Daily Archives: May 1, 2007

Vanguard, Hardware, and Consoles

Or why PC games are killing the PC gaming industry

Or why Blizzard and small independents are the bright spots in the PC gaming industry

I started out on another “Aradune” post last night, this being nationally designated “Beat up on Brad Week,” which is scheduled to culminate on Cinco de Mayo with a mass beating of piñatas shaped like Brad which promise to disgorge candy, but end up containing only lima beans and a promise that the 2008 candy will be much better than the 2007.

But, other than that colorful metaphor, I did not have much that was enlightening, humorous, or insightful.  Instead, I will direct you to Jeff Green’s blog post on the subject.  It demonstrates why he gets paid to write about games for a living while I do not.

So rather than announcing my line of “Spittin’ Mad at Brad” apparel, I want to go over the hardware requirements part of Brad’s post however, as I think it leads into a bigger issue.

If you read the post, Brad finally comes out and says that to play Vanguard, you do not need just a new video card (like I bought), you need a new system. 

The big problem that remains is that you still pretty much need a new system as opposed to, say, simply a new graphics card… 

The game is simply not CPU bound, nor just graphics card bound, but rather mostly bound by the data that it needs to constantly move from the CPU to main memory to the graphics card, and then all the way back again.  It’s all about the various bus speeds and caches – moving data around efficiently is arguably more important than processing that data on the CPU or GPU…

If your system is out of date, you need a whole new gaming rig. 

Here is a game that I wasn’t quite ready to buy because it was $50.  A game that I did buy, and effectively spent $300 on, because it was the prime motivator for buying the x1950 Pro card.  A game that I find out will actually cost me $1500 or more to be able to play effectively.

I should be calling for Sigil’s management team to be strung up!

Except, that while Vanguard may be the most outrageous offender I can find at the moment, they hardly stand alone.  With my three year old 3GHz system, with 2GB of RAM and an x1950 Pro AGP card, I won’t be playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Supreme Commander, Company of Heroes, or even Civilization IV with all, or even most of the goodies turned on. 

And this is not a new problem either.  Let me use the Civilization series as an example.

I played Civilization on my Mac IIci (25MHz 68030), but the game really wasn’t viable until I went to a Mac Quadra 800 (33MHz 68040).  That upgrade literally shaved hours off of a game of Civilization.

I played Civilization II on my Pentium 166MHz, but it wasn’t really playable until I upgraded to a Pentium II 400MHz.

I played Civilization III on my Pentium III 900MHz, but it was bogged down until I got my current 3.0GHz Pentium 4 machine.

I now play Civilization IV on my 3.0GHz Pentium 4 machine, but I have to keep the world small and turn down most of the settings to get it to run at anything like the speed at which I consider playable.

You can stick Alpha Centauri in there between Civ II and III with a similar tale. 

At no point in the above was I drastically behind the curve when it came to systems.  I would argue that my system now is not drastically behind the curve when it comes to the installed base of gaming machines out there.

This probably worked out okay in 1993 when I was playing Civilization because what choice did I have?  I had a Sega Genesis at the time, but the games it could play lacked the depth I seek in a game.  I was better off playing slug-slow Civ than Sonic the Hedgehog in my view.  It played slow, but it played on my machine and on any mid-range machine on the market.

Fast forward to today.  None of those current titles I listed will play on a mid-range machine in today’s market.  None of them play very well on a machine like mine which, while out of date, is still in the upper percentile of total machines on the market when it comes to performance.  PC Gaming now demands high end hardware for most titles.  Machines that meet the criteria are a smaller and smaller segment of the PC population.

Is there any wonder that the PC games market is having trouble?  GameStop isn’t giving PC games less shelf space because they like consoles more, they are giving them less shelf space because they do not sell as well.

And it could get worse.  Take a $700 PlayStation 3, put a keyboard and mouse on it, hook it up to my LCD monitor, give me a decent MMO title, and suddenly it goes from an over-priced living room toy to a very compelling alternative to my PC when it comes to gaming.  I could afford that and a PC for my email and whatnot and still not spend as much as I might just to get Vanguard to run.

Further more, here is what seals the deal.  Not only do I get better, more reliable, ready for prime time titles (patching console games is a chore, so the economics force companies to ship stuff that works), but I won’t have to upgrade my PlayStation 3 for at least five years, maybe longer. 

Console gaming is potentially a couple of peripherals and a title or two shy making the PC gaming market go into major consolidation. 

And the Wii?  Even I, a person who does not like consoles, bought one.  It was an easy choice.  It cost less than the freakin’ video card I bought so I would have a hope in hell of being able to play this year’s crop of MMO titles.

How do game companies excuse this performance gap?  I hear a lot about Moore’s Law from people from people who do not even know what it means. 

But the law we ought to be worried about is Wirth’s Law which states:

Software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster

Moore’s Law is a bust in the face of that.  We see it all the time.  I have run Microsoft Office for 15 years.  Talk about bloatware.  And games are no better. 

Hardware improvement does not keep up with the load software puts on it.  So, sorry to tell you this Brad, but the end of the year isn’t going to be platform nirvana for Vanguard.  You have out run the hardware by a lot more than that.

So how does PC gaming survive?  Blizzard and the small, independent studios are the paradigm for survival.  Make games compelling without making them hardware hogs.

One of the major reasons that World of Warcraft has 8+ million players world wide is modest system requirements.  That moves boxes in Europe, that moves boxes in the US, and it is an absolute requirement in Asia, where cyber cafes with modest gaming machines are the de facto platform. It is no wonder that EverQuest II had no traction in Asia.  Two and a half years after launch, it is still a system hog.  It seems light compared to Vanguard, but a walk through Qeynos Harbor still makes my machine grind to keep up.

Yes, I understand the desire to future proof a game by making sure it looks good tomorrow.  But if you kill off your sales today, there will be no tomorrow to worry about.  Making money today with a good game will ensure that not only is there a tomorrow, but that you will have the capital to be ready for it. 

And you might not have to worry about your tomorrows as soon as you think.  How long has StarCraft been around now?  It still seems to be going strong.  And there is a thriving Diablo II community still clicking away. 

There is a reason that PC game sales are up mostly thanks to Blizzard.  They seem to know what the hell they are doing.

So I hope that the PC game industry gets this.  I hope we do not have to have a string of Vanguards in the future.  The console companies only have to get their act together and suddenly Pop Cap might be the future of PC gaming.  They only have to figure out how to get the console out of the family room and onto your desk.

[And it appears The Common Sense Gamer shares some of my fears.]