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Developers Discuss Future of PC Gaming at PAX

by Chris Faylor, Apr 05, 2010 8:00pm PDT

It was a dark, albeit not that stormy, night as the "Future of PC Gaming (Yes, there is one!)" panel kicked off at PAX East around 10PM EST. Considering what the panelists had to say, the setting was oddly appropriate.

Across the hour-long discussion, two things were abundantly clear. First, things need to change, and they're not going to do so overnight. Second, "Honestly, I think PC gaming isn't where it was ten years ago and it's never going to be there again."

Those are the words of John Abercrombie, Lead AI Programmer at BioShock creator Irrational Games. He was joined on the panel by Joe Kreiner, Engine Licensing VP at Ghostbusters developer Terminal Reality, and LanSlide Gaming PCs co-owner Mitchell Shuster, with Penny-Arcade marketing manager Jeff Kalles moderating.

That's not to say the panel was spent eulogizing PCs. Rather, the three spent the hour discussing what works, what doesn't and what we can expect moving forward:

The Advantages of PC

Joe Kreiner: "If you look at it from a giant publisher perspective, then the numbers on the PC just really don't make financial sense for you to bother with it. But if you start out with the mindset--you know, you're targeting that group, you make a niched product that's going do well, if you look at a lot of the titles on Steam, Torchlight's a really good example--as long as you know that's your audience to begin with, and you make something inside of a budget that you know you're going to be selling those kinds of numbers, you can be very successful. I think it just takes a targeted developer."

John Abercrombie: "Certainly what Joe just said is very true. The niche-y titles, the titles that work on PC gaming, games like World of Wacraft and Civilization, are going to be PC games for as long as I can see in the future."

Joe Kreiner: "Development for the PC is a lot cheaper. You're not buying development kits and going through a party to get to your customers. You go through something like Steam, you get direct access to your customers. It's easy to sell the game at a lesser price. That's the beauty of PC. That's why a lot of smaller teams that don't have a lot of development experience start out there."

John Abercrombie: "I think [console licensing costs are] above ten percent of the full cost of the product or title."

The Problems of PC

John Abercrombie: "Publishers are honestly making 10% to 15% of their revenue from PC gaming...I love PC gaming...I don't think it's going away, but it's not ...I don't think it's growing in the way of triple-A games. Consoles are the way to go [there], because that's where the money is. You can buy a piece of hardware, and it's good for five years now versus having to upgrade your PC every two years."

Joe Kreiner: "There is no [PC] platform, really. It's just a mish-mosh of hardware, an operating system that kind of supports games. The problem with that platform is, there's no standards and piracy is rampant, so why would we want to make a video game for that platform unless you had some sort of draconian DRM thing to keep it from being stolen?"

John Abercrombie: "I think there's just too many options out there, honestly. Too many options for people to buy. With the consoles, there's just one. You just go to the store and buy the one."

Joe Kreiner: "If you look at how many guys have high-end graphics cards--well, yeah, all of you do--but the more casual players, the more general audience might not. The percentage is probably pretty low. As a game developer, you want to make sure you have the most customers available. You want to shoot for a bar that's at least you know is relatively common. It kinda sucks. From a hardcore perspective, you always want to be pushing graphics as far as you can. We'd love to, at Terminal Reality. The engine that we have is capable of pushing today's graphic accelerators to their max, but we don't do it typically because it requires us to spend a lot of money testing and if it breaks you get mad at us, so we just set the bar low."

John Abercrombie: "If everybody would stop pirating, if everybody would stop doing DRM, it would be a much happier world, wouldn't it? We'd have a lot more PC games sold and a lot more happier customers."

On Digital Downloads, Steam and Monopolies

John Abercrombie: "The Steam platform has done, in my mind, wonders for PC gaming. It's made a lot easier. On my work PC, I can play the games I have at home or vice versa, or getting updates, or doing matchmaking, etc. That's awesome. It's pretty much made it into a standard. Unfortunately, there are a lot of standards, other platforms than Steam, Games For Windows Live, download products like Direct2Drive and etcetera. Hopefully one of them wins out, just to say that we only have to deal with one as developers."

