Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
The future of retail and gaming
Published on November 25, 2003 By Draginol In PC Gaming

Historically the argument of PCs vs. Consoles as game machines was an artificial argument. The two appeals to very different demographics. Many gamers, such as myself, simply were not willing to tolerate playing games on a television. How can you go from playing at 1024x768 to what amounts to 512x384? (That's 1/4th the resolution).

But times are changing. More and more people are getting HDTV and many games are starting to support this. This trend definitely doesn't help the PC game market grow. And the statistics back that up. But there are still certain kinds of games that only make sense on the PC. They boil down to games that need a mouse or a keyboard.

  • Real Time Strategy Games
  • Turn based Strategy Games
  • First Person Shooters
  • Massive Multiplayer Games

I'm playing Knights of the Old Republic on the PC right now and it's painfully obviously that it was designed with a console in mind based on the annoying controls and inventory system. And the game suffers for it.

The issue isn't whether the PC game market will die. It won't. The issue is whether PC games will be able to keep up with console games from a production values point of view. The answer to that is sadly...no with a few exceptions. So let me illustrate this with a report from the year 2007.

By 2007 the only PC-only big budget games will be massively multiplayer games, which will be well on their way to becoming cross platform to consoles. First person shooters (Duke Nukem Forever won't be out yet though) and the occasional RTS. And RTS, btw, won't be considered "big budget" anymore either by that point. With DirectX 9 or later, you can actually create your own pretty decent 3D engine.  Give me a team of 10 people (5 programmers, 5 artists) and I'll give you a Warcraft III clone in 18 months that has better graphics.  Warcraft III, of course, didn't have all the advantages that came into being with the more recent DirectX's so it's not that we're smarter, it's that it's gotten easier.

What this means though, from a retail point of view, is that when you go into the store to buy a game, it will be totally dominated by console games with a tiny area for PC games that will have (Wait for it) some sort of RTS, the first person shooter, the MMORPG, and a few other popular PC games that are either cross platform or fall into some unique category.

This, of course, is what PC advocates fear. But I'm afraid it's inevitable. It's not that the PC market is dying. It's not and it's annoying when people try to argue that. The problem is that retailers can make more money on console games than PC games because console games have been growing in sales much faster than PC games have.

Why Console Games are taking over retail

When I was a kid, my game machine was a Commodore 64. After the Atari 5200 and Colecovision's of the world died off, the console  market was gone. Then one day Nintendo introduced the NES but it didn't really matter because they couldn't remotely compete with computers yet in any important category. Gamers were willing to put up with the pain of freeing up more of that last 384K of "Upper memory" to get Wing Commander to work. They were willing to tolerate Ultima VI's annoying proprietary pseudo-OS.  They were willing to put up looking through the user manual of Power Monger to look up the copy protection key every freaking time they wanted to play. There wasn't really an alternative.

Eventually Windows and CD-ROMs made life on the PC easier. And it was good. For awhile. When the Playstation was released consoles started to get more competitive. But they still couldn't hold a candle to the PC in many areas. Outside crummy arcadey games, now in quasi-3D, the consoles were still not very appealing.

But now, even I have a console. Sure, Nintendo gave me one for free for helping them create a Nintendo Desktop (our non-game side of the business) but I do play it now. I've bought games for it. The latest generation of consoles have graphics that are "good enough". And with HDTV and the next-gen of consoles looming, they are poised to overtake or at least be equal to the latest/greatest PC games in visual quality.

And they already outsell most PC games.  So what are the reasons for this? Why not just keep using a PC for games? Why are developers moving to consoles?

  1. PCs are still relatively painful to use. The typical Windows user's computer barely boots. Come on, you know what I'm talking about. Many of you reading this are someone's "computer bitch" who goes over to their friends and neighbors houses to "fix" their computers. You get over there and find that 50+ spyware, DDOS clients, and other crap are being loaded on start-up. That Internet Explorer is so full of spam toolbars that you can barely see the page and the desktop is covered with icons.  And then you get the game and have to install it.  My Knights of the Old Republic took 30 minutes to install on my brand new Dell 2.8 GHz machine. Compare that with just putting in a CD and having it work.
  2. Copy Protection. Someone on Quarter To Three actually had a good solution to this. But it's not generally utilized.  Forcing people to have the CD in the drive negates the one major advantage PC games have - that you install them on the hard drive.  If I'm on-line, I shouldn't have to have the CD in the drive. Just have it contact some master server to "activate" it automatically. If they aren't on the net then sure, have the CD be in the drive. But this way at least those in the majority would never have to mess with copy protection in any real way.  I wouldn't mind having to have the CD in the drive if I wasn't forced to install some 1 gig game to my hard disk before playing it.
  3. PERSONAL computers vs. PUBLIC televisions. My Game Cube can be played by my 3 year old son without any intervention from me. My 6 year old regularly plays Zelda on his own. But do I want these guys on my computer with their sticky hands? No way. And most people can't afford to have a "kid's computer" nor would they understand the logic of having one.
  4. Cost. The Game Cube is $99. A decent gaming rig is going to set you back $1000. Sure, you can do more with the computer but so what? If you're not doing games, a 5 year old PC will do most of the work that normal people do with a computer. This is almost certainly the biggest reason why consoles have gotten such huge numbers. How can you argue against $99 for a console that comes with games on it?

