Returning to the roots: Why developers must shift their focus back to PC

sleepingdogs2

By on August 31, 2012 at 9:50 am

I recently had the pleasure of playing a few games that reminded me why I continue, in the face of adversity, to be a PC gamer.

Sleeping Dogs and Guild Wars 2 are both stand out examples of what happens when you use the PC as a template, rather than just another avenue for revenue — or, at the very least, put enough effort into respecting what is the oldest and most technically affluent community of gamers by providing a version that actually takes advantage of the cutting edge hardware we spend many hundreds of dollars maintaining and hours tweaking.

As our current set of consoles come into their seventh year of the generation that never seems to end, developers continue to squeeze the final drops out of ancient hardware that desperately cries for retirement. It’s not really that surprising, with over 100 million 360s and PS3s sitting in lounge rooms, game sales continuing to rise, and subscription packages like Battlefield Premium and CoD Elite selling gangbusters alongside their base titles.

But for the rest of us, this is at the expense of progress; there have been some absolutely shocking concessions that have affected almost every single cross platform title released in the past four years.

Nothing’s gonna touch you in those golden years

It used to be the rule of thumb that both the console and the PC were birthplaces of original content, and this was at its high during the golden years of the 90′s when very few games were ported between systems. There were many reasons for this, although most of them revolved around complicated licensing agreements, technical restrictions and a lack of super-publishers that had both the means and the want to develop for multiple platforms.

It’s been devastating to watch this slow burn, as more and more PC titles find themselves being originally developed on 360 or PS3 devkits, as opposed to elite PC workstations

Back then, a NES, SNES, or even a PlayStation didn’t resemble anything close to a PC in specification or structure. PC games were generally always more complex in nature, and took advantage of the more varied control systems available.

Any games that were ported, mind you, were usually pretty terrible. Doom for the SNES and Quake 3 Arena for the Dreamcast were both interesting examples of poor porting and implementation, while the SNES port of Sim City, on the other hand, was considered by many to be better than the original. But in this specific case, a lot of effort was made to make the transition viable and playable. Sim City on the SNES made fantastic use of easily accessible sub-menus and every single one of the SNES’s various buttons and cartridge backup.

But it was the PC version that originally provided a complex base to build from, and rather than compromises being made, developers were given a berth of support and systems to convert for console use.

It wasn’t until the 2000′s that the tables began to turn. Many PS2 games slowly started making their way to the PC, as large publishers like Ubisoft noticed markets for gamers who hadn’t bought a console. The trend not only continued but blossomed with the introduction of the XBox, where its PC-like architecture made two-way porting simpler than ever. For the first time, it was no longer a drain on resources to make concurrent versions of software that shared much of the code base and visual assets. The problem, however, was that it was a great way to avoid keeping up with the ever-burgeoning speed of graphics technology development by limiting your options to the lowest ones necessary.

A comforting compromise is still a compromise

It’s been devastating to watch this slow burn, as more and more PC titles find themselves being originally developed on 360 or PS3 devkits, as opposed to the elite workstations that were once the birthplaces of software. Titles like Borderlands and Skyrim, FPS/RPG hybrids that traditionally excel on PC (think Deus Ex, or to a limited extent, Thief) , were lambasted for their atrocious UI, coupling full screen menus with awkward control schemes and limited graphics options. Many also blame the console focused development of Deus Ex‘s dreadful sequel Invisible War for the atrocious outcome of the final product, thanks to the low polygon counts and control changes needed to be workable on the XBox.

I can see why developers, or namely publishers, see the benefits of using consoles as the primary development focus. Costs are much lower, piracy isn’t as prevalent and it doesn’t require any investment in PC staples like DRM or dedicated servers. Engines exist, like Unreal, CryEngine and Unity that already provide customized development environments for easy development and transition across multiple platforms. You’re generally more likely to get a product that contains less bugs, inconsistencies and, subsequently, less costs involved if a patch is needed down the track. Releases will be generally uniform, mostly limited to 720p, and available across everything at (generally) the same time.

But there are a number of important things to consider here. Firstly, the current crop of consoles are still stuck using Direct X9 or a variation of it, meaning there is automatically going to be a ceiling on elements that will be supported — like advanced shaders, multiple cores and multi-threading in general.

Mutton dressed up as lamb

Regardless of how much you squeeze from an eight year old graphics system, as powerful and proprietary as it is, you will be significantly limited to the level of detail and complexity far below that which can be obtained by even the cheapest DX11 GPU. Then there are the limitations on RAM, and the possible omission of a HDD meaning more streaming and less caching. While the CELL processor in the PS3 and the Xenon were especially powerful for their day, the lack of modern advancements like a L3 cache create bottlenecks in performance.

