As a gamer who made his bones on the PC, one of the most encouraging developments of 2008 has been the launch of the PC Gaming Alliance, an association comprised of companies with a stake in the computer games market.
Beyond the formation of the PCGA, however, I'm encouraged by the outspokenness of its president, Randy Stude. In his day job Randy is the Director of Intel's Gaming Program Office. His love of PC gaming is evident and his eminently reasonable voice has given cheer to millions of PC gamers who sometimes feel like outcasts in an increasingly console-centric world.
Randy spoke with GP at length recently on a number of topics, including piracy, where PC gaming is heading and why you can't really play strategy games on an Xbox 360 or PS3.
GP: Randy, what's the outlook for PC gaming?
RS: The PC is leading the way when it comes to hardware innovation and business model innovation. When we released our Horizons research [in Leipzig] which shows the software revenues being generated for PC gaming, I think a lot of people were stunned to see how much revenue is being generated out of Asia in particular.
It shouldn’t be too stunning, I mean this trend has been underway of quite some time. Almost half of the $10.7 billion that are being generated in PC gaming software revenues are coming out of Asia. And this is a trend that obviously many of us who sell hardware are very well aware of because there’s a huge appetite for our technology in the Asian region - anywhere from Vietnam to Korea to China. Even Japan is taking off at this point for PCs and PC gaming.
The usual perception that the West has [is that the Asian market is primarily subscription-based] but it’s more like what Battlefield Heroes is going to be. Its more either pay-to-play, time-on-wire or micro- transactions gaming where the game client itself is free but in order to advance and level up you need the assistance of certain in-game merchandise that you have to acquire. It’s the acquire vs. accumulate business model. Accumulating takes a lot longer, so most gamers will go for the acquire model.
A lot of these games are finding their way to the U.S. as well. I think the first AAA U.S. title will be the Battlefield Heroes game. Of course there’s Maple Story that’s already here as well as several other similar titles. I think Battlefield Heroes will blow it out for us in the West.
GP: So, will packaged games go away in favor of online distribution and browser-based games?
RS: I don’t think the PCGA is in a position to predict [whether the packaged titles will go away] necessarily, because there are those in the PCGA who rely on packaged goods as their primary source of revenue… I think it’s an important trend and one that several analysts are predicting that the consoles will follow shortly in terms of more content being distributed through the online stores for Nintendo, and Microsoft and Sony, direct to the hard drive of the console. (Hit the jump for more with PCGA's Randy Stude)
GP: What about piracy? You hear so much about PC game piracy from some publishers these days.
RS:There’s a story I like to tell about the Korean market where Electronic Arts wouldn’t sell the FIFA game in Korea. There’s very few retailers to begin with in South Korea and [EA] really just all-out stopped, I think in 2005, stopped shipping directly to South Korea because of the amount of piracy. And what they ended up doing is they partnered with a local operator to make the FIFA franchise available in a market that is very receptive to sports gaming on the PC. They made that FIFA product available, but only in the digital realm where it’s a free to play, micro-transaction based game. EA said the FIFA title is generating over a million dollars a month in revenue for them. If you do the math, I think it’s been out on the market for two years, [that's] $24 million in revenues. That’s a lot of copies of a $50 game that they would have to sell to match that in an environment where if they shipped the $50 game they wouldn’t sell that many anyway because it would be pirated.
It’s a good measure that game publishers can take. I don’t think it will replace DVD or packaged standalone titles anytime soon because there’s an appetite for the single player episodes of gaming as well. There are gamers who still to this day don’t buy a game to play online. They buy it to play themselves, work their way through a story line. The epic battles of Gears of War and the extraordinary fun of playing as a World War II combatant are still very popular methodologies of game play that a lot of people enjoy and don’t want to necessarily jump online and get their butts kicked.
GP: Sometimes it seems that PC gamers are the second-class citizens of the game world.
RS: I share your frustration as a longtime PC gamer. But as a longtime PC gamer I also understand that in other rooms of my house I also have consoles. And the business model for those machines demands that the console vendor have publishers publishing titles on a very aggressive pace in order to sell millions and millions of copies to be able to offset the loss that those consoles ship at. In the PC realm we buy our PCs and everyone involved in the PC chain hopefully made money on that transaction because there isn’t a residual business model available… There are deals that are struck by the console vendor that basically say [certain games are] console exclusive so that we can sell as many units as possible and reap the benefits of the console release window.