So then why are developers moving to writing for consoles?

  1. Numbers. That's pretty obvious. As the number of users on consoles grows, the demand grows and so go the developers.
  2. The rise of cross platform libraries like Renderware. Now it's much easier to write once and with some minor tweaks have your game on all 3 major game platforms.
  3. Life for the developer can be easier. If you're a game developer on the PC, you're in a tough land. Our company has a hit game, Galactic Civilizations. If you knew how little we make per unit sold at retail you'd cry. I know I am. Makes me want to just give it up and move to consoles myself. It is becoming incredibly difficult, nearly impossible, to make a retail-level PC-only game that isn't one of the huge genres (RTS, MMORPG, FPS) and not go broke. And even then, only the successful ones make any money. Let me be plain: If it were not for the fine print in our contract that allows us to sell Galactic Civilizations directly, not only would we not consider a sequel, we would have had to lay off our entire gaming side immediately. That's just how screwed up the system is for PC game developers right now. Let me put it this way: 100,000 units are expected to sell at retail world wide, total revenue from those retail sales is expected to be LESS than $400,000. That is less than the revenue we received from direct sales which sold less than 10% as many units. That's not a viable business model.
  4. Support. Tech support on a PC game is significantly higher than on a console where the games "just work".
  5. Piracy. It's not a huge deal on the PC but it is higher than it is on the console. My neighbor has a Game Cube. You think she's going to go onto some site and try to figure out how to pirate Game Cube games? She won't bother with PC games because of the previously mentioned "hassles".
  6. Difficulty in getting published. The "big" publishers are increasingly preferring to move to the model of only releasing a handful of huge titles per year rather than many smaller ones. There is a certain logic in that. Today, most expenses come from marketing, not development. If those marketing dollars can be focused on fewer games they can end up with bigger bang for the buck, in theory anyway.  As much as we'd love to have a mega publisher pick up a Galactic Civilizations II (assuming we could work something out where 100,000 units in sales translates into real revenue for us) we're not going to count on it.  We'll either have to look at doing it ourselves (the whole thing) or work something out with a smaller publisher where retail sales work out better for us.
  7. Support from the console maker. No one really cares if you make a PC game. But Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony care a lot if you make a cool game for their platform. Matching funds and other help are available to developers. There's nothing like that on the PC except in the increasingly rare cases where the publisher provides advances on royalties.

 PC Games in twilight? No.

Does this mean that PC gaming is doomed though? Not at all. But if PC gamers and developers want to continue buying and making PC games, some recognition of the changing reality is in order.

Electronic Purchasing. Yes. Sorry but PC gamers are going to have to stop bitching about the lack of diversity in games available at the local store. It ain't changing. There are lots of PC games in development and released each year that no one ever hears about because they are sold electronically. This is something we're trying to do with Drengin.net. The goal is to allow people to buy all the games or cherry pick the ones they want off of it. Think of it as iTunes for games except you have an option to also pay to access everything that's on there at 18 month increments. Over the next year, we hope to add a lot more games to the library but we've run into snags there which I'll bring up next.

Developers need realistic expectations. We thought it would be easy. We would talk to game developers whose games were already available on-line but had only sold a few copies. The 2002 winner of the Indie Games Festival sold <100 units of their game for instance.  So we would go out and try to bring games onto Drengin.net.  Suddenly though they wanted huge bucks for their game. 

Our standard deal was:

1) Non-exclusivity - you can sell it still on your own.

2) We'd give you a couple thousand dollars advance on royalties -- often more than the game had made total so far (I know that's hard to believe but it's true, most of these cool little games out there have sold only tiny numbers of units).

3) We would give you a royalty off of the total sales of Drengin.net for a set time period.

