Console vs. PC: The PC Gaming Alliance Interview, Part Four

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 Four. Parts One, Two, Three, and Five.)

Game On: According to DFC Intelligence, the group that did the research for the PCGA report, the PC is predominant in emerging markets where, in DFC's words, "consoles have not had major penetration." The elephant-in-the-room implication is that PC gaming could eventually be in trouble if consoles eventually do.

Randy Stude: I think it goes further than that. I think it's more cultural. I think if you look at a market like Korea, you know, they have consoles in Korea. Why aren't consoles in Korea selling nearly as well? They're not selling remotely close to as well as PCs and PC games. That's not a closed market to consoles, that's an open market. You can buy an Xbox. I understand the resistance to Sony, and maybe even Nintendo, based on cultural issues with the Japanese and the Koreans, but why isn't the Xbox selling better there? And why aren't people flocking to consoles?

I'm not going to suggest what I believe the cultural issue is, necessarily, but I don't think that just by getting into those markets, consoles win de facto. There's also issues with governmental regulations, so consoles can't replicate the Western business models necessarily. They're sort of locked out of playing. And then there's piracy, which, in the case of China, you know...can you ever have a successful market in China when the government doesn't really have the ability to help you enforce your intellectual property rights? That's why online gaming's so huge in that market, because there's really no legitimate source for retail game sales.

GO: The report points out, quite accurately, I think, that the number one benefit of online PC gaming is piracy reduction. Whether you call it the current online model or the hypothetical cloud computing model that PC gaming maybe moves to in a decade or two, the idea's that it inherently eliminates piracy. It becomes impossible to pirate, because all of the information is architected and garrisoned on the server.

RS: That doesn't mean there aren't other issues.

GO: Well sure. Like bandwidth and connectivity, for starters.

RS: As an online player I'm sure you've seen people cheat and you've probably heard of people hacking and cracking online games. Those are issues the industry has to deal with, and fraud's another issue the industry has to deal with. So just because piracy isn't an issue doesn't mean there aren't other things that dominate the mind of the game developers and publishers for online games.

GO: Peter Molyneux said in an early 2008 interview about PC gaming, "I think it's a huge tragedy...I mean, you might as well say PC gaming is World of Warcraft and The Sims...the weird thing is everyone's got a PC, they're just not buying software for it." He's talking more about a decline in enthusiast spending of course, but it's a fair point, and I have to disagree with your statement in the PCGA report that "publishers of sub-standard quality have been weeded out." You could argue conversely that as many quality ones have been put out of business by publishers of lowest-common-denominator entertainment. Take Looking Glass, or at spiritual successor games like BioShock, arguably the apex of the entire medium, which reportedly sold much better on consoles than the PC. And then there's Molyneux arguing that even innovations in casual gaming have become a skipping record, saying "They're doing the same game over and over again with a different wrapper... It's like a mini-universe in itself which is emulating what's happening in our industry." Can you explain how the rise of sol-called "mass appeal gaming" isn't stifling creative risk-taking?

RS: My answer to Peter might be, Peter, have you ever seen a game called Maple Story. There are literally millions upon millions of people who are playing Maple Story, tens of millions of people who are playing that game worldwide. That's a roleplaying game, and while it may not be the most graphically intense game, it has gameplay that's attractive, and people are spending lots and lots of money to play it.

They're not buying a $50 game, they're buying $10, $15, $25 game cards at retail. That's the new paradigm that's being imported from the Far East to the rest of the world. The PC is a flexible business platform. It's something that doesn't require a rigid retail structure in order to succeed. You don't have to conform to the publisher's mentality, you know, I control the product on the retail shelf because I have a relationship with Best Buy and Target and Walmart. I control how your product is sold. I've got a marketing budget that's going to make sure your product moves a certain number of units regardless of its quality, regardless of whether or not it's got a high metascore.

That old school mentality of how games are sold and how games are positioned to consumers is not something the PC has to conform to anymore. And the success story for PCs that someone like Peter should be paying attention to is, you can break the mold and you can succeed. You can look at something like a Kart Rider, and I don't mean to pick on the same company, but you can look at that model and say, yes, it's a graphically simple game. Some might argue, a casual game. I don't personally believe it'd be a casual game because casual defines attitude much more so than entertainment quality, but you can play Kart Rider for hundreds of hours and have a blast every time you sit down and play because it's a fun experience.

That's the new paradigm that PC gamers are being drawn to. You know, I don't have to buy a $50 game, I can play for free, decide if I like it, and then I can either buy the $50 version or buy in increments through micro-payments. And that's something Peter hasn't done. He's beholden to a publisher that's trying to produce his product. In the case of Fable, it's Microsoft Game Studios, and that's the world he lives in.

So maybe that world can't sell five or six million copies of a $50 DVD to PC gamers in the US anymore. Maybe that's true. Maybe if he took Fable and he put it online and he made it a free-to-pay micro-transaction game that told the story the way only Peter Molyneux knows how to, then perhaps Fable 2 online or Fable online would be a much more compelling experience than even the Maple Story's that the kids are being drawn to. That's the paradigm shift that the PC is going through, and the console is stuck looking from the outside in.

GO: I think the other thing you've got to challenge, is that when someone says PC gaming is World of Warcraft and The Sims, technically that's not true, especially if you pay attention to the weekly charts. I saw Nancy Drew, no joke, pop in for a couple weeks a while back and take the top spot.

RS: Right, right.

GO: And the other thing that's just glossed over here is that, love them or hate them, games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings and Eve Online aren't really games in the old-school singular sense, but these categorically resistant, perpetually unfolding experiences. A whole cosmology, if you will, of hypothetical experiences, always changing and expanding and never quite ending. So it's probably too dismissive to write them off as these creatively deficient monoliths of gaming prevailing over all.

RS: You get an entertainment experience that lives on and on and on, and you're willing to pay for it because it has value. Is that bad for PC gaming? Heck no, and it's repeated. It's not just World of Warcraft. Go take a look across the globe. When you've got tens of millions of people playing a 2D-ish side-scroller that's Maple Story and they're paying more per month on average than even a World of Warcraft subscription, when they go and buy a $25 gift card every month because they want in-game merchandize, that says hey, the industry is moving someplace else and you're stuck in its past, perhaps, because you're not building your experience...you're telling stories, great stories, in products that people buy and love, but those aren't living experiences. They're a point release product, and when you've consumed it, you're done with it, and you move on to the next product.

Read Part Five

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