Developers need to stop wringing the last drops out of a dying console market .
By James Pinnell 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.
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!