Joe Kreiner: "If you have one [download] platform that wins, that, as a developer, allows me to have one platform to access my customers. Makes things really simple. It also means that I know what the platform will be. But then again, that also means that one platform can charge me whatever money they'd like. I don't know how to answer that. It's very controversial in the games industry right now."

John Abercrombie: "It's a Betamax versus VHS sort of problem, but, fortunately, right now, there's no VHS. Down the road, we may see true competitors do a platform like Steam that actually gives [Steam] a run for its money, and that will improve our product as well."

Joe Kreiner: "Why don't the publishers target that [digital] market? They don't see the financial rewards there, but they are watching what Valve's doing very closely. They're being very successful at targeting the hardcore on the PC. As long as they're successful, there might be some publishers that take notice and start doing more PC titles."

John Abercrombie: "I think there's definitely hope in the way that Valve's doing things, as far as PC gaming goes."

Browser-Based Gaming as a Platform

John Abercrombie: "I think browser-based games are really cool...you don't need a PC, you just have something that has a browser. That way, people who were targeting PC or multiple configurations on PC before can just target a browser. I don't know if Quake Live was successful, I thought it was a very cool experiment, though."

Cloud Computing Solutions, Like OnLive and Gaikai

Mitchell Shuster: "It's the same problem as DRM, you need to be connected...There are certain limitations on what you can [do with streaming data.]"

Joe Kreiner: "We're definitely not there yet from a bandwidth perspective, especially in the US. But if we were, it could be a paradigm shift there, right? It would make the platform standardized, really. You could be able to control the hardware...If you listen to their sales pitches, it sounds like [bandwidth] is the only bottleneck, but it's unproven technology."

Motion Controls on PC?

Joe Kreiner: "Most of the innovation right now, console-side, is designed around a living room environment. That's not typically where you have your PC. That's the reason why mouse and keyboard is still the main interface there--it's because it's sitting at a desk, not your living room, typically."

Could 3D Visuals Save PC?

John Abercrombie: "It could be helpful for PC gaming. A lot of the consoles, you really can't do that yet...You need to do 120 updates per second, and that's double the consoles. Just getting 60 is tough on a console."

The Next Five Years

John Abercrombie: "I think you're going to continue to see what we've seen in the past five years, which is just console games ported to the PC...What you're also going to continue to see is a lot of indie games on PC, who are pushing the envelope in one direction or the other, and those are both great approaches to PC. I'm glad they're doing it, [if they didn't] you wouldn't have much else than World of Warcraft."

Joe Kreiner: "The PC market for the next five years is probably going to be more of what we have now. Like I said, as that hardware differential pulls away, you'll have killer apps on PC...MMOs and certain styles of gaming, or games that are targeted to the hardcore...I'm not saying that PC is dead, don't get us wrong, it's just going to be different. The platform's going to be more of what we have now versus what we had years ago when it was in focus."

John Abercrombie: "PC gaming isn't dead, it's just in a partially vegetative state. There is a market for it, and I'm certainly part of that market. You're going to have games that come out that are going to look much better than consoles do right now. Eventually, the consoles will catch up and we'll start the race again. Personally, I'd rather a first-person shooter on the PC than I would on a console, and that's just where I come from and how I grew up. On the flipside, game developers that are coming into the industry these days did not grow up playing PC gaming. They grew up playing consoles. So you're going to see that affect the way they make games today."

Joe Kreiner: "If that console cycle goes too long, you could really see this big resurgence in the PC as far as game developers who really want to target the visual high-end. We'll see."

John Abercrombie: "I'm not sure that's going to be the case, unfortunately. The revenue is just so much higher on consoles, that's where the money is."

The Distant Future

Joe Kreiner: "At some point, there's going to have to be a fundamental paradigm shift in how we interface with the PC. The screen's just not going to do it anymore. Where we go down that rabbit hole, I don't know, but at some point, that's got to change."




Comments


  • With ballooning budgets, increasing advertising costs and more piracy for consoles as this generation drags along it will cause a development shift from US/Japanese developers to Eastern European/Asia ones due to cost. This has already started on PC, and it's coming to consoles next.