Number of third party games on Drengin.net so far: 0. Stardock's had to create all of the content so far which won't be sustainable long term. There'd be other snags. We'd get games that were basically early betas. The games we'd want to put on there have to be complete. They don't have to be huge or anything just complete.  Those with complete games would actually ask for hundreds of thousands of dollars in advance. It was unbelievable.  If something like this is going to succeed, some long term thinking is needed -- PC games need an iTunes for Gaming type mechanism where consumers can go and buy this stuff and get it right there and then and be able to access it from a central repository. By the end of this year, Drengin.net will have 4 pretty strong titles on it but realistically we need more than 20 for it to start getting to critical mass. (btw, if you're a developer with a good complete game, even if it's relatively small but still fairly original you can contact me at bwardell@stardock.com ).

But more important than that, gamers will have to get over their fixation of buying boxed copies. If you are willing to only purchase PC games at the store, your options will be steadily decreasing. In the long term, electronic sales are the way to go.  We sell millions of dollars of software electronically each year -- Object Desktop and its components (the non-game version of Drengin.net -- even uses the same program manager Stardock Central). So we know it's doable.  But if PC gamers can't make that transition, the increasingly the only retail games they'll be able to purchase will be in those genres that the PC specializes in (RTS, FPS, MMORPG).

As a PC game developer, we're rapidly reaching a fork in the road. If we can make more selling 10,000 units direct where we don't have to make boxes, don't have to deal with nearly the tech support hassles, have less piracy issues, than selling 100,000 units at retail, then it doesn't take long to realize that maybe if we were on-line only we might "only" sell 20,000 copies instead of the 110,000 total but we'd make more than twice as much as we did the other way. The problem would be that it would be one less PC game on store shelves thus making console games appear even more successful. But I don't see many alternatives.

Of course, none of this is going to happen this year or next year. I'm speaking of the long run here. But console games clearly have a positive feedback cycle going. One that I see only accelerating.


Comments (Page 1)
on Nov 25, 2003
Does drengin.net deployment support games written with .NET? I don't have a completed game at this point, but doing a lot of development with .NET and looking for venues that can deploy those games. I'm just not going to take the development time hit to squeeze 3% more performance out of a game using C++/Assembly.
on Nov 25, 2003
I'm not sure what you mean by that. You'er writing your game in C# or something?
on Nov 25, 2003
One point that wasn't mentioned was the audience. My friends and I grew up with computers as our gaming machines, and we are all still majority PC gamers. However, my nephews (teenage and younger) are hooked on consoles. A teenager with a part time job and no financial responsibilities can buy a heck of a lot more console games than someone like me, who has a house and child to support. Also, console games are horribly flat in their scope. Most console titles are Japanese-style RPGs, racing, fighting, platformers and now the oddball "party" games. Traditional PC-style titles have only begun to show up with the arrival of the Xbox (Morrowind, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Syberia, et al).

Second, console games run from the amazingly wonderful (like KotOR, Zelda) to the amazingly abysmal (any number of titles on the shelf). One thing that always got me: who would pay $50 USD to buy a console game featuring racing jet-skis? Despite the range, the fact that there IS such a spectrum of console games means that there something for everyone. My wife plays more console titles more frequently than I do, while I play more PC titles more frequently than she does.

Personally, I love the idea of downloading titles. I have downloaded several titles (all legal) partly because of the convienience: if I have insomnia and want to pick up a copy of "Hellslayer and the Big Tomato" at 3AM, I can. I agree that direct downloads should be evaluated more seriously. Funcom offers Anarchy Online as a download, and Valve is looking in that direction with Steam. There's also services like Yahoo! Games and StreamTheory that allow you to "rent" titles for a limited time. All of these options save money on packaging and distribution, and take advantage of the one thing that even the most advanced console STILL cannot master, and that's the Internet. The so called "Phantom" console claims to offer the same model asl Yahoo! and StreamTheory, but the legitimacy of that product is still up in the air.

I think the existance of Drengin.net is ahead of it's time, or maybe a bit behind. There will always be a niche in PC gaming for the independent developer, because there will always be those who are looking for something besides the RTS/FPS/MMO triumverate, or because indie games frequently harken back to the golden age of PC gaming (Devil Whisky, recently released, is just like the SSI Gold Box DnD series!). Collecting these kinds of titles under one banner would be a great service to both developers and gamers alike, since many good indie titles might go unknown because they AREN'T covered in magazines or on major gaming websites. Unfortunately, now that Valve is gearing up with Steam and will be offering Half-Life 2 for download, it's status in the gaming community and media will no doubt overshadow it's precursors like Drengin.net. Hopefully Drengin can find several worthy titles to offer, because I really suck at FPS titles.
on Nov 25, 2003
I don't really care much for PC games anymore, simply because I'm not in the mood to keep my computer up-to-date for them. Also, with the power of Xbox Live, I also feel that anything I wanted in PC gaming (i.e. mods, online gaming) I get in consoles now.
Of course, I think there's an area in which the PC would do well is 2D gaming. Besides the Game Boy Advance being the only real competition, I'm sure many people miss those games!
on Nov 25, 2003
BTW, I am curious about these developers that wanted hundreds of thosuands of dollars for their games. Were they that good or were they simple games that could be made by anybody?
on Nov 25, 2003
"Electronic Purchasing. Yes. Sorry but PC gamers are going to have to stop bitching about the lack of diversity in games available at the local store. It ain't changing."

