What’s the current state of play when it comes to PC Gaming? (Future of PC Gaming series Part 2)

In the second of a five part series on the future of PC Gaming - Matt Ployhar, president of the PC Gaming Alliance talks on how PC gaming has changed, the strengths of PC gaming, DLC, the best kinds of games PC gaming is suited to and the impact of eSports on PC Gaming.

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How has PC Gaming changed over the past few years?

First; before we get started, I want to point out that when I think in terms of the PC, it’s as a Personal Computing device.  While most of what I’ll be talking about relates to Windows PC Gaming; I don’t want readers to feel like I’m not also taking Apple, Linux, Google, and various other alternatives into consideration.  There’s a lot more to say on that topic but will have to punt on that till another time.

I’d like to expand on this to cover the past 10+ years to the last 2+.  Several very significant things have occurred in the past 10 + years to present from my perspective.  Let’s start with the Hardware side of things.  For starters the PC form factors have evolved substantially.  10 years ago I gamed nearly exclusively on my Desktop PC. Now I game nearly exclusively on my Laptop PC.  The biggest game changers for me here were 1) Laptop Graphics and performance capabilities that have come a very long way and 2) Wireless Tech  (e.g., WiFi, etc).  So I’m very bullish on Laptop Gaming right now.  That said – there are some physical limitations though to how small of a screen, or keyboard I can comfortably game on.  So I very often find myself resorting to my other favorite necessity – an HDMI cable – to plug my laptop into larger displays, & even TVs & Projectors!  Yes… I’ve been playing WoW, Skyrim, etc over my Projector on an 82” screen & can use either a wireless gamepad or even my mouse on a Lap Desk.  Also; in the past few years these device definitions continue to blur substantially.  Tablet PC’s have been around for what now.. at least a decade?  Anyone remember the Pocket PC’s?  It’s interesting to see how some of these devices go dark for a few years, then with a few tweaks or enhancements seemingly make a comeback & then are all the rage.  At the end of the day they’re still PC’s.  Perhaps under a different marketing guise, but a PC nonetheless.

So what about Desktops? Have I given up on them? No.. far from it. However; I believe that form factor is undergoing some soul-searching for lack of a better phrase. You see some Desktops going towards that ‘All in One’ direction. (Arguably the same thing as iMacs).  So from that angle it’s hard to distinguish what future All in One’s may look like from what we’re seeing with SmartTVs today & in the future.  Desktops are going to evolve like everything else… so it’ll be interesting to see what other directions they go in. I like what Alienware did just recently with the X51 which is small yet still packs a huge punch.  HP’s Z1 direction is also pretty compelling.  In short… I want Desktops to remain very healthy. They’re the heart of innovation and we can’t underestimate the value that brings to the table.  In gaming terms, only on Desktops do you have the ability to see and experience what the Game Designers and Artists were trying to convey and deliver.  (Several analogies I like to use here  - but maybe over the phone)

On the Software side we’ve seen very dramatic shifts also occur over the past 10+ years to present.  The biggest, and most obvious shifts on PC Gaming have been in how we get our bits; from Retail to Digital.  PC Gaming led the charge in this space. Valve’s Steam, and Blizzard’s BattleNet services being notable examples. The other thing that was happening in tandem with the shift from Retail to Digital was that there was also a very lucrative Subscriptions based model coming onto the scene.  (E.g. EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, DAOC, WoW, etc).  Unfortunately; while PC Gaming was undergoing these shifts, the story at Retail was looking pretty grim and resulted in ridiculous over sensationalized stories of ‘PC Gaming is dying’.  A perfect example of how quickly something can be taken out of context without having the facts straight.  Sadly; some Games Developers actually believed this farce and then put too many eggs into other people’s baskets and subsequently suffered some dire consequences as a result.  (I have a ton of examples but can’t point them out as a professional courtesy to them.  Will have to rely on the savvy-ness of our readers to connect those dots)

There are also several other recent examples of significant changes occurring in PC Gaming.  There are some very interesting things going on right now with game streaming services such as Gaikai, OnLive, and OTOY.  Those are all definitely worth keeping an eye on; and in my opinion, I don’t believe they’re so much a “Console killer” as some believe, but rather present some very interesting options to extend PC’s, or even Console Gaming, in ways that we haven’t yet fully grasped.  That said, there are many other interesting things going on in Software, but I think the most significant game changer now in addition to going to Digital, is the Free to Play/Freemium business model. The Free to Play (F2P) model has actually been around for a while, and it does have some impact on how one designs their game. As in – it’s best to design or accommodate for that up front, than to try doing it as an after-thought; as it may impact the end users experience.   This relatively new F2P paradigm was largely perfected in what I term the ‘Eastern Hemisphere’ Games Market, and is now making its way to the ‘Western Hemisphere”.  This is sort of hitting a bunch of business dev folks in this Hemisphere like a sledge hammer in the forehead. The fact is.. you can’t Pirate a Free to Play game.  You also won’t suffer from Secondary, or Pre-owned sales losses, and or suffer from games being loaned out.  It might even be another factor that leads to the unraveling of Consoles.  To make money in that environment you either have to drive a super high attach rate, or ‘stickiness’ to your customer, and or, have a super large Install base; ideally both.  Because of these shifts in how consumers ‘get their bits’, it’s where the PC just makes a ton more sense.  At the end of the day it’s a numbers game, and the Console folks are just going to have to spend that much more money to artificially prop their business.  It’s highly unlikely that the Next Gen Consoles will crack even 20% install base of Consumer PC’s. So they really have their work cut out for them when trying to accommodate F2P/Freemium. They can do all the exclusives they want in the world, but then that drives down their profitability per title substantially, which is key given that they subsidize their platforms off the software.  This makes the future of PC Gaming very bright indeed!