The other issue - and it’s probably more frequent as someone who calls on developers and understands the challenges that developers go through – it’s probably more common that developers struggle as they’re developing for consoles first and then they decide to port or recompile the code to run on PC. It’s a substantially more ominous task to support the PC than it is to support the console because the console is one mix of hardware, where the PC is this wide array. Someone said recently it’s about a trillion different combinations if you add up the lifetime of the PC. Somewhere you’ve got to pick the line and support from that point up the PC ecosystem, which is a very difficult thing for most developers to do. So that complexity will add to the delay in a PC SKU. I would not say that anyone is nefariously out there trying to stick it to PC gamers.
GP: What about publishers who threaten to stop making PC games due to piracy?
RS: That’s a ridiculous comment [for a publisher to make]. If someone wants to leave the PC market, we’ll miss you. We’ll watch with admiration as your titles ship in a diluted fashion without a whole lot of game play innovation, at least until you copy the innovation that occurs on the PC. Well find the great games on PC and we’ll play those.
GP: Did Windows Vista do damage to the PC as a gaming platform?
RS: I think Microsoft would be in a better position to comment on their operating system and compatibility. We haven’t done any research necessarily to try and understand are PC gamers leaving PC gaming because of Vista. As a hardware vendor, if you ask me, I think it has more to do with hardware platform decisions that are being made than it does the operating system…
Mainstream consumers are not buying desktops now. They’re buying notebooks. And when they buy a notebook they go to store or they buy it online. No one’s telling them, hey you know what, this is a mainstream notebook, but it [can’t] play games. We all know there are gaming notebooks that are just out if this world awesome – Alienware, Dell, many, many other folks out there making just a great gaming notebook. But there’s a much wider market of mainstream consumers that are going out there buying $700, $800, $900 notebooks and they’re doing so expecting that every piece of software they bought for their desktop will still run on their new notebook. I think in large part when they start to play those games on their notebook they didn’t know when they bought that notebook for example that it wasn’t gaming-capable or it wasn’t able to play the games they had previously enjoyed o their much older desktop.
That’s a challenge for the industry. Notebook gaming is growing by leaps and bounds. If you look at some of the trends, casual gaming is on the rise. Why is casual gaming on the rise so much? Of course, [casual games] are available on just about every website. You go to Oprah’s website, I think she’s got games available... They’re everywhere. Aside from that, the fact that they play on just about every platform makes them ubiquitous and makes us able to say there’s this huge audience of PC gamers, 250 million of us worldwide - of which maybe half are exclusively casual gamers. And the PCGA, coming together as a consortium, is recognizing this trend and one of the main things we’re trying to accomplish is sitting down and saying, “Okay. Here is the experience we want to advocate as a minimum staring point of gaming on the PC.”
And we want the hardware OEMs and the game publishers to support that guideline and to advocate the experience of gaming on the PC at a stable starting point, something will last a couple years and then move on to the next [standard]. Something that when you know that you’ve got that equipment that’s gaming-ready that you’re gonna have an acceptable experience with the games that you want to play on that machine whether it’s a desktop or a a notebook.
GP: Should consumers expect to see "gaming ready" logo on PCs?
RS: Logos are a tricky question. We’re certainly discussing it. If there needs to be a logo then we’ll probably have a logo, but we haven’t made that determination yet.
GP: Would some publishers like to push PC gamers to migrate to consoles? Sometimes it feels that way.
RS: I’ve heard people say, well, we’re just not going to publish this title for PC gaming because it’s in a state of disarray or because of piracy or whatever. Okay, fine. Do what you want. If you’re not going to release the Tom Clancy EndWar game for PC day and date, when you do release it for PC don’t be surprised if everyone’s bought a different game instead. They all bought C&C Red Alert 3 instead of EndWar. You blew it.
GP: Could the outrageous development cost of new consoles bring PC gaming back to the mainstream?
RS: The guts of every console should tell you that the capability is there for the PC to act as the central point for all the consoles. If you bought a PC and as part of that equation you said, Okay, when you’re on the phone with Dell, “Hey, Dell, on this PC, this new notebook I’m buying, can you make sure it has the PlayStation 4 option built into it?”