So while development is cheaper initially, it’s also intrinsically restrained by years old hardware and software, meaning the complexity of any experience will rely solely on the programmer to cut corners in order to fit their scope into the box they are given. As a result, the PC versions of any console primary title will almost always be neutered, even when developers promise DX11 or advanced graphics systems, because the scope of their creations are will be restricted from conception. Why imagine a game world the size of a planet when you’re suck with barely enough memory to generate a city in pieces?

The PC is, by design, the most flexible development studio there is.

The number of engines available, like Unreal, Source, CryEngine, can provide the same scaled down environments to develop console versions, as irritating as they may be. But what was borderline acceptable five years ago is becoming unacceptable today, especially when we’re getting titles that look arguably tired and suffer from obvious restrictions in memory (a PC with 16GB of RAM should not have to load every time you enter a house or even a city for that matter). Developers are starting to catch on – a plethora of upcoming, especially great looking titles from Star Wars 1313 to Watch Dogs are still dodging questions about their console availability.

It doesn’t need to be this way

Just looking at a stunning PC focused game is a perfect reminder of what can come from a primary dev focus. Guild Wars 2 is a shining example of almost perfect UI design, taking full advantage of high resolutions and screen space. The graphics engine has been built from the ground up to scale from lower to higher end PCs, utilizing a host of various options to optimize or enhance the experience. There have been no corners cut, other than those generally found in MMOs to reduce lag and increase frame-rate in population heavy areas, plus special dedication provided to supporting the multiple cores and advanced threading found in the newest generation of CPUs and GPUs.

Sleeping Dogs was, however, not developed originally for a PC audience, beginning its life under Activision’s console-focused guise as another installment of the moderately successful True Crime franchise. Its subsequent purchase by Square Enix tightened the reins of development and changed the name, promising at the same time to create a PC version that was worth buying. To their credit, they did. A host of options, including a free high-res texture pack, 3D, Eyefinity and UI optimization were all provided on release, leading to the delight of many gamers, a massive increase in sales (particularly in PC centric markets like Europe) and showing that it really wasn’t that difficult to create a version of a console focused game worth playing.

There is a renewed shift back towards support for the PC, and unusually, it is being championed by publishers like Square Enix who, like most Japanese based developers, always preferred consoles. Enormous sales success on digital download systems like Steam and Origin have demonstrated that the market is not only stable, but growing rapidly, as PC prices and components drop in price and the flexibility of market forces allows for significantly cheaper distribution.

But we’re not there just yet. For the sake of our industry, developers need to go back to the PC as their development focus, otherwise we will be stuck at the whim of forces focused on aspects other than gaming.

Thanks to Cas Bitton and SuBw00FeR for their Sleeping Dogs screenshots!

34 comments (Leave your own)

We have naturally reached that stage again where the PC is far superior in every technological way to the current generation of consoles although it has been many generations since there has been seven year delay between the next console. This large gap came at a bad time for PC gaming because in the last three years alone the PCs hardware power has grown substantially with processors such as Sandy bridge and DX11 capable GPUs.

 

Shouldn’t it be “ever burgeoning speed of graphic technology” rather than “ever burdening speed of graphic technology”? Although the second does make sense in its own way.

At the limits of my memory, but didn’t a similar thing happen with PC games back just prior to the PS3 and Xbox360 releases? I think it has a lot to do with developers tooling up to produce games with higher graphical requirements for the next generation of consoles, rather than any intrinsic benefits from selling better games on the PC.

 

Also the first and last links in the story don’t work.

 
James Pinnell

yurtles:
Shouldn’t it be “ever burgeoning speed of graphic technology” rather than “ever burdening speed of graphic technology”? Although the second does make sense in its own way.

Ahh, looks like a final spell check may have replaced the word I meant (burgeoning) with burdening. Cheers. Also, I’ll get Tim to see why the links are parsing strangely, they look fine on the CMS backend.

Yurtles: To an extent it did, but it’s still pretty unusual to be so far in development for a game when the new consoles haven’t been announced. I think that native PC development has gotten an enormous shot in the arm over the last few years because there IS a huge demand for it.

 

I’ve tidied up those links and typos!

 

A comprehensive take on the state of PC gaming, I may have to look at getting GW2 and Sleeping Dogs. But shouldn’t it be fewer bugs/costs and not less bugs/costs?

 

“While the CORE processor in the PS3″ I believe you mean CELL processor.

 
James Pinnell

scared:
“While the CORE processor in the PS3″ I believe you mean CELL processor.

Definitely a face palm moment, I wrote “CELL” like 4 times in my notes for this piece. Cheers.

 

I love how everyone just gives correction to your story rather than actually commenting on the issue.

The reality is that this has been an issue for years, and publishers don’t want to listen. Maybe it is actually harder or more expensive than we think. The new generation of consoles should be out soon and I’m sure they’ll just wait for it rather than go down the PC road.