The strengths of PC Gaming

Adaptability, can be non-proprietary, and the ability to evolve to meet different demands, needs, and usage models for an extremely broad swath of end users.

What are the clear benefits of PC Gaming – to the industry, to the developer, and to the consumer? and how do Consoles compare?

The nice thing about PC Gaming is that it’s perhaps the most ‘open’ platform on which to ship a game.  So what this does is allow more ‘industry’ Developers and Partners to participate and innovate in ways we don’t normally see on a Console.  Having a wide array of Partners (e.g. OEMs, ODMs, IHVs, etc) to choose from and work with can often mean the difference between success and failure for a lot of Developers and or adjacent companies.  Another huge benefit to Developers is that PC Gaming can be substantially more profitable since there’s no royalty and ding every time you want to release a patch. PC Gaming also really shines when the Developer taps into the ~10x greater global install base of Consumer PC’s across the world!  The Consumer also benefits in similar ways as there tends to be something for everyone, and at any budget level.  Consumers of PC Games are also able to game more on their terms; and not for example have to be chained to the TV in the Living Room.  There’s no good logical explanation for why PC’s don’t own the Living Room as well. Again, goes back to that HDMI cable I mentioned earlier and simply using some wireless game controllers.  – Conversely and to be fair – Consoles aren’t without their benefits as well.  Consoles can also deliver great performance at very affordable prices points.  They also have amazing portfolios of games that can make any other platform envious by comparison.  They’re simple to use and typically pretty reliable.  However; what I think is very ironic here is that as Consoles become more PC-like with every generation; so do PC’s become more Console-like in their ease of use, reliability, and affordability.  Some people don’t like it.. but I really do view Consoles as fixed function proprietary PCs for the most part.  If you follow the Xbox 360’s latest announcement and trend, they’re going big in the direction of TV/Movies.  To me this is a clear signal that Consoles are no longer truly Consoles per se.  The more multi-function they become the more they resemble a PC; and when that happens, why not just get a PC?

What about DLC?

This really depends on how the DLC is being implemented by the Game Developers.  Everyone has a different opinion here too and what some gamers are comfortable with others might not be.  Personally speaking, I like to believe that the gamers I’m playing with, or against (say in a PvP scenario), have earned their gear, power ups, whatever.  If the DLC options throw something too far out of whack then it could very quickly back-fire on the Game Publisher or Developer.  There’s another fine line to walk.  When playing very competitive games, say a 1st Person shooter, or an RTS, that’s more ‘skills’ based, then I’m absolutely more of a purist.  Where the gameplay is less skills based I tend to be more lax in my zealotry.  Time is the one commodity that’s irreplaceable and sometimes a well implemented DLC option can provide me a good balance of the experience if I’m willing to pay a little extra.  So many good games and so little time!

PC gaming vs. Console Gaming

What’s the fundamental difference between PC and console gaming?

Only the PC can truly deliver the uncompromised vision or experience of what was originally intended.  Even when you get to a casual based 2D based game developers can often find themselves having to make tradeoffs due to the limitation/s found on a Console.  In terms of the catalog of games, or even genres that lay better on one vs. the other.  This is really more of a business decision by the Game Publishers or Developers to try to optimize for one over the other.  For example; there’s nothing preventing a Game Developer from creating a Sports game with Co-Op play and split screen gaming for the PC.  Most Developers just overlook, or believe, that they’ll have an easier time of hitting a larger share of market by targeting the Console with that type of game play.  Speaking personally; I think this is a miss, and given the gap of say Sports games being played on a PC, and to take it step further, in the living room, there’s potentially a huge opportunity there for someone to come in and sweep that market on the PC.  There are several other examples to draw from.  However; saying that the PC is the domain of MMO’s, RTS’s and 1st Person Shooters, whereas Consoles are better for say Action, Shooters, etc isn’t as straight forward as it should be.  The PC though is unequivocally the best platform for any and all genres whereas this is not the case for any of the Consoles.  If the PC isn’t, it’s because of subjective or conscious business decisions.

What kind of games are best suited to PC?

All of them.  Especially 1st Person Shooters, RTS, and MMO style games.  I have no limitations on my Controllers of choice for a  PC

What kind of demographic are PC Gamers, and how has this changed?

I touched on this a bit earlier.  The demographic has aged, grown up, matured, started having kids and so on.  It’s also expanded significantly into other Geographies and globalized. More women than ever are playing. The best part is that PC Gamers are now truly a global demographic.

