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The PC gaming industry is broken

posted on March 24th, 2008 by christian

Lately there has been a lot of kerfluffle coming out of the Epic Games camp about the superiority of console development over PCs. CliffyB, as much as I usually admire the man, has hinted that PC games are not exactly a top priority for him, and then turns around (with the help of Epic Master-Spinster Mark Rein) to say that they want to help PC gaming bounce back, if it hasn’t already. It is hard to get a good picture of what their stance actually is. After all, it is Rein’s job to say the right things at the right time, and Cliffy is still surprised and high off of his console successes. Considering that they are now in the public eye, where every word can be scrutinized and taken out of context, it seems we should find a different source for info on the state of PC games (and let Cliffy get back to making Gears 2 =) ). Thankfully, there is a series of interviews with Epic’s Tim Sweeney on TG Daily that shed some light on the problems with PC gaming.

If you don’t know, Sweeney is the programmer behind the original Unreal engine, more of a technical guy in the vein of John Carmack. While not wanting to speak for Mr. Sweeney, the general feeling I get from the interview is that they would like to support the PC as much as possible, but there are so many problems associated with it right now that they can only do as much as anyone else is willing to. Until then, the strong hardware and sales results of consoles will carry them through.

It is a disappointing, but ultimately understandable situation. The bottom line is that PC gaming is in a pseudo Catch-22 situation with no end in sight. It goes down like this: as Sweeney notes, most standard PCs and workstations now ship with solid CPUs and gobs of storage, but these are paired with (sometimes) sparse amounts of RAM and always with integrated graphics cards that can’t run anything beyond the desktop. My work notebook should fly circles around my four year old Frankenbox, but the latter can run the Source Engine stably, while the former can’t open up the Gametap interface.

System Requirements: MS-DOS, electricity

Hardware manufacturers need to improve mainstream graphics options, and PC makers need to tweak what they put into the case; a decent graphics card could be an option on a standard Dell if they would opt for a weaker CPU and stop putting in features like unconfigured RAID arrays. Until these happen, and they probably won’t, the only viable market for PC games are the hardware enthusiasts who do not mind spending incredible amounts of money keeping up to date. That means that PC games are going to do their best to cater to this market with incredible new graphics engines. Yet by doing so they alienate a market that is multitudes larger than the PC enthusiast crowd.

As Sweeney mentions, millions of people play World of Warcraft, which is possible in part because the game has modest system specs. The solution to the PC game problem would be to make games that work on slower hardware, but what would be the point of that when Nvidia and ATI keep pushing the bar in order to sell more cards? Something has to break, and it looks like that just won’t happen. The decline of PC gaming is a sad one – the years when I was primarily a PC gamer are some of my fondest. But there is no one to blame for this fall but those who are currently keeping it afloat.

Let us look for a second to the PC scene a few years ago. It seemed as if we were in an arms race to create bigger and better graphics engines. It was dizzying, but ultimately we were left with most games opting for just two engines; Unreal 1 and Quake 3. These two stuck around for many, many years, and as clever developers got used to them they were able to churn out some amazing graphics. Call of Duty 1 is a Quake 3 powered game, and it looks as solid as most games on the PS2. This is a good approach for all; development is cheaper with a proven technology, graphics are still good enough, and after a few years more and more people can play the latest games without hassle. Meanwhile offerings like the Lithtech engine died off when no one had any interest in their constant attempt to outdo the Joneses.

Fast forward to today. If Sweeney’s words are any indication, the PC will get updated versions of the current Unreal Engine for the next few years, and support for the next version after it is established on consoles. This means that the Unreal 3 Engine should become more efficient and powerful without requiring massive increases in GPU power – future PC hardware should be able to run it more easily. Like Quake 3, Unreal 3 has the chance to become an option that is both reliable and nice (enough) to look at. It isn’t too hard of a concept to swallow – I have read at least one editorial state that the 360 isn’t going to see much better than Unreal 3 tech, and even if that is actually the truth, it is a truth I can live with. If PC gaming could adopt the same slow method of adoption and growth, it might make the situation a little easier, even if generic/integrated hardware advances continue at a slow pace.

System Requirements: Omniscience, omnipotence, DVD-Rom drive

Something tells me that most hardcore PC gamers would consider this blasphemy. Crysis, a game that has been made fun of constantly for requiring a beastly system to run well, has sold one million copies. Either this means that the enthusiast market is larger than I think (and this whole topic is bunk), or people are still being roped into costly upgrades. Whatever the case, it shows that diehard fans want games made that put a strain on whatever hardware they own. Losing out on graphic flair in order to give the rest of us a chance to play would be holding back great new technology. If they can’t keep up, let them stick with their “kiddy” consoles. This is the same mentality that console gamers use (in a weaker form) when insulting Wii owners. As long as there is this mentality of having the biggest dick/best hardware, the PC game industry is not going to have a chance to create a reasonable solution to their sales woes.