    Many studios already use art and sound assets from overseas. Textures, sounds, prefabs, models and more are increasingly being "imported".

    Considering profits are already on a razors edge, this is the next shift in a gradual transition.

    I think the next few years for PC will see it grow a bit as onboard video cards reach a point that they can play any console port comparatively well, along with reduced costs and the onset of decent browser based games (by todays standards)

    I still see microsoft and sony releasing another console, along with nintendo. The next consoles are gonna be game on demand heavy, moving farther and farther away from boxed products.


    One thing is for sure, the PC will still be around and so will the console. But not in its current form.




    As for PC sales, The ps3 and 360 have exclusives, just like the PC.

    But it's not going to matter, nearly all games that aren't first party are going to be cross platform. That boat sailed a couple years ago. Left 4 dead, half life, crysis 2, GTA, dead rising 2 and the list goes on and on.

    And yes, the PC still and will continue to have AAA titles: Total war series, blizzard games, RTS games, and a number of first person shooters along with RPGs. Many are due to be released this year, and many more are in development for the next.


    And how well do games sell on PC? According to THQ, 2/3rds of Metro 2033 sales were on PC. With the 360 selling around 220k units. You can do the math. Not bad for a title with little advertising targeting the "elite".











  • Joe Kreiner: "If you look at how many guys have high-end graphics cards--well, yeah, all of you do--but the more casual players, the more general audience might not. The percentage is probably pretty low. As a game developer, you want to make sure you have the most customers available. You want to shoot for a bar that's at least you know is relatively common. It kinda sucks. From a hardcore perspective, you always want to be pushing graphics as far as you can. We'd love to, at Terminal Reality. The engine that we have is capable of pushing today's graphic accelerators to their max, but we don't do it typically because it requires us to spend a lot of money testing and if it breaks you get mad at us, so we just set the bar low."

    I play BC2 with a 9600gt and enjoy my experience. I guess I'm in the casual crowd then.


  • Does anyone consider that the next gen consoles will be so expensive that it will be as cheap or cheaper to PC game? Considering the 360/PS3 where what $400 to $500 plus peripherals IMHO I can't see next gen prices being any better. While PC hardware prices continue to spiral down. Also in essence consoles are pretty much PCs. Console gaming is dying IMHO. These devs/pub would love to kill PC gaming but PC gamers prefer the PC over consoles, period. Trying to force us to regress to game pads will not work. In fact if your regular readers of hardforum, anandtech you'll see console gamers flocking back to the PC for gaming. These devs need to wake up.

  • So, more money of consoles basically = developers focusing on crap game play for those of us who prefer mouse/keyboard/joystick over game pad for certain genres. WoW, not a lot to look forward to if you listen to these guys. Thank goodness there are upstart devs who are still willing to design for the PC. This will be where the next big games will come from. Not these old school devs who have lost thier MOJO and focus solely on the "$".

    It's sad that these developers can no longer wrap their brains around PC gaming as a platform. Mosh Posh of hardware? It's alllwwayyyss been that way. In fact it should be easier now. Back in the 90s there was a lot more hardware to choose from. The sound card arena alone was insane. Devs back in the day would make you want to go out and buy hardware that supported the games you wanted to play. Why, due to the awesome games they created for PC. CREATIVITY OF GAMES is the real problem. Its pretty much dead. These oldschool devs want to rehash same ol' gameplay repeatedly with graphics just a smidge better. The last game I recall dying to play was Battlefield 1942.

    Ya, thank god for independent developers because the current successful devs sound pathetic when it comes to actually working and creating awesome unique/new physics/etc/etc games for next gen hardware found on the PC.

    Problem with pirates? Go after the pirates. Stop treating customers who buy their games like criminals











  • Well optimized games, with apropiate configuration options to adapt it to your pc, will always sell. But it have to be fun too, no matter the patform you want to put the game on.

    If you make un-optimized ports from the consoles to pc, that require much more hardware than it should need, then oviously you will have less posibilities to sell your game because you are making the target market smaller.

    So stop making excuses, and work, dont get blinded by easy money.

