Gamers First: The PC Gaming Alliance Interview, Part Two

PC gaming's dying, PC gaming's alive and well. If you're a PC gamer, you're probably sick of hearing either. Recent punditry pegs PC gaming as an industry in decline, but the reverse is in fact true according to the PC Gaming Alliance, a group of key industry publishers doing their best to bring absent perspective to widely published but decontextualized retail sales figures.

Intel Director of Gaming Randy Stude is the PCGA's standing president. We caught up with him to clarify the PCGA's initiatives and see if we could debunk any ongoing myths.

(This is Part Two. Parts One, Three, Four, and Five.)

Game On: PC gaming can still be a tangly, technical business, even with Windows Vista and 7 and Microsoft's Games For Windows initiative working toward consolidation and simplification. What's the PCGA doing to make the enduser experience less unpredictable?

Randy Stude: The expectation that a gamer has is that on their system, at the resolution they're looking at in a spec list, they get acceptable performance. We've come up with what we believe is acceptable performance, and we're going to provide recommendation to our membership of what we believe that acceptable experience to be. And we're going to ask our membership to support that acceptable experience both from the systems side and the games side.

I can't disclose what that is, because it's a membership benefit that we only provide to our members, but the net of it is that consumers who ultimately buy systems from members of the PCGA and buy games from publishers who support the PCGA that adopt those recommendations, that the experience witih those games is going to be better.

GO: Is this the "common minimum system requirement" the PCGA was talking about last year?

RS: We highlighted that there was no common minimum spec, and we talked about should we come up with a common minimum spec, and we quickly determined that, based on the realities of the game industry, that just wasn't a practical thing to do.

There are people who play Pogo on their PC who can do so on just about any platform out there, including the Atom based Netbooks. And then there are people who want to play Crysis. PC gaming runs such a wide gamut, the challenge is ominous to come up with a common minimum spec.

What you can come up with instead is a common expectation from an experience perspective, and by game genre.

GO: The question I come back to, and I think it's particularly a problem for enthusiast gamers, since mainstream gamers just want the game to run decently. But enthusiast gamers can occasionally be neurotically obsessive about, if I can't get this thing to play at exactly the detail settings I'm convinced best represent what I spent for all this big ticket hardware, it just bugs me to the point where it's affecting my appreciation of the game.

With consoles, no neuroses, everyone plays the same for all intents and purposes. With PCs, the sky's the limit, and that's always pitched as a positive. So it's oh, you can play it at all these different levels, it has legs, it'll last for three years, you can come back and play it again, it'll be a whole new experience, etc. I understand that, and I agree with some of that, but there's a group over here that's not being addressed, namely the sort of enthusiast that wants to be enthusiastic about the game alone and not get mired in peripherals like level-of-detail settings.

RS: A lot of that is effectively communicating what the experience is going to be like. I mean, minimum specs are for the most part meaningless, because it's just the lowest end system with a completely naked operating system that some tester at that publisher was able to make the game run on.

If you're a typical PC owner, there's no such thing. You don't have an operating system that's perfectly clean from numbers of add-ons, and ActiveX is this, and background virus scanning is that. All of that weighs on your experience.

If you're on the edge of the minimum spec, you know as a gaming consumer that you're probably not going to have the experience that was intended at that minimum spec. That's what we're trying to factor into the recommendations that we provide to the industry that supports the PC Gaming Alliance, which is to say we tested al those environments. We checked out systems at the low end of the spectrum and loaded them down with virus checkers and stuff like that. We understand the headroom that's required to have that experience operate correctly and appreciably for the person that's paying $50 for that game.

End of the day, when it comes to consumer expectations, you expect that when you see some commercial or you watch something online, some preview say, that's what it's going to look like when you fire it up on your system. And if it doesn't, then you're either on the phone, or you're in the blogs, or you're in the forums complaining about the experience that you're having with that title.

GO: Are we heading toward an industry where publishers refrain from publishing best-case preview videos, implying "hey it's going to look like this!" and what they really mean is yeah, sure, if you have sixteen processors and four graphics cards and ridiculous gobs of memory?

RS: I think a better way to put it is that the consumer's voice in the Internet age is heard louder and louder through demonstrative efforts, like the Amazon Spore fiasco, which I call a tea party, but that's a little cliched at this point. That kind of effort is common nowadays, where everyone piles in and complains about something.

When Crysis launched, for example, everyone jumped on the forums and said hey, you know what, I've got the 8800 Ultra from NVIDIA and yet it's not functioning very well, what's the deal. And it forced action on the part of the publisher as well as the graphics vendors to do something about that. It forced action on the part of Microsoft to make sure the operating system was doing the right things, that DirectX 10 was working properly.

All of that in the Internet age has changed the way companies respond to consumers, because, you know, they have to. Because people are buying those games online. Because people are reading the recommendations online. People are reading metascores. People are paying attention to other people's opinions about topics. Consumers opinions about topics, more so than they are the critics, who, no offense, tend to be stuck in a controlled environment.

When a critic looks at a game, if they go visit the developer, the developer's controlled that environment very, very tightly, so that your experience is absolutely perfect. Someone who downloads the demo of BioShock and has a bad experience because it's got DRM on it, they've got a much more realtime ability to impact the sales of BioShock on the PC because their opinion is based on real world experience. And that's what we're trying to address, which is that you've got to respond, you've got to have expectations that things will play at a certain level, or this business as we know it is going to change dramatically.

Read Part Three

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