Saturday, 24 May 2014

Whiskey Reviews: The state of PC gaming and its future? What?!?

Yesterday I was asked a question by a about the future of PC gaming; what could make the PC community and market grow again? It's a simple question but the answer isn't so straightforward unfortunately. The following is an edited version of a forum post I made on the Steam Watch Dogs forums with some added pictures to make it a bit less boring.

Watch Dogs: The game that inspired the question

As for the PC community getting more attention and growing there's a couple of possibilities;
1) The community needs to go back to a more mature state. Sadly this is at odds with option 2 (getting to that soon) as the PC community was far more mature back at a time when computers were less accessible and required far more experience, or at least patience to operate successfully. There's a lot of overlap between console and PC communities (myself included) and the ascerbic nature of console multiplayer has seeped into the PC sphere thanks to the ubiquity of the internet. Conversely we need to stop seeking attention so much through the common channels (a.k.a being ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥s to eachother, developers and publishers) while simultaneously standing up for quality gaming by being a more unified community and just not buying shovelware.
2) PC gaming needs to become more accessible. A lot of gamers turn to consoles because they can't be bothered with troubleshooting, buying upgrades, and all the other little (or big, depending on how much is annoys you) issues that come along with PC gaming. Unfortunately this isn't exactly a feasible idea because of the modular nature of PCs and the very act of creating some kind of standard model would turn PC gaming into its console counterpart. This also links back to what I mentioned about more expertise being needed earlier in that if more PC gamers were knowledgeable (not calling anyone stupid, the PC community is full of highly skilled people) there would be less of a gap between the perceived accessibility and thus less 'nerd rage' (hate that term but it's all that springs to mind) when a game doesn't work due to technical issues.

Pictured: Technical issues
One way of looking at it is that from a publisher/developer standpoint PC gaming is in a catch-22 community wise; the community in general is both toxic and not profitable enough to treat well but we're so hostile and unprofitable because we're treated so badly by the powers that be.

The PC community will happily pay for quality PC-centric games. Sales of things such as The Witcher, Minecraft and the Total War series and kickstarters for titles like Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns and Chaos Reborn all show that if a developer and publisher give us quality we will pay for it. 
Which brings us rather neatly to the elephant in the room regarding PC gaming - piracy. Piracy has always been a thing, and I could point out that old-school pirates operated on a kind of honour system where if they liked a game they'd buy it as soon as they could. Sure, some pirates didn't but a lot more used to than they do today so we have to ask why is that? Well the answer is simple; all the little things. It's publishers forcing devs to put out half finished games, shittyty support teams, half-arsed quality assurance and DRM (perhaps most of all).
So is piracy one of the big issues holding PC gaming back? Yes and no. Piracy itself isn't any more rampant than at any other time or platform in gaming history. If it had removable/writable media then it has been pirated to hell and back. The problem lies in how piracy is perceived both from a community and publisher standpoint. The community either sees it as "sticking it to the man" or as their right to free stuff while the publishers see it as plain old theft and proof that they shouldn't support the PC market. The fault in these lines of thought lies with both sides of the argument - console games, especially PS1 and 2 era have been more pirated than any other system in modern times, even surpassing PC piracy by a considerable margin but publishers and developers didn't flock away from Sony's little grey box for fear of lost profits. PC piracy on the other hand is viewed as a bottomless pit of lost profits (again because of the abundance of information, ubiquity of the internet) while console piracy continues to go largely ignored as something that's prohibitively expensive/complicated for the average Joe-gamer to pull off and therefore not as big of an issue from the corporate viewpoint.

The only true pirate
So as someone who's both been a gamer since games came on cassette tapes and consoles had wood panelling and a game developer/designer what's a more personal view of piracy? Well, it's a simple one. Demos are dying out and that's something that should change and would likely help curtail piracy to some degree. Additionally if someone pirates a game it isn't a lost sale - it's either someone who wasn't going to buy your product anyway or someone who is curious but not sure if they want to spend their hard-earned money on it in which case them stealing your game initially may lead to a potential sale. 
I'm not saying it's an issue that needs to be swept under the rug but it's something that needs to be addressed in a more sensible manner by both the community and devs/publishers. The 'man' needs to stop trying to curb-stomp piracy out of existence because their DRM only hurts paying customers (and frustrates the pirate programmer trying to crack the game for a short while) and the lack of demos and higher quality assurance (not just in the quality of the program itself but also in things like day-one DLC, and money-gouging tactics) need to be addressed to bring the two sides of the argument around to being allies instead of constantly backbiting each other.

Interestingly there's a final alternative for PC gaming growth - another gaming crash. If anyone is unfamiliar with what I'm talking about look up the 1983 gaming crash. Naturally the mistakes made in the '80s aren't going to be repeated today mainly due to it being almost impossible to screw up that badly (and literally impossible with digital distribution) but there are other factors which could induce a crash in the industry. Rising game and console prices are one, if prices continue to rise then soon the console side of the hobby will die out due to only a fraction of the users being able to afford the hardware and software which will cause a shift in the status quo as consoles would become considered the inferior market with less of a profit margin and PC gaming would be given more and more attention as the source of income for publishers.
Another possible cause of a gaming crash would be oversaturation of the market. More companies entering the hardware market (Apple and Google immediately spring to mind) may cause enough of a rift in the capabilities and install-base of hardware to result in the console market suffering as a whole (this effect can already be seen in a minor form with the underpowered WiiU and how it doesn't receive all the latest and greatest, but Nintendo is a bit of an anomaly in the console space anyway). This would again benefit the PC community as it'd be seen as the more unified platform (imagine if you will one Windows release versus 4-5 different console versions). Content inequality is also another issue that falls under this category, things like missions and DLC not appearing on one system but appearing on another while PC largely gets everything, albeit often months later than the consoles.
Finally there's the option of a "PC Gaming Golden Age" - developers shifting away from DirectX and over to OpenGL and Linux support in addition to more accessible and user-friendly Linux distros, universally equal driver support from manufacturers of peripherals and other hardware could bring the PC gaming community into a time when PC gaming/game development is in a renaissance again much like the olden days when DOS reigned supreme as the gaming choice and Windows was for stodgy old business stuff, but this isn't an anti-Windows rant either.

Gaming industry medicine or worst game ever?
Fair disclaimer, I've taken a lot of shots at publishers here and that's perhaps too broad of a generalization. When I say publishers I'm really taking shots at EA and Ubisoft mainly as a lot of smaller or even just culturally different publishers are fantastic at supporting developers and letting them get the job done in the manner and time they need.

Last but not least we have a scenario that's more likely than any of the above; Japanese developers and publishers taking notice of PC as a viable, equal platform. It's mainly a cultural thing but PC's are seen as massively inferior by Japanese developers and have been for decades (why appeal to one person who knows how to use the family PC - likely a businessman with no time or inclination to play games - when you can appeal to the millions of entire families who have a Famicom in their home?).
Lately however we've been seeing an interesting change in this attitude. From Square-Enix re-releasing quality versions of Final Fantasy 7 and 8 and From Software with Dark Souls as well as a few others we're starting to see big-name Japanese developed games appearing on PC with equal or greater quality to their console counterparts.
If this trend continues and more Japanese developers jump onboard they could see a boom in profits from the PC market as fans who couldn't play their games before finally can and new fans discover them and that shift in attitude from the Japanese industry could alter the perceptions of publishers the world over, especially if someone like Konami were to jump onboard and bring Metal Gear Solid to PC audiences.