    And in PC you can play with your own rules, you dont need to buy a specific developer kit, you can make your own tools, and base your games upon it, that way you will be playing on your own ground instead of having to adapt to the tools that the consoles give you.


  • I think all this really goes to show is that the majority of AAA gaming studios are going to die, sooner or later. I call it publisher bloat, when the developers get bought up and then are required to design proven money makers in a market that demands ingenuity, creativity, and "newness". It's the reason indies w/ Steam can do so well (besides the <20 man teams as opposed to 100+), and part of what makes Valve and Blizzard. The other part to those two particular studios is the "done when it's done" attitude and the insane amount of polish they put into them. No other PC gaming studios work as hard at getting all the little things right as they do, and it's the little things that most PC gamers care about.

  • Joe Keiner: "There is no [PC] platform, really. It's just a mish-mosh of hardware, an operating system that kind of supports games. The problem with that platform is, there's no standards [...]"
    -> Yes, there are standards. -> Direct-X+Windows. It is just a crappy standard, which is not nicely implemented. HOWEVER, this is a standard problem of an open system. Lots of applications deal with this. Every website deals with theses problems. It could be better, however, it is not something that can be over come. It just adds a certain percentage to the development costs.

    Joe Keiner: " [...] and piracy is rampant, so why would we want to make a video game for that platform unless you had some sort of draconian DRM thing to keep it from being stolen?"
    -> DRM does not prevent piracy. Real value online services prevent online piracy.

    John Abercrombie: "I think there's just too many options out there, honestly. Too many options for people to buy. With the consoles, there's just one. You just go to the store and buy the one."
    -> If you want to buy a gaming system, yes. But that's a low percentage of the PC market. Most people go out and buy a PC because they need it for other things. And then the want to play. The gamers that buy a gaming PC - have many options, but I think most can deal with the choice. I also believe they enjoy the fact that they do have a choice.

    Joe Kleiner: "You want to shoot for a bar that's at least you know is relatively common. It kinda sucks."
    ->It doesn't suck. It is a smart decision. Where is here the disadvantage ? On consoles there is also only one performance level. That's it. Where is difference to setting the bar at the common performance level of the PC customer base ? I don't see it. On the PC, if you want to you can deliver graphics that are better than on the consoles. That's a good thing. The developer has the choice. That's better. Not worse.

    John Abercrombie: " If everybody would stop pirating, if everybody would stop doing DRM, it would be a much happier world, wouldn't it? We'd have a lot more PC games sold and a lot more happier customers "
    As I said above. Stop using DRM, it doesn't prevent anything. It makes the games worse.

    John Abercrombie: "Hopefully one of them wins out, just to say that we only have to deal with one as developers. "
    -> Choice is not that bad... I 'm not sure if there would be a single provider, that he would be happy. See the AppStore of the iPhone. Single Provider, lot's of developers are not happy.

    Mitchell Shuster: "It's the same problem as DRM, you need to be connected...There are certain limitations on what you can [do with streaming data.]"
    -> Did those guys see the demos ? Both services promise the complete gaming expierence online.
    Of course you can say. Gaikai and Online are lying and will not keep up to there promise, but that's a different story.

    John Abercrombie: "I'm not sure that's going to be the case, unfortunately. The revenue is just so much higher on consoles, that's where the money is."
    Ever heard of Zynga ? I would call that PC gaming... they alone do 100+ mio dollar per year, on casual gaming.

    My bottom line is: most game developer cannot cope with the shift how the PC games business developed. It is changing.

    @ChrisRomeo:
    I happy playing nothing but Blizzard games. I'm playing Warcraft III for almost 6 years. My friends do the same. Why should I change ? I have fun. There is a huge community which keeps the game alive. I don't have more time to play any other games. Thus I only play only the very best game.
    I guess this year I will switch to Starcraft II. From what I see by from my first games in the Beta Blizzard keeps it promises. So far I find Starcraft II exceptionally good. I bet the most of the Warcraft III community will switch to Starcraft II. Actually, I expect to play Starcraft II for the upcoming 6 years...
    Which other Non-Blizzard game will offer me that value ?