Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why PC gaming is in decline.

Games are able, at their best, to enlighten us. To involve us emotionally in something that movies and books can't hope to compete with. Interactivity may well be an old-fashioned buzz word, best left to the confines of the time period that spawned it, but it is also a perfect word to use to say just what the edge that games have is.

You read a book, and watch a movie. In both cases you are only passively involved in the entertainment that is placed before you. Whereas, in a game, you interact. You are not just involved, you can conduct. You make decisions, you have input, you have control. You are no longer just a viewer; you are a part of the experience. You are instrumental in the magic. Without the active participation of the player, a game is completely and utterly pointless.

There exists, therefore, a contract between game developer and player. They make the fun for us, and we do our best to enjoy it. In return for enriching our lives, we offer up some of our earnings. Or, to put it into the form of a sound bite; In order to play, we pay.

We (being the players) do this willingly. At every single point of the game buying process, we assess the situation in front of us, and determine if the likely outcome is "A good time" being had. If it is, we then predict how good a time this will be, divide this by the length of the time we expect to spend with the game, and if this number is above whatever our own personal threshold figure is for expenditure we drop the required money. I could probably go on and make this into some cool equation, but I hope to have this blog read by people who don't get all wibbly at the sight of such things, so I shall avoid the temptation. (And, believe me, it is a HUGE temptation!)

So, with all this in mind, I have to profess to being absolutely mystified whenever a game developer goes out of their way to muddy the waters. When they make a decision that actively gets in the way of people's enjoyment of their product. Why would anybody do this?

More importantly, why do so many game developers do this?

Let us take a hypothetical situation. I have decided to make a videogame. Being a bit (ok, a lot) of a nerd, I decide to theme it around Star Trek. But, that isn't enough. No, I want authenticity in my game. So much so that all the text and dialogue, including the manual, is in the Klingon language.

How many people in the world can read Klingon? Not many, I'll wager. But, the figure becomes massively important to me. Because, that is the MAXIMUM amount of people who will buy my game.

By placing this restriction, I am applying a barrier to potential sales. Similarly, by placing ANY restriction, I am doing the same thing. The more barriers I place, the more limited my potential market is. So, I should strive to remove any restrictions. I would not want there to be any of them at all. I would, in fact, want every part of the process of playing my game to be as straightforward as possible. For the entirety of the experience to be, to use another 90's buzz word, user-friendly.

The App Store has absolutely mastered the art of making it easy for people. Users of iDevices are never more than a couple of taps on the screen away from spending money. Factor this alongside the general low amount of money that users are asked to spend, and it becomes of no surprise to anybody with an ounce of logic or reasoning skills that the App Store is making an OBSCENE amount of money for developers. Everything is easy, everything is quick, and everything is cheap. It is worryingly simple to spend a small fortune in the App Store, and it is for this very reason that there are literally thousands of games available there.

Console gaming has a lot of this kind of mentality applied to it, as well. Buy the game; put it in the machine, play. At least, if it is a Wii game. For the XBox 360, there may be the additional step of updating the game. Generally, this takes an extra 25 seconds of your life before the game starts up. On the PS3, though, things start to develop a slightly sour taste as the update procedure may take an hour or so. And this is assuming that the console itself doesn't require an update. There are times when downloading and installing a PS3 system update followed by downloading and installing a game update FOLLOWED BY A MANDATORY INSTALLATION OF THE SODDING GAME ITSELF can take all night.

And in the case of PC gaming? Things get ... the only real word to use for it is SHIT.

I understand that there are a million different configurations of PC out there. I get that the hardware I have may not be the same as that in my next door neighbours PC. I also fully understand that different operating systems exist, and that people will use different programs to do the same jobs.

Know what I struggle with? WHY this is a problem.

Right now, you are probably reading this on a monitor. It is probably capable of outputting at any one of 10 different resolutions. It may not be able to output at 1920 x 1080 like mine can, but I would be willing to bet a month’s wages that it can handle 1024 x 768.

Similarly, with input mechanisms. Everyone has a mouse and a keyboard, but not everybody has a gamepad. However, those that want to use their PCs to play games? They'll have a gamepad. And, in an amazing slice of serendipity, every gamepad made in the last hundred years or so comes in a fairly standard configuration. 4 face buttons, 2 shoulder triggers, and one analogue stick. Yes, there are other types, but most have that lot as standard.

So what should a games developer do when faced with this bewildering array of configurations and hardware?

Ignore it. Build to a standard that everyone already has. In the case of controller options, include the ones that are most likely to be used. Don't make a game that can only be played by widescreen monitor owners. Make one that runs in 1024 x 768, or even in 800 x 600!

What do PC developers tend to do? The exact opposite. They program games to work on their theoretical perfect machine, which often only they actually have. When they meet a problem in development, they usually buy whatever extra stuff they need to get round this problem, and thus end up with a game that speaks Klingon. Or, for the benefit of those who are not quite so adept at translating forced metaphors, a game with restrictions to entry. A game that, and this is really important to note, not everyone can play immediately. Sometimes, customers need to install new drivers for their graphic and sound cards. Sometimes they need to buy whole new cards. Sometimes they need to add extra memory, or get a bigger Hard Drive, or sacrifice a small animal in order to play. (Admittedly, this is an extremely rare occurrence.)They may have to sign up to some obscure web site, make payments in foreign currencies, agree to ridiculous terms and conditions, and this is usually before they ever get to play the game. Playing the game itself can often be the most laborious of tasks, involving verifying that they are indeed allowed to play it in the first place by means of some external control system. "This game can only be played by those who I specifically allow to, when I say, and how I say!" does not make for a very friendly pre-game atmosphere.

Similarly, I might not want to install your game onto my C:, perhaps I have filled this already? Or, perhaps I save that drive specifically for my OS, and instead install all my games onto D:? It is nice to have the choice, and yet games are still being made that require installation to the main drive. What if I don't mind the noise and would actually be quite happy to run the game straight from the disc? I can't honestly recall the last time I had that option, apart from when it was essential to have the game in the drive to prove I owned it, usually despite having already installed it to the C: in a folder that I didn't get to choose myself...

Dear PC games developers everywhere, I implore you to heed this advice. History has shown quite conclusively that there are literally millions of people out there who are more than happy to give you their hard-earned tokens in exchange for entertainment. We gamers are ready to hand over our cash in order to allow you to buy your Lamborghini. It continues to astonish me just how difficult some of you want to make it for us to actually do that. By requiring us to jump through hoops before we can play, you are subtracting from our enjoyment. In the equation that I never wrote, this will lead to a greater likelihood that our expected enjoyment quotient ends up being significantly below our personal threshold for willingness to spend. Or, for the benefit of those who don't speak geek as fluently as others, we get turned off before we get turned on and aren't gonna pay for that crap!

PC development is incredibly guilty of this attitude that seemingly goes out of its way to preclude people from playing. Developers have some kind of smug superiority complex, and thus pile the agony on for the average end user out there. Nobody wants to have to perform major reconstructive surgery on their computer just to shoot an alien, especially when they can do it for £0.69p on their phone. Nobody wants to be made to feel unworthy of a game when the minimum requirements match a machine that only exists in movies. Nobody wants to prove they are the person who bought the game every single time they attempt to play it.

There is a reason that console gaming is more popular than PC gaming. And it is because PC games developers are making it happen.

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