles are starting to emulate). Unfortunately it does not remove all the sins of publishers and gamers, but it is doing well to stop the downward circle. Publishers are being offered a non-intrusive form of DRM that gamers are prepared to accept, and gamers are being offered a good digital distribution service. 

Is it enough? I do not know. One day it might. There are businesses that will suffer from this approach and they are fighting hard to slow its inevitable progress. 

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