Does PC gaming encourage more creativity and  modding in the games community?

I would like to say that this should be somewhat obvious.  However; in recent times I don’t believe it is.  The modding community has been a large part of the lifeblood of PC Gaming for years.  It’s one of the things that really distinguishes PC from Console.  It’s also a way for Gamers to really express themselves and show off the power of their creativity.  Consoles largely squashed that for a while; but I believe it’s starting to make a little bit of a comeback.  Skyrim is a huge case in point. I don’t recall the exact statistic quoted but they moved something like 2+ million mods in 3 days alone on the Valve Steam Workshop.  If that isn’t a wakeup call I don’t what is.  I believe the worlds gamers have been starved for opportunities like this to express themselves in these games.  As long as the Game Developers are willing and able to provide those hooks, it can be a fantastic win win for both the Consumer and the Developer.

Do you believe there is still a place for retail PC sales?

There’s a lot to say here too.  Personally speaking I really like having both a physical disk, and the option of a digital download.  However; I think I’m turning into the minority here and may have to accept that as reality.  Retail disks, in part due to licensing and legal requirements have to protect that disk, which has led to the DRM dilemma which exacerbated the issue and debates around Piracy – legitimate or otherwise.  Yes, I know a ton of people who have legitimately purchased a disk, but then crack it, to have the flexibility of having a digital copy of the game.  Ironic isn’t it?  For the record I’ve never done that.  Now… where does that leave retail?  While I can’t speak for the rest of the world, I see some huge shifts occurring here domestically in the US.  A lot of Retail carrying Games, Movies, Music, Books have been drying up.  Should I run around the block again screaming that PC gaming is dying? Consoles are dying? Carrying that logic further, does that mean that Theaters and TV’s are dying? Libraries and so forth? Obvious answer is no.  I don’t know what the basement looks like for Retail.  However; things are changing in front of our eyes.  A lot of my content purchases have now shifted, whether I like it or not, to places like Amazon, or Valves Steam.   Will I still order a Collector’s edition of WoW or Guild Wars 2?  Most likely; but I’m likely in the minority.

How important is eSports in raising the profile of PC Gaming?

I really want to see more eSports occurring in PC Gaming. It seems like we’re starting to see a little more of a resurgence in this area so that’s encouraging.  So I feel it’s very important to bring more of this back to the table as an option.  This could be LAN based or otherwise.  Additionally; I’d like to see us move beyond the Gamepad, which uses aiming algorithms etc to assist end users.  The vast majority of Console Gamers really don’t know what it’s like to play something competitively; and I’m not just talking about Mice/Keyboards here either.  I’d very much like to see more usage of the genre matched more appropriately to the game controller.  Again, without the crutch of ‘aiming algorithms’ commonly found in Gamepads.  Flying/Military Sim Game? Give me a Joystick and or Yoke/Pedals.  Driving Game? Please give me a Wheel.  Action/Adventure? Please give me a Gamepad.  1st Person Shooter or RTS? Please give me back my Mouse/Keyboard.

What advice would you give up-and-coming PC developers who are trying to break into the industry?

I could spend another day on this topic too.  First; go check out the websites I suggested earlier.  Do at ton of homework. Do some research on legally protecting your IP/Franchise and be extremely cautious in any deal you sign.  The only person that can protect you is you.  Realize that the potential install base on the PC can far exceed 10x or > than any individual Console.

Don’t be overly enamored or lured by the promise of what a Console Mfg can bring to the table.  Sometimes the little extra work or polish in that PC Game can give you a 100x more payout and not lock you into some ridiculous contract that will jeopardize your future and that of your IP/Franchise.  If you can, also try to network as much as you can in this industry.  Game Developers Conference can pay off huge, if for any reason, you just never know who’ll you bump into.

What are the best resources online for those interested in PC Gaming and learning more about it?

I’m going to be biased, but I believe deservedly so in calling out the PC Gaming Alliance website we just re-launched before GDC 2012.   In the next month or so we’ll be fleshing out our PC Gaming Developers Wiki designed to be a 1-Stop all inclusive shop for all things PC Gaming Development focused.

My #2 is probably going to be Gamasutra.  After those two resources it becomes a little more platform focused, or vendor specific.  Examples Range from: Intel’s VC Source, AMD’s Developer Central, Nvidia’s Developer Zone, and so forth, to say Microsoft’s MSDN, and Apple’s Developer website and resources respectively.  There are tons of other great sites and resources ranging from: PC Gamer, Maximum PC, Kotaku, Computer Power User, Tom’s Hardware Guide, Anandtech,  and so forth.  Honestly there’s just a ton.  Even some that have grilled me before! Someone has to keep me honest and on my toes.

Who are the most influential people in PC Gaming?

There are simply too many to list here but I’m going to have to call out Gabe Newell and team at Valve along with former and present Blizzard Founders such as Morhaime and the Blizzard team.  I credit those two entities with largely providing a light to the rest of the PC Gaming community globally during perceived dark times.  Seriously though there are so many other un-sung heroes in PC Gaming over the past two decades that I could spend all day covering all of them.  I’d like to perhaps come back to this at a future point to go more in depth on this question.