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If your system is out of date, you need a whole new gaming rig.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

7 thoughts on “Vanguard, Hardware, and Consoles

  1. Kilanna

    My husband (works in the IT industry) has often commented that the consoles are the cheapest computers around too:)

    I have had a number of discussions relating broadly to this topic with him. One such example follows.

    Call me a heathen / unenlightened or whatever, but I loved Widows 95. It was stable and did everything I needed. Then I am forced to upgrade to Win98, because support for 95 is being wound back. Now my computer cant run that, so I buy a new computer . Then my printer isn’t compatible and I need a new printer. Not only that – it now comes with a very special feature – the blue screen of death at the most innoportune moments. I find this obscene.

    If my machine runs well and does everything I need it to do, why do I need to discard it? Even if Moores law holds and we can double our performance every 18 months or 2 years, I personally dont see how it follows that the general community must be upgrading this often. Most ordinary folk with families just cant afford it. I would also argue it is wasteful and not sustainable economically or environmentally.

    Moores law permits for amazing advances at the leading edge of science and technology, and this is wonderful. But it just feels like I am getting screwed by the cycle of being forced to upgrade software and then this means I have to upgrade my hardware. As you have pointed out Wil, things can look beautiful (WoW is very pretty) without needing you to constantly be updating your PC.

    My husband and I probably could, but I sure as heck wont be paying to buy a new PC just so I can run a game. Vanguard doesn’t really run on my machine so I have cancelled my subscription.

    I hope not to appear too unkind, or speak ill of someone I have never met – but it is my impression that Brad has a limited concept of most peoples reality.

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  2. cyanbane

    I believe MS forsaw this previous to the original Xbox. The original Xbox (and 360) are their trojan horses into the home. It worked. Much to the begrudging of PC gamers now. There was no way everyone could get on the anything remotely close same page for specs (that was why I love PC Gaming), and DirectX helped to a point by atleast starting to create “levels”, but I fear the console (and its abundance of players) will win out in about 7-10 years. (I hope I am wrong). The money will be made much quicker/easter developing for a common platform (console). I find it ironic that the one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle though has been cast away from the consoles for the last few years (to my astonishment), the keyboard. Times are changing fast though for that

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  3. Guy

    Here , Here – I have been thinking this way for a long time now.
    I pretty much agree with all you have said here.
    …Prior to coming back to PC games and MMOs I used to play consoles mainly, this was because I was fed up playing catch-up with PC Hardware verus PC Software…which I had played games on since the 386 days.
    I had the theory that I wouldn’t have to upgrade my hardware for quite a few years…well until the next gen console came out.

    Given the latest consoles to hit the market , you are completely correct, add a mouse and keyboard and a LCD and you now have everything you need for a decent MMO to run.
    Just think – If Brad had developed for the Xbox 360 rather than the PC – would he be having so many issues now ? maybe and maybe not ? – He certainly would have have a machine spec in mind and developed for that – rather than equipment that really doesn’t exist yet.
    Really nice read this…Thanks

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  4. Gooney

    The problem isnt the industry, nor is the answer consoles. Do not forget that consoles and PC gaming have co-existed throughout their entire histories, and there has never been a shortage of idiots claiming that one or the other was on their last legs. Console games are console games, PC games are PC games, Board games are Board games…starting to see a pattern?

    Differnt media for different experiance.

    PC gaming is at this very moment going through a hardware driven paradigm shift, this is nothing new, nothing drastic, infact it happens quite often. The 286 gave way to the 386, 386 to the 486, 486 to the Pentium, Pentium to Pentium 2…excetera.

    Something extra became added to the mix in 1999ish, enter the 3dfx Vodoo card, this gave rise to the great battle between the Glide API and DirectX API for 3d games, Glide ultimately lost due to the unrelenting pressure of constantly improving Directx3d versions and thier tight integration with the MS Windows based platforms. The important thing here isnt the battle but what actually resulted, from that point on it was a GIVEN that any gaming rig would require a graphics card specifically for 3d graphics. This raised the bar again, and gave us a new term or complication as PC Gamers, pipline bottlenecks… CPU or GPU limitations.

    Still, all of this is part and parcel for the PC gamer, it is nothing new, nothing shocking, and nothing that I see changing in the near future.

