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PAX East: Panel on the Future of PC Gaming

At PAX East, just a few hours after NVIDIA announced the launch of the 400 series GPU, a panel comprised of John Kreiner (Terminal Reality), John Abercrombie (Lead Designer at Irrational Games), and Michell Shuster (Co-owner of LanSlide Gaming PCs) came together to discuss the future of PC gaming. Moderated by Jeff Kalles from Penny Arcade, the panel took questions from the audience to figure out where PC gaming is headed, given the trends and approaches publishers are taking combined with the leaps in technology. Although the room was almost filled to capacity with PC gamers and all three speakers are self-described fans of PC gaming, the mood quickly turned a grim comparison with console gaming. It soon became clear that the future of PC gaming was already going through a long, dark and ominous tunnel into the unknown. The only question is whether there's any hope of seeing light at the end of it.

It's no secret that PC gaming is in a precarious position. Even though practically every household has a computer of one type or another, they're not all gaming grade quality, making it the most available and most difficult platform to develop for. Also, while the top bestselling games in history (World of Warcraft, The Sims, Civilization, etc.) are all PC games, retail sales have been in steep decline over the past decade. For most multiplatform games, console sales far exceed their PC counterparts. John Abercrombie started the discussion by stating that PC gaming isn't where it was ten years ago and probably never will be again. Publishers make about 7-15% of their revenue from the PC. John Kreiner remarked that from a publisher's perspective, it doesn't make a lot of sense to develop for the PC unless there's a dedication towards developing for that audience. Torchlight was cited as a success in that area. Although PC games are never going away, the likelihood of AAA games coming out for that platform steadily diminishes when all the money is in consoles.

From that point, the usual problems with PC gaming emerged. The most prominent is piracy and publishers' response using harsh DRM. Although developers generally have little say in what publishers decide to use for copy protection, they to suffer the most if it contributes to poor sales. On this issue, the developers were caught in a catch-22. On the one hand, they want to protect their work, but they don't want to drive customers away either. Piracy exists on consoles, but it's not as widespread as on the PC.

The second biggest hurdle PC gaming faces is its lack of standardization. As one of the panelists states, it's not really a platform. "It's a mish-mosh of hardware." Developers are expected to create games and test them with a near infinite variety of hardware and software configurations, and get the blame when it doesn't work with a certain setting. Although there have been some attempts at establishing some sort of baseline standard in Windows, most notably with the Games for Windows branding initiative, nothing has been successful. Even must-have games that push technology ahead, the way Quake and Unreal did back in the 90s, are becoming rarer. The last game was Crysis in 2007, and there were only a few competitors since then looking to push technology into the next generation.

Consoles offer the hardware standardization developers want, but the question of the Mac platform also emerged. Would it be possible for the Mac hardware and operating system to set the pace for PC gaming? The panel was intrigued by the idea, especially since early development was commonly for Apple computers, and they agreed that there was a lot of room for Mac gaming to grow. Whether or not it will impact PC game development still remains to be seen.

However, both World of Warcraft and Torchlight were mentioned as successes, and some of what they have in common are mid-to-low system requirements coupled with gameplay tailored to the PC gaming audience. In light of the NVIDIA announcement, the panel was asked whether cutting edge hardware was still the key to the PC gaming experience. The panel admitted that even though developers love creating games that push the envelopes of technology, lower system requirements broaden the audience. The panel seemed to agree that the biggest benefit new hardware announcements bring is lowering the costs of hardware from the previous generation, allowing both consumers and developers a chance to take advantage of those advanced features. Michell Shuster admits to advising LanSlide PC customers away from using the absolute latest hardware because few games take advantage of them.

For the time being, it looks like console development leads the way. Complaints voiced by the audience included gameplay issues. If a game is released across all platforms or is ported to the PC, it should (quite rightfully) be designed for PC controls, meaning the keyboard and mouse. They shouldn't have to feel driven toward console for a hassle-free gaming experience. At one point, John Kreiner from the panel raised was that console players didn't have to wait forever for their games to install or patch. They just had to insert the disc and got straight to playing, overlooking the fact that games load much faster from the hard drive than from a disc and that PC gaming's major advantage is in getting away from physical media. Also, a feature found in Halo 2 for Vista allowed the game to be played as it installed. Guild Wars and many listings on GameTap offer a similar feature. Perhaps the problems with PC gaming have been with us for so long that it becomes hard to remember the benefits.

While on the topic of physical media, we asked the panel what they thought of digital download retail and if it would be the one area that could rescue PC game revenues. Digital download may not be the final answer to the PC's woes, since much of the US doesn't have reliable broadband services, but the fact that practically all of PC gaming's growth in the past few years has been through services like Steam, Impulse and Direct2Drive has not gone unnoticed. Even so, the fact that even with these services PC gaming accounts for a small percentage of total revenue - despite publishers paying royalty fees to console manufacturers - presents an near insurmountable obstacle.

Eventually, an audience member flat-out asked what would help PC gaming recover. Ultimately, the future of PC gaming circles back to what we already know: the only way PC gamers can gain a stronger voice in game development is with their wallets. Revenue from the PC have to start rivaling consoles, or else consoles will continue to take precedence. Piracy issues have to be addressed so that customers and publishers can be satisfied. Hardware manufacturers and Microsoft need to communicate with developers to establish a workable standard that keeps the platform growing. All that needs to culminate into an enjoyable experience. With all that in mind, the light at the end of the tunnel seems ever further and dimmer. It's little wonder that the panel of self described PC gaming enthusiasts turned to doom and gloom so quickly.

In the meantime, a question was raised near the end of the session that speaks to the changing state of PC gaming's identity. Offline LAN gaming is gradually turning into a lost feature. John Abercrombie remarked that even though he mostly played online, he was also sad to see it go. He also said that he was saddened to see a decline in PC mod support, since he and many other developers first got their start with modding. The next generation of developers will mostly know only console gaming, except for maybe World of Warcraft, which further speaks to the future identity and impact of PC games. There's a long, hard road ahead with no easy answers to any of the big questions.

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