Games made for PC are wishful thinking and past history. It makes me wonder why anyone is upgrading their PC’s when there seems to be no need at all.

Someone post up a list of awesome new games that are made for PC and really use the resources to prove me wrong so I can check them out!

 

generalseed,

Crysis 3 for one I have heard will be the new stress tester just like Crysis was back in the day

 

parmacoy:
generalseed,

Crysis 3 for one I have heard will be the new stress tester just like Crysis was back in the day

i heard the same, your right

 

I haven’t got Sleeping Dogs yet. A patch was released for that today as well.
http://store.steampowered.com/news/8763/

 

Also, I have no interest in Guild Wars 2 as I don’t particularly like MMOs.

 

Got to love developers like Crytech who are willing to push the boundaries just for the technical impressiveness of it. So few developers still try to do this – there’s not the competition there used to be to make games that demand the most from a system. Epic are another company who have always tried to push the boundaries of technology using the Unreal engine.
But reading this article has made me think that it’s actually Valve who’ve done more than anyone to save PC gaming by increasing convenience for the user and profitability for the developer.

 

I just got about $600 worth of upgrades. I can’t even remember why, other than ‘My CPU is old, I want a new one.’ Last year I got a reasonably priced GPU that has DX11 features but I dont think it’s beastly enough to handle some of the more recent games on max settings.

I’m definitely looking forward to Crysis 3 destroying everybody’s computers :P

 

Also, this article did seem to contain an unusually high number of errors. Though it was quite long. Good Read!

 

garf:
Got to love developers like Crytech who are willing to push the boundaries just for the technical impressiveness of it. So few developers still try to do this

A lot of the reson for this is that their games are tech demo’s for the engines that they make most of the money from. They could almost it write as advertising. If the games that they make arn’t increadble then what hope would a 3rd party studio have of making an incredable game with the engine.

 

unfortunately he is correct about not really needing to upgrade for games as much these days, they don’t much push the envelope like they used to and its depressing to think they are just waiting for next gen consoles so they can do bad ports to pc again. I love good upgrade but there’s really not as much point these days, sigh.

 

Loving Squenix these days. They go out of their way to please the PC crowd when they really don’t have to. I will always purchase games of theirs that I find interesting from now on. I have faith in them to continue delivering excellent PC and Console titles, Deus Ex is another shining example of that.

 

matthyew82:
unfortunately he is correct about not really needing to upgrade for games as much these days, they don’t much push the envelope like they used to and its depressing to think they are just waiting for next gen consoles so they can do bad ports to pc again. I lovegood upgrade but there’s really not as much point these days, sigh.

I actually run GW2 maxed out at a smooth frame rate… on a Core 2 Duo. Am not sure what the point of fast CPUs is these days.

 
Leave a comment

You can use the following bbCode
[i], [b], [img], [quote], [url href="http://www.google.com/"]Google[/url]

Leave a Reply

PC Gaming Calendar 2014

Follow Games.on.net

Steam Group

Upcoming Games

Releasing Soon
Thief Shadowrun Returns South Park: The Stick of Truth

Community Soapbox

Recent Features
The Elder Scrolls Online Grabnadz

The Elder Scrolls Online journals: One giant, kinda laggy leap for orc-kind

Levels one through fifteen of The Elder Scrolls Online are demolished by an angry orc mage-tank.

Watch Dogs

Watch Dogs PC hands-on: Not the perfect open world, but still a world of fun

Watch Dogs offers a generous array of options, and we push the boundaries to see how far we can go.

heroes_of_the_storm

Heroes of the Storm: Blizzard’s Dustin Browder on rage problems, hybrid roles, and balance

"We’re trying to make it so if there’s something obvious that you want to do, it’s the right thing to do. There’s no sort of hidden rules or hidden strategies that make that wrong."

ArcheAge

ArcheAge’s alpha impressions: The freeform Korean MMO that might just live up to its promises

This high-flying Korean MMO has finally made it to a Western release. James jumps in to see if the promise 'sandpark' model delivers.

Reaper of Souls

Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls reviewed: Change is a good thing

Blizzard shows that it isn't afraid to change everything

Streaming Radio
Radio Streams are restricted to iiNet group customers.

GreenManGaming MREC

The Regulars
guns_2

Sitrep: Hating Guns and Totally Loving Playing With Guns

Toby's absent-minded shower thoughts arrive for your edification.

The Secret World

Legal Opinion: Bait and switch… with a mankini

Not everybody is laughing following Funcom's April Fools joke on its players.

Bad at Aiming

Sitrep: Waiting in line at the FPS dole queue

Toby is so incompetent that he needs an entire new genre of games invented just to cater for him.

Amazon Fire

Friday Tech Roundup (04 April 2014): Radeon R9 295X2 specs leak

Also, the man behind the "Microsoft" phone scam has been captured and fined.

Facebook Like Box