Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Death of PC Gaming

As GTA IV rushes off the shelves and onto the 7th generation consoles, the hype surrounding the game fills me with a sense of lament. The once great fortress for hardcore gaming that is the Personal Computer is now nothing more than a slowly decaying ruin inhabited by the few who hold the delusion that someone will gallantly ride in and save the day. That's not to say that hardcore gaming is completely dead, but as consoles catch up to the technology that has long kept the PC gaming market viable the platform is growing more and more irrelevant. It's become a system dominated by World of Warcraft and The Sims where piracy and extreme copy protection are making the system less and less favourable for users and developers alike.

A brief history of gaming
To understand the situation now, it's important to understand the difference in the life cycles of PCs and consoles and how each intertwines with development and sales. For an in-depth look at the history of games and gaming there is always Wikipedia. If I tried to explain it in my own words, I'd just muddle it up, leave out vital details and possibly push false information. Instead I'm just going to focus on the technology vs marketplace battle which to me is very indicative of why the battle has gone the way it did.

The console is on an approximately 5 year lifecycle; when it comes out it's the latest greatest thing, from there it takes about 12 months to build up a decent gaming library. For the next year or so it features it's best sales, then it starts to taper off by which time the hardware is becoming redundant and a new console needs to come in it's place and start all over again. The PC is a much more incremental process, when a new piece of hardware comes out, it doesn't require buying a complete new system. Likewise the software that games are built on stays the same. With computers, you don't build to hardware, you build to software. With Microsoft having the effectual monopoly on home computing, it does add the stability the computer needs to foster a development environment.

For the most part, the PC market has been the centre of innovation in gaming. Partly this has been driven by the nature of early development. Games were small and could be made by small teams or even garage developers. An incremental system is perfect for this kind of development environment. At the same time, the console market was primarily a way to bring arcade games into the home. The divergence in the style of games is quite clear at this point. Consoles and arcade games were at best joystick / pad + buttons while the computer had the keyboard / mouse combo. Just the speed and complexity that the mouse allowed for gaming brought complexity to the likes never seen. Without the mouse, the RTS would still be turn-based. The First Person Shooter genre would not be where it is now, nor would RPGs. Though it's interesting how the RPG genre developed on both console and PC resulting in two very different ways to do the genre.

The Playstation for me was the console that changed everything. It had targeted the audience that PC games and packaged it up in something affordable. Sony in their first foray into the gaming market killed Sega and seriously dented Nintendo. Though the PC market still survived thanks to the 3DFX and NVidia providing a graphics arms race, while gaming took on a new dimension with the internet providing a new multiplayer experience. While the incremental PC system kept ahead of it's console counterparts, the software libraries and convenience meant an ever-growing market. And with the onset of the PS2 and X-Box finally there was a large enough market share worth going after for non-Japanese developers. The advantages of developing for a market like that are well worth the switch in a field where only 10% of games make a profit and most companies go bankrupt after one game. It's a cut-throat multi-billion dollar industry, risk management comes into play. The problem of piracy on the PC makes the platform a higher risk, as does programming software to work on an almost infinite combination of hardware configurations as opposed to the one.

In the mid to late 90s, consumer electronics were still reasonably expensive so it made sense that the market would be dominated by those looking towards an all-in-one machine which a computer would fit the bill. Now as the price has dropped, the silicon boom has meant that we can afford purpose specific devices. The power and range of hi-definition entertainment equipment combined with wireless LAN and broadband really harbours the lounge rather than a desk as the prime candidate for entertainment. The new consoles offer the best of both worlds; a globally connected device that also allows for social multiplayer action.

Piracy vs protection
I was browsing one of my favourite webcomics this morning and came across this article. It somewhat shocked me to see the extent of copy protection, but really it shouldn't. Sure it's extreme and for the most part impractical, but it's really not much more than the Half-life 2 or Bioshock protection. When Half-life 2 came out, I did the right thing and bought it. From the time I first tried to install the game to the point where I could play it was well over 3 hours. Over 3 hours for a legally bought game! It's getting beyond a joke just how restricting and invasive copy protection is. Only the really extreme measures are effective, and the regular methods only serve to hurt legitimate consumers.

Yes, piracy is a problem for game developers. Though as I asserted with the music industry, the days where we have high-speed broadband lend itself towards a global distribution system over the internet. We get shafted here in Australia in terms of game prices. What retails for $100 AUD retails for $50 USD despite a strong exchange rate. I didn't rate Steam when it first came out, but now I can see it's appeal. When I can buy games for $50 USD and they are downloaded onto my computer ready to play, why should I go out and spend $100 to support the dying retail chains that put such a huge mark-up on the price? is it really worth that extra $40 to have a physical copy any more? Consoles themselves are still geared to that centralised distribution system by selling games on physical media. Though I feel this generation of consoles will be the last to operate that way, given XBox Live and the Wii Virtual Console are showing that digital distribution is achievable on consoles.

To me invasive copy protection is one of the worst things the industry can do. Checking for unique cd keys is one thing, installing rootkits on the users system is another. Having to disable virtual drives, making sure a game can't be duplicated, surely these methods contravene fair use policies. At a time where it's far more convenient to play off backups and virtual drives, copy protection becomes more and more restrictive on the ability to do so. Note that it's not stopping piracy, just do a search on bit torrent for any game you can think of. Massive global copying is still happening, just like it's happening for albums. And there is a consumer backlash against companies that use more extreme methods to stop piracy, so there should be. Because it is contributing to the downfall of the medium that so many of us still choose to game on.

The future?
There's just so much to cover with this topic, and there have been so many angles I've wanted to push but not had time for. But I'm sure that over the next few months as I get back into casual game development, my interest will be sparked enough to lay forth all the issues I deem noteworthy. As much as my pessimism rang out in the above prose, I'll say now that PC gaming will never die completely. There is too much of a base following for it to completely die. Some genres like Real Time Strategy is far too complex to be streamlined effectively on a console, and the market for fast and complex First Person Shooters will always be there. MMORPG's like World of Warcraft thrive because of the social atmosphere they provide, something a keyboard is geared towards. Not to mention that most developers are PC gamers who love to play on the platform just as much as their target audience.

There will be gaming on this platform while there are still those to support it, though the model for "epic" games should continue in it's "console release followed belatedly by a PC release" as has been the case since the turn of the decade. I lament the shift away from the PC as a preferred platform, but for all the reasons specified above and more, I understand why it has to be this way. All I can do is sit back and watch as it changes in a metaphorical arms race that will largely focus on giving the consumer what it wants. But I fear that it will be like TV in that eventually most games will be made for the lowest common denominator as gaming becomes more and more socially mainstream.

No comments: