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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Persistent vegetative state: Has a Do Not Resuscitate order been put on PC game development?

PC gaming, as we have known it over the past many years, is dying. It may already be brain-dead and we just don't know it yet. Certainly many of the developers that produce games for the PC platform seem to have gone comatose. By PC gaming, I mean the games where the basic game from the developers could be configured and modified ('modded') into a game that fit the players' desires.

New custom maps? No problem! New characters? You got it! New scoring modes or kit restrictions for competitive play? For certain! Custom dedicated servers with admin controlled settings? Check! LAN based private servers? You bet! In-game console? Of course! Build a completely new game from scratch using the core that can become wildly popular? Been there, done that!

Some games provided the tools to do these kinds of things, others needed clever reverse-engineering, but it could be done. Those days, I think, are drawing rapidly to a close. The market realities (depending on who you talk to, consoles such as the Xbox, Playstation, and Wii enjoy a six or seven to one sales revenue advantage overall compared to PCs) dictate this.

Developers either decide not to even develop for the PC, or do so in a lowest common denominator fashion. More and more, the development environment is a 'write once, deploy many' environment. That means the developer builds the game using the meta-environment of the development tools, and these in turn produce the 'run time' executables and assets for the deployment platforms simultaneously. In some cases, this will result in games that are the same across platforms, except perhaps for input device support. In other cases, some 'customization' can be done for each specific platform to the core (bulk) of the generated game, such as server browser functionality for the PC version that may not exist for the console versions.

In any case, this 'customization' must be fairly limited, else it starts to intrude on the whole purpose of building games using a 'write once' model: rapid development, deployment and easy updating of the core game. We see more and more laments from PC gamers about some new game being a poor 'port' from the console version. The problem is not bad ports - a port can in fact be quite excellent, with platform specific functionality added during the porting process.

The problem is the emerging model of game development no longer revolves around porting of games, but around the deliberate dumbing down of the core game design and development to fit the commonalities of the chosen deployment platforms. There is no longer any real porting done, just the gluing on of some limited platform specific functionality to the core game code vomited out by the development tools. And even more unfortunately, it seems developers put amateurs on to the job of adding these PC specific features: see Pings? We Don't Need No Stinking Pings! for a recent example of this.

The net result of more and more game developers adopting this kind of development model means more and more games are going to be built to this 'lowest common denominator' of functionality for the platforms the developer decides to deploy to.

The reality is developers are moving to this model, or are using it already. Once the development tools and environments are deemed mature, the result for them is faster, easier, and less expensive development, with vastly simplified deployment and maintenance. The complexity of these tools and environments, combined with the deep abstraction they use to enable their functionality, means making these tools available to the end-user is most unlikely, and reverse-engineering of games has become more and more difficult.

So, the developers can make a game at a lower development cost, designed and built to a lower standard of functionality and capability, and sell it at a very profitable price to a willing (mostly console playing) public. We should certainly be able to understand the reasons and motivations for the game developers and publishers to move to this model. They're in the business to make money, after all. Sadly, as this model is adopted by more developers and publishers the importance of the PC player community diminishes with each passing day.

The situation reminds me of the near death of the classic mechanical wristwatch: Introduced in the early 70's, Quartz wristwatches seemed like the Ebola of the mechanical watch making world. Soon, manufacturers of the hand made mechanical works of art were dropping like peasants during the Great Plague. Most switched over their primary manufacturing to quartz movement based watches. Simpler to make, cheaper to build, and profitable to sell. And yet, a few of them recognized that there was a market for truly well executed 'old school' technology, and that buyers would pay a premium for the privilege. This has resulted in pieces like the one from my blog entry Things Unexpectedly Technical, which sold out instantly to seven fortunate buyers for seven figure prices.

The end seems near for 'old school' PC gaming. We can only hope some developers will realize there is a market of PC connoisseurs that are willing and able to take advantage of PC games built and deployed in a PC centric fashion. Even if it means a pricier game, I for one am willing to pay for excellence.


  1. I agree - PC games have been getting more console like every day. I wouldn't care, if I could use a mouse and keyboard on my console. Why don't they do this?

    Great article - I really like this blog - it is the smartest PC and game blog I've seen. Kepp up the great work!

  2. I remember modding for Soldier of Fortune 1, then Halflife 1 and Counterstrike, etc. Made a lot of friends and maps, and even made a complete mod based on Vietnam for HL1 with some online friends. It was a lot of fun, in fact, I had more fun making stuff up than playing the games at the time. I really miss doing this at times. My kids are now getting old enough I want to try and teach them this but the games have no tools available. Frustrating.