Fortunately, we don't have that problem out here at either our Gamestop or our EB. In fact, you can even quite readily find Galactic Civilizations at them! ^_^ I wish I knew what youre sale numbers on it were like - because the guys at EB say it sells fairly well from their store.

Anyway, both console and PC games have their places, their merits and their disadvantages. I'm a rather big fan of both - having a decent (though now far from top of the line,) game PC, as well as my PS2, Xbox and Dreamcast (the Gamecube got tossed. Bleh.) To me, a big lure of console games was always convinience.

You pop the game in, and it works. A game I buy today for my Xbox, will work just fine on the hardware I bought 2 years ago - and just like PC games chances are that a game from today will look and play comparatively better than one from 2 years ago too - even if the hardware is the same (as the developers learn the best tricks to get the most out of the hardware, for instance.)

I do need to argue that first person shooters aren't suitable for consoles. Yes, in general, they tend to be utterly pathetic on a console compared to the PC - but they -can- be done well on a console. Case in point: Halo for the Xbox. As far as gamepad controls go in a first person shooter, they managed to hit the sweet spot with the game. Sure, it isn't as good as the mouse & keyboard approach of the PC version, but the controls themselves are still slick and manage to become second nature in no time at all. I seem to recall the Xbox version of Ghost Recon doing a decent job as well. They /can/ be done well - it just takes that extra bit of effort from the developers to tweak everything and get it just right.

(Of course, all-in-all, in my opinion, even with the PC supporting a higher resolution, the Xbox version of Halo was simply light-years ahead of the patheticly lackluster PC release anyway.)

But, aside from those exceptions, yes - in general, FPS games are far more definately suited to the PC. I'd shudder at the thought of playing Call of Duty on my Xbox... of course, I shudder at the thought of giving up my 1280 res. while playing it too. ^_^
on Nov 25, 2003
I think that the PC will eventually be absorbed by the console altogether. There are Dell boxes that actually look as much like a console as an XBox. I don't think that it is much of a stretch to envision the average factory-built machine being just as 'solid state' as the average console 10 years from now . There would be a lot of perks for developers to have standardized, homogeneous hardware, and it would make DRM a dream to enforce.

Heck, the average user surfs the net, communicates via email, does some small office functions, and plays games. Include a more desktop-centered OS with a small office suite and a printer port and the average person could abandon the PC world right now.

P.S. as for "But if PC gamers can't make that transition, the increasingly the only retail games they'll be able to purchase will be in those genres that the PC specializes in (RTS, FPS, MMORPG)"

Sony is already pushing to move their MMORPG expansions to download only. It is facing resistance, but many, many people bought Legend of Yekesha for Everquest online. I've yet to even find a copy in a local store.
on Nov 25, 2003
I can see that PC gaming will undergo a shift in its distribution system. It won't die out, but maybe it will take a back seat to consoles for a few years until a legitimately new distribution system comes along.........something along the lines of distributed production. It is possible to create everything needed for a pc game at home, at a store, at a kiosk or even from a vending machine if someone was clever enough. We can do this while keeping the data secure and safe. If everything is stored digitally than the actual price of shelf space goes down dramatically. If someone like wal-mart realizes this, since they are doing this with online music, they may realize that they can pack a lot more games into the store while offering the shopper and developer lower prices.

This is not realistic at the moment, but consoles coming to the fore in popularity again will force PC makers to adapt to the reality of needing to make changes.
on Nov 25, 2003
I like the idea of electronic distrubution, but to get me to purchase games online it has to be cheaper. If it cost me $50 to dowload a game and its also $50 in the store im going to get the store copy because i get a cd and manual. Its worth more.

