Developers Discuss Future of PC Gaming at PAX

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 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."
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