Skip to content

Stochastic Thoughts: The Trials of Hardcore PC Gaming

So remember how I said that Steam wasn’t letting me play my latest hardcore game? Well, three days of tech support later, I found out why. My computer wasn’t up to snuff.  Oh, this got me pissed. And the result of this anger is the following rant on hardcore PC games and why I think they’re fallen so far in market share. Nothing to spoil here, but it’s a rant — be warned.

I used to be a PC gamer. My family did not have a ton of money, and so game consoles were a luxury. A computer was essential though, as my parents correctly,  and with my eternal thanks,  saw that it was a major part of my education. (I was even a programmer back then, but just Basic and a little Pascal, and what pitiful amateur skills I had are totally atrophied now.) Of course,  I was also gamer, and so I gamed with what I had. Lots of Infocom, lots of Civ, and a motley assortment of whatever else I could grab with my meager cashflow.

And that meant I was a PC gamer. I paid attention to such things as processor speed and video cards. I weighed the value of buying additional memory. I actually opened my tower on a somewhat regular basis. And I worried about staying up to speed with the latest hardware, exclusively so that I could game effectively. At the time, it was the world I knew, and I loved it.

I got my first console with my first apartment, mostly because my roommate at the time (hi Paul, if you’re reading this) was a gamer and more savvy on the console side. I only really got into consoles when I started working in game design and started actively working on my game education. But something happened over this time. I slowly stopped playing hardcore PC games. It wasn’t anything dramatic, but I just found myself more interested in what was on the PS2 when it came to hardcore gaming. Eventually, gaming on the PC was all casual, Civ when a new version came out, and a brief and unpleasant stint with World of Warcraft. More on that in another post if you’re interested.

Now, I never thought very hard about this until this last Steam problem. But when I hit this problem, I suddenly realized WHY I gave up my PC roots. It’s the technical nonsense. You know, I don’t want to worry about what kind of video card I have, or how much space there is on my hard drive. I want to PLAY A GAME. Telling me  I can’t because my hardware is a year old is NOT FUN. Fun is throwing a disc in a drive and then being Batman.  The JOY of a console is knowing now that I own this box, there is a wheelbarrow full of games that will AUTOMATICALLY work for it. And upgrading is either an automatic download that takes a minute when I turn the box on, or it’s buying a new box, something I only have to do every four or five years.

Of course, it’s not like all PC games have this problem. Casual games, my bread and butter, have a much less tech-savvy audience than any other digital gaming area. This is BECAUSE casual games don’t push technical boundaries. They actually look at the machines normal human beings have and MAKE GAMES THAT WORK ON THEM.  Why don’t most web games use Flash 10 today? Because Flash 10, which kicks the everliving ass of Flash 9, doesn’t have a penetration of 95% the way Flash 9 does. Why didn’t casual games start using 3D acceleration until like last year? Because we couldn’t guarantee that hardware acceleration was available on our user’s machines. We certainly didn’t ask THEM to figure this crap out. They are gamers, not technicians.

This is not rocket science.  Not many successful industries make their money making it HARD for their users to operate their products.   But PC games keep slavishly pursuing the cutting-edge graphics and the most demanding memory use, and that means that your gaming machine is constantly on the edge of obsolete.  Doesn’t anyone else think there’s something weird about games being released that cannot be played at the highest level right now, BECAUSE THE HARDWARE DOESN’T EXIST YET?!?  Just who is your audience for that game?

Look, I’m going to go out and get a new video card or whatever, because it’s my job and I guess there’s still a little jonesing left in me for things that require keyboards and mice. But I’m telling you, and the markets are telling you, that the group of gamers willing to do that is shrinking. So here’s my advice. Stop making games for the best machines. Make games for the average machine, games that don’t require me to do anything more than drop in the disc and play.  Game consoles have always been luxurious — I can hear my parents asking me why I need a box that does one thing when my computer does one hundred. But I would rather spend the $300 for the console and know I have a cutting-edge game machine, than download a hardcore game for my PC and hope I do.

Posted in Hardcore, Rant.

Tagged with .

8 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Douglas Yee says

    I think some game developers are already headed in this direction, Nick.

    World of Warcraft is probably the best example. One reason that it is cited as so popular is because it can run on a wide range of PC specs. The graphics are cartoony and over 4 years old, but it still holds up, because it’s so easy for people to run it.

    Remember when Crysis first came out and there was a lot of hoopla about how good it looked but how powerful your PC needed to be. And Crysis tanked, partly because the game was just shitty, but also partly because no one could play them. Even years later, Crysis doesn’t run well on my PC, when games that came out last month run beautifully.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. Clayton Grey says

    I can’t entirely agree. A console is a slice in time. How much can the company afford to cram into that little box with a targeted time of when it needs to compete against it’s competitor’s little box. Identical target hardware for every game that comes out for the platform. Certainly a boon to developers. The splintering of the PC market makes that a really windy and moving target. Lots of possible hardware configurations with a market that demands that the features of their hardware be used – including the stuff that just came out ( despite the fact the game has taken a year+ to develop ). The graphics card developers need to sell their technology as they develop it to keep developing it, which in turn helps the console developers since none of the big players design all of the hardware in their systems. It’s all AMD, NVIDIA, and IBM.

    Most of the big titles on consoles eventually come out on PC – look at almost every big release on the 360. XBOX360 is a PC that loads games from disc. PS3 is a fancy computer that works differently but achieves similar ends. The Wii is a crapy computer that does the same thing with a different interface. There is obviously a market for a product that does this. There’s convenience there that you are citing. That way people don’t have to tinker with their PC’s to allow them to play these new fancy games.