There are alot of extra costs in a cd version that the electronic version would not have. So the cost should be adjusted to reflect that. No retailer markup, no manufacturing costs, and lower distribution costs.
on Nov 26, 2003
"Electronic Purchasing. Yes. Sorry but PC gamers are going to have to stop bitching about the lack of diversity in games available at the local store. It ain't changing"

As a game collector of sorts, I really like having boxes and manuals. I have no idea if I'm in the minority (unfortunately I can't tell based on my friends' habits, since they all pirate games... pfft!), but if I'm not alone, what can be done to satisfy this type of consumers' desire to own a tangible object, and not just a file on their hard drive? (Here's an anecdote... I purchased a graphic adventure directly from a developer, and in the mail I received a Staples brand CD-R w/ the game's title scrawled across it in red marker... it was nice to support a small developer, but that was disappointing.)

One thing electronic distributors can do is have policies that ask developers to provide a downloadable CD label, slip sheet for a DVD case, and a PDF manual w/ DVD case dimensions. That way, users who are interested can download all of these, print them out, burn the game to a CD, and make their own DVD case for their game. Tried the game, and want to buy? Pay, and click here to download the game, and click here to download the packaging artwork and docs. Don't care for packaging? Just download the game. Perhaps it's a silly idea, but it would certainly help me get used to the idea of getting my games from an online distributor.

Additionally, it's interesting to note that the hardware "constraints" of the GBA has given gamers 2D, sprite-based games again, and I for one am thrilled that I can buy any number of great tactics games that have beautiful 2D artwork (I have a soft spot for the works of talented pixel-pushers). With the success of the GBA, it feels like the a lot of turn-based, tactics-loving developers have suddenly come out of the woodwork. I wonder if electronic publishing will level the playing field, and allow developers who are willing to take risks with game concepts or help bring back some currently marginalized genres, or if it will only mean even more "me-too" RTS/FPS efforts.
on Nov 26, 2003
You missed one thing about PC games.. they can be updated and fixed.

With stuff like Knights of the Old Republic getting released for the X Box and being released broken, it scares people away from console games. If you buy a game and they released it broken you have no way of fixing it.

At least with the PC you can download patches and updates to a game.
on Nov 26, 2003
I had been an avid console gamer before I made the switch to exclusively PC several years ago.

Honestly, I don't see that big of a gap between console games aside from one major thing. The resolution. I get headaches anymore if I turn on a console and try to read the blurry text or look at the jagged polygons.

I would abandon PC gaming all together if consoles offered out of the box support for monitor hook up, a way to set your own resolution, and mouse & keyboard support.
on Nov 26, 2003
Excuse the dumb question, but where's the other 75% (or more) of the purchase price going?
Presumably it's not just the overheads of the shop etc, or console games wouldn't make a profit either, unless consoles sell that many more units.

If it's just a question of units sold, then this must be just a temporary lull: the cost of a PC keeps coming down. It costs £1000 for a top-notch games system, sure - but according to the published figures, half-life 2 should run on a system a year old. WHEN it comes out.

You can buy a PC for £350 these days - and that will run anything released up to a year ago, and probably most games released this year quite happily. And more and more households are buying a PC anyway. Look ahead a couple of years, and most households have a budget PC, and most budget PCs are powerful enough to run most modern games.

At that point, the hardware cost stops being an issue. The question is "do the people who use those PCs want to play games on them?". Most of those people will think of themselves as grown up, and will think of computer games as shallow trash. Break that prejudice, and suddenly the market for PC games got a lot bigger.
on Nov 26, 2003
I have no problem with buying games through the internet, as long as somehow the word is spread and we know about such games. I'm a big fan of Space Empires IV Gold, but didn't know it existed until I read a review in PC Gamer. Think about all of the other games out there that exist that don't get reviewed in the big magazines, and therefore no one will know they are out there. Also, if you do sell games on-line, realize that not all people will use a credit card for one reason or another, and have the option to accept money orders or checks. I recently bought a Playstation 2, but it seems that my 3 year old plays it more than I do. That might change, depending on what games come out for it that will never come out for the PC. The only reason I want a X-box right now is for Knights of the Old Republic. My PC doesn't quite meet the hardware requirements. That's one good thing about the consoles: you don't have to worry if the latest hottest game will play on your computer or not.
on Nov 26, 2003
I think we're all forgetting the fact that trying to play any pc game is a less pleasant experience. Personally, I have a wicked home theatre with a big screen tv and surround sound(as most techno geeks already do). I know its expensive but so are high end PC's (or video cards for that matter). Place the fact that I can play my game on my big screen tv, with wild surround sound and I sitting on my couch, i mean the whole experience is more enjoyable. Tack the fact that I can play my Gamecube with a wireless (excellent) wavebird controller. PC games just can't compete.