Well, why not? Why shouldn’t that be the case? [Sony is] certainly not making any money on the hardware. I mean, can’t they create a stable enough environment to specify that if Dell’s going to sell that notebook and say that it’s PlayStation 4 [compatible] that it must have certain ingredients and it must meet certain criteria? Absolutely they could that. Are they going to do it? I don’t know. I predict that they will. I predict that all of the console makers over time will recognize that it’s too expensive to develop the proprietary solution and recognize the value of collapsing back on the PC as a ubiquitous platform.
GP: Like putting a console emulator inside of a PC?
RS:Yeah. In the last decade the reason why Microsoft came out with an Xbox could be debated, but largely it was because they couldn’t set up a sandbox that was consistent enough on the PC to be able to deliver that experience to compete against Sony, who was their reason for getting into that market. Does that [problem] still exist? I don’t think so. I think the performance capabilities probably outstrip the demand that consumers have right now for graphics and whatnot because you look at the success of the Wii and look at the ongoing success of the PlayStation 2, the sheer volume of product that’s still shipping into those older platforms. At the end of the day it comes down to the game play experience, not how pretty it looks.
GP: There's a vastly different feel between PC and console gaming.
RS: If you’re going to bridge the platforms I think you have to have the consistency to be able to bring someone over. If you’re a first-person shooter player, I thought so much of Microsoft’s idea to bridge Xbox live and Games for Windows Live. I was so excited about that. I’m like, "Okay, let’s do it! It’s on! It’s time for us to get in there and really show the Xbox gamers that an average PC gamer could probably wipe the floor with all the good console gamers."
But the one or two titles that have crossed that bridge have done so with so many restrictions. Perhaps Microsoft is guilty of putting those restrictions in place to prevent PC gamers from coming in and looking too good. And until that bridge occurs between the two platforms and no one is artificially controlling that experience, I don’t know if you can really indoctrinate those console gamers.
There’s one place that does it really well actually, called Howie’s Game Shack. Howie’s Game Shack is a small chain in Southern California. By the way they’re a new member of the PC Gaming Alliance as well. They have, on the average, about 50 Xboxes per store and then about 200 PCs. And what they do is, they have ambassadors within their locations who take people from the front of the store where the Xboxes exist. The Xboxes sort of act as an attraction. People are drawn in - “Oh, I can play Xboxes here” - and then they get in and they play a little. And then what the Howie’s ambassadors do is they actually take them back to the PCs and say "look, why don’t you try a PC game for a while. Why don’t you try playing that Far Cry 2 game on PC instead of on the console and see what the experience is like?" It sort of starts to indoctrinate - especially the younger gamers who are much more familiar with consoles than they are with PC. Gaming on the PC is an awesome experience. If they just sat down and figured it out it’s actually a lot easier to control and a lot easier to play – especially the action games – than it is on console.
GP: Will PC games remain unique or will there be a convergence with console gaming?
RS: In the last two years I think we're up to like six or seven strategy games making their way over to the Xbox [from the PC]. When they do so, in my opinion, they’re dumbed down so substantially it’s not the same experience anymore. The experience of playing Starcraft - thankfully Blizzard isn’t working it over to the consoles - you just can’t in your mind as a purist who really plays strategy games, you can’t understand why someone would want to play on a game pad. It just doesn’t make any sense. You’re trying to command and commandeer all these units and actually having battlefield strategies that really truly make sense - not just shoving all of your units forward to meet the other guy’s bulk of units and hope that you win the battle. To me it’s dumbing the game experience down. PC gaming is the more sophisticated game play, and in strategy it's right there in front of you. It’s the most obvious thing that you’ll ever want to see.
GP: Is it the command options afforded by keyboard control?
RS: That and the speed at which you can actually interact with your units. Talk about a game like Supreme Commander, where you control hundreds if not potentially thousands of units on the battlefield. Could you imagine trying to control those units strategically with a gamepad? It would be so slow.
GP: Given the issues facing it, can PC gaming survive?
RS: PC gaming will survive. It will adjust. Certain publishers will say we’re done with PC gaming. Whatever. When you leave there’s six new success stories coming right in to replace you. There’s some epic examples lately. The guy who invented the Audiosurf game - what a substantial example of what can be on the PC but would struggle to find its legs on the console in order to get itself published., Now Microsoft is pecking away at the garage game developers [with XNA]. But the PC is still the easiest platform to develop for and it will continue to be. It certainly is the most ubiquitous device worldwide. [PCGA] is here. We’re talking about [PC gaming]. We’re going to address the weaknesses and come out with an industry voice for the continued health of this industry.
GP: Thanks, Randy!