The whole scenario is bad for everyone involved. I would love to see PCs push graphics and AI beyond the realm that consoles are capable of. But look at how many games used the original Crytek engine, and guess how many will use the new one aside from Crysis and Far Cry 2. All that money and technology may simply be wasted. If that is the situation we face, I would rather spend my time and income on games that look worse but show me new and fun ways to play, rather than trying to jerk me off with eye candy. Let the new engines be optimized for consoles, and hope that without the PCs to push the envelope, developers do not become complacent and lazy. Let software like Gametap and World of Warcraft dominate my PC gaming time because few dare and compete on such a “lower” level.

We have ruined the very platform that gave us gaming. And there is not a damn thing any of us want to do about it.

9 Comments

  1. Tyson said on March 25, 2008:

    The thing that is a plus for PC gaming is the fact that there is not a set of specs a game HAS to be designed to like developers encounter on all of the gaming consoles. This lack of hardware requirements means that the possibility exists in which indie developers can come out of the woodwork and blow our socks off with an awesome game that could have run on a Win95 box. Now we just need to find those indie developers…

  2. Christian said on March 25, 2008:

    Very true, and the worst part is some of the best tech that comes out there is often ignored. Croteam made a killer engine for Serious Sam, one that amazingly ran well on my aging family PC. Hardly anyone bothered to license it. They made another solid engine for Sam 2 (that again ran on my aging PC) and no one touched it.

  3. Stefan said on March 25, 2008:

    @Tyson

    I find most of my indie games on PC at the experimental gameplay project – which came up with world of goo and crayon physics, among others.
    http://www.experimentalgameplay.com/

    You can also check out the indie games festival’s guide to games: http://www.indiegames.com/play.htm

    In addition, Wired offered a list of the best indie games of 2007 at http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/commentary/games/2007/02/72796

    Now if only I saw more big studios looking at these resources and picking the best innovations for widespread release, I’d be a lot happier. It’s starting to happen, though, as with world of goo and flow.

  4. TrueTallus said on April 1, 2008:

    If the wheels of PC game technology progress must be greased with the hard earned money and mental anguish of the early adopters, who are we to argue:)? As Stefan demonstrated (thanks for the links!), interesting game ideas are alive and well on the PC, and like Tyson, I wouldn’t be surprised if the vast continuum of hardware configurations native to the platform (a result of the constant push for prettier head shots) have allowed developers the room to make great games without restrictions. Hardware movers like Crysis are important to the ecosystem of computer gaming- they provide the Tyrannosaurs and giant guerrillas that fight to the death to sustain the scavenging masses of casual games and indie developers while preserving the vast verdant fields of green cash for the giant mecha-brontosaurs of WOW and The Sims.

  5. Christian said on April 2, 2008:

    The problem to me is that eventually the early adopters will have little to pay for, as more games and engines become console focused. Meanwhile all the hardware upgrades have done little aside from graphical improvements to change gaming. The PC Indie scene makes strides, and how many of them need a really powerful PC? Big time devleopers need to scale back a little, manufacturers need to make better low end hardware, so that the bottom levels of the market aren’t dominated by the sims and wow.

    Plus most early adopters are elitist pricks who fear change :(

  6. Stefan said on April 2, 2008:

    That’s a good point Christian…I’ve heard some fairly solid arguments that the “fall” of PC gaming is due more to Intel’s entry into integrated graphics than anything else. The widespread use of integrated graphics with poor performance and nonstandard interfaces keeps game engines from being able to easily spread from the early adopters to a wider audience. As hardcore as those elitist pricks are, they can’t bear an entire industry on their own.

  7. TrueTallus said on April 2, 2008:

    The only sort of games that look to be affected by this fall appear to be the kind of games that perpetuate the problem in the first place. Casual games aren’t going anywhere if hardcore PC frag fests become as niche as collecting creepy pvc anime figurines, and big franchise games like WoW will keep right on gobbling up people’s lives due to their brand recognition and light hardware load. Indie stuff and crazy near-indie stuff like “The Experiment” also don’t need big game rigs to run, and would probably benefit from the breathing room afforded them if the hardcore gamer arms race on the PC became less relevant. If that’s how things shake out, it’d be less a fall of PC gaming and more a metamorphosis. Besides, if you missed the old days, CliffyB’s latest would only be an Xbox 720 away.

  8. Spruce said on April 4, 2008:

    I want to say that Starcraft II will solve everything.

    But it won’t. Especially when it gets released to a console and the money maps make me want to cry.

  9. Christian said on April 5, 2008:

    I don’t think it will be on a console. It could make it to the 360, but Blizzard is still so PC focused, and the game is going to be so traditional that they can do just fine serving the western and korean pc fans

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