    And no it does not in any way shape or form spell the end or even the decline of the PC gaming industry. The various marketing entiteis of the goliaths will be taking that role over quite handely, but it wont be due to increasing hardware demands. Even the mega-corp induced, creative vacuum will be sidesteped by PC Gamers themselves, even now a return to the “garage” is taking place, small indy teams not only exist but are becoming well known, just like Id was in the begining… it is, if you will, the PC Gaming circle of life.

    -Gooney

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  5. Gooney

    Oh yeah…forgot to say what the paradigm shift actually was.

    Dual Core architecture, single cores, simply can not compete with the raw power of even the weakest dual cores. Heck, even quad cores are coming by the end of the year, add to that 64 bit processing as opposed to 32, faster drives, memory …ohh what glorious times we live in.

    WoW was a success in very large part thanks to them never forgetting who thier target audiance was, they had tons of experiance with mass appeal via blizznet, D1 & D2, SC, WC1-4. You see tons of the same terrain in WC3 that you see in WoW. Stylization allowed them to use color, texture, and perspective to “trick” the eye into seeing layers of depth that werent necessarily there. Result, appealing graphical context on hardware that was commonly available world wide (even eastern europe which traditionally receives hardware from the b-market, ie not as juicy as western hardware).

    EQ1 and EQ2 and Vanguard used brute force types of graphics to tantalize the eye, result, games that require top of the line hardware to see what the devs want you to see. This limits audiance to technophiles, affluent, and primarily western customers, in an international marketplace that is literally flooded with competitors this is very very unwise.

    -Gooney

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  6. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    I would not categorize the changes in processor architecture as a paradigm shift. It is all quite evolutionary. It all still runs x86 code. And even 64-bit is just another cyclical change in architecture.

    You do echo back a number of the things that I said, including that companies like Blizzard that get the idea that the high end market is pretty small and that if you want big sales numbers you have to be careful with your system requirement.

    On the other hand, you choose to ignore some changes to the whole environment in which PC and console gaming exist.

    A PC game is a PC game, a console game is a console game? Maybe. EverQuest Online Adventures for PS2 looks a lot like a PC game to me. Halo 2 for Vista looks, heaven help us, like a console game. Neither are stellar successes, but they prove that “never the twain shall meet” was a false assumption even for the last generation of console/PC games.

    PC sales are flat or down slightly, depending on what you read, with laptops a growing segment of the total PC market.

    PC game sales have been on the decline for the past few years. If you look at the numbers for last year and the beginning of this year, a lot of credit goes to Blizzard for helping them revive somewhat. The focus on MMOs of late comes from this decline in sales and the attractiveness of a recurring revenue model. High hopes and false beliefs are rife, of course, but the fact remains that PC game sales have been in a decline while console sales have continued to rise.

    PCs and consoles have certainly co-existed since I had an Apple ][+ and an Atari 2600, but the differences between them are growing smaller. Nobody would have mistaken a game on one for a game on the other. When we get to PS3 level of games, it is not clear to me that that will always be the case.

    Plus the whole home electronics ecosystem is evolving as well. My Atari 2600 used an RF interface to work with a TV. My Sega Genesis had S-Video. The PS3 has HD video out and can drive an HD TV that is also capable of acting as a monitor for your computer. One of our WoW instance group members plays on his home theater system some nights. That blurs the line a bit more.

    I think you and I would agree that some game companies have brought woe upon themselves by making requirements too high and that Blizz is a good example of how to succeed without doing that.

    I think we disagree on your suggestion that things have always been this way and things will always be this way. History is paved with companies who made that assumption The environment in which PCs, PC games, and consoles exist is changing, as it has been since day one. The fact that the line between the two has not disappeared yet does not necessarily mean that it is a fixed law of nature.

    That I do disagree with some of your comment does not mean I do not appreciate your thoughts. I have just seen too many people who felt that trends would continue to infinity fall flat on their faces to assume that anything is solid in the absence of effort to maintain it.

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  7. Yunk

    I converted to Consoles for awhile for this same reason, but now I’m back to the PC since I mainly play MMOs. I can play LOTRO on low right now, which is a lot better than some other games, but still…it’s low.

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