    PC’s are hobby machines. No one should use them unless they enjoy tinkering. Wanna upgrade one part as a new one as it’s available? Go for it! You have 20 to choose from! I do enjoy tinkering, ergo I run Windows on my mac and will occasionally pick a PC for certain specific tasks. Apple has a fixed set of components per generation, they treat computer’s like consoles in many ways. You buy one. It’s a solidly designed experience. It works. You can upgrade certain hardware features, but there’s a limit to that. The trade off is you need to tinker less, there’s more stability, the user experience is better planned when you need to tinker. You can now run Windows on a mac without any problems as well. But I digress, I’m merely drawing a parallel.

    This is why I’ve been hardware agnostic for a while. All of these silly little toys we make games for do the same damn thing. Some have extra bells and whistles, different user interface devices, different configurations of buttons and lights in metal and plastic boxes. I play a game on the platform that seems most suited to it. If it’s a third or first person shooter, I’ll take a mouse and keyboard any day, and as it will eventually come out on PC without fail, I can do that. If it’s a platform exclusive or just wouldn’t work because of the control differences, I’ll play it on that platform. Otherwise I’ll play it where it looks and plays best, probably the PS3 for sheer hardware power.

    After a few years, the consoles market will tell you that your console is old, and they’re kindly providing a new one for you to buy. The computer market, outside of Apple, has a harder time doing that. It’s hard to convince me that a PC is out of date because everything is so damn gradual and fragmented. That’s why you don’t feel like your PC is out of date, where as your PS2 is understood to be behind the curve. You didn’t get upset that ‘Arkham Asylum’ didn’t come out on PS2, did you? No, of course not. If your PC won’t run it, that’s also no big surprise if you haven’t made any significant upgrades in the last few years – but no one called you out on that – so it’s a matter of failing to teach – unmet expectation.

    You should know better Nick.

  3. admin says

    I knew some fire was going to come my way for this one 🙂

    You make a lot of good points, Clayton, and I agree entirely with your assessment of the PC. It is a hobbyist device. It’s actually a problem I’ve wondered about for a long time. Personal computers are basically the only common electronic device where the hobbyist device and the consumer device are in the same machine. The fact is that a PC is way more complex than it needs to be for the average user. I think that Apple’s latest direction (good call there with that reference, by the way) and the recent evolution of netbooks is just another attempt to make a simpler, less hackable, cheaper box for the non-technorati.

    But I think your key point proves my argument. This IS all about expectations. I argue that is not reasonable to expected the average user to follow the gradual changes that PCs demand, and that this demand is what is causing the decline of the PC games market. It’s not that I think the PC world has done a bad job telling me I need to upgrade; it’s that I think the way PCs upgrade is inherently tech-y and thus not appropriate for the average user. The sectors of the game industry that have embraced this idea and avoid the messy upgrade shuffle (casual games, and as Doug points out, WoW) have thrived. It’s the hardest hardcore PC stuff that’s suffered.

    I guess my initial surprise indicates that I’m a more lapsed PC gamer than I realized. Nonetheless, I am going to get a new video card, and then I’m going to crack my machine open and install it myself, the same way I did 18 months ago when I got my last video card. But my overall point is that I AM someone who will open up my box, and tinker with it to get the best experience. Most people aren’t, and I think PC gaming would be in better shape if it realized that. My rant is really that all the parts of this equation (the PC manufacturers, the hardware makers, the game publishers) should really work together better if they want their gaming audience to grow. As long as I need to have a fairly deep knowledge of my computer’s hardware to play the games I want to play, the audience for those games will remain limited to the relative small population of gamers who have that technical knowledge.

    And now, I’m off to buy that video card…

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  4. Me says

    Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe! I’ll go and read some more! What do you see the future of this being?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  5. admin says

    One of two things: either the hardware market will slow dramatically due to technological limitations and more casual gamers will be able to catch up (as everyone will have to design to the same hardware), or the PC game market will slow on all fronts except the non-techie ones (in that I include standardized hardcore games such as WoW that don’t require cutting-edge machines). I think the former is more likely than the latter honestly, since we are already reaching certain hardware limits. How are recent CPU speeds compared to what you saw three years ago?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  6. Eric S. Collado says

    PC game development has made something of a mini-comeback. For every PC studio that has shut its doors in recent years others have sprung up to take their place. Steam might have something to do with that as it simultaneously solves the piracy issue and provides a distribution outlet for the startups and “little guy” studios. I’m a big time supporter of the hardcore PC gamer market, but even I have to agree with Nick on this one. It’s a niche of a niche market… and right now guys like me only get games because of the sales of the console versions of those games giving the studio the LUXURY of porting the game to PC for a few extra sales. Which kind of sucks because the games for the most part are watered down console quality because right now the PC is capable of a whole lot more graphically than the now several years old Xbox 360 and PS3 if you are a maniac and have a high-end monster rig. So most of the games are actually console ports that you might be able to dial up the anti-aliasing and play with better framerates just from having more (and faster) video and system memory 😉

  7. Yuki Neeper says

    I found your blog using Bing and I must say this is one of the most informative blogs I have read in a while. I will make sure I come back to read your future posts.

  8. Anonymous says

    Brilliant article bro. This unique is just a totally nicely structured posting, just the important information I was hunting regarding. Cheers

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.