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How Console Stagnated the Art and Business of Gaming
by Neil Schneider on 09/12/12 10:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Last July, AMD made an announcement that they saw a 40% drop in profits due to soft markets in China and Europe.  While Nvidia’s stock has been doing better, the real credit goes to the increasing popularity of their mobile chipsets more than anything else.  Intel could also be showing stronger performance.  Setting economic weaknesses aside, why are people spending less on upgraded graphics cards and faster processors?

Let me share with you my story.  I have always been and continue to be a PC gamer.  Several years ago, I had gone through a bit of a rough patch with a failed business, and like any dejected entrepreneur, I was depressed.  My wife asked me, “Neil!  Why aren’t you playing your video games?”  I explained that my computer equipment had grown so out of date, modern games were unplayable.  Her grandmother and family sent me a fair sum for my birthday, and my enjoyment in video games was awakened once more.

First, I got an updated computer with an embedded AMD GPU on the motherboard.  It was nice, I thought…but it could be better.  So then I got a discrete Nvidia GPU.  It was good, I thought, but it could be better.  So I got a Creative Labs Soundblaster card with surround sound speakers.  It was great, I thought, but it could be even better.  Having run out of things to buy, I desperately bought a pair of 3D glasses off eBay (before 3D was really famous) with a used 19” CRT monitor (bigger than the 17” I had), and I was truly satisfied with my gaming experience.  Sort of.  Over the next two years, I continually upgraded my graphics card to get more performance and be able to maximize my games’ eye candy settings a little more each time.

This story marks the beauty of PC.  It’s a constant opportunity to always have options to make your gaming experience a little bit better.  The opportunities for advancement are nearly unlimited.  Nearly.

Andrew Oliver, CTO of Blitz Games Studios

I have to admit that my console gaming experience is somewhat limited compared to that of PC.  Separate from the Nintendo Wii, my main console is a Sony PS3 Slim that was sent to me as a gift from Blitz Games Studios.  It’s a no muss or fuss block that sits near my TV, and just does what I tell it to do (except Windows!).  I was honestly stunned by what it’s capable of graphically.  While console games are definitely a bit rougher and tougher around the edges, they aren’t 180 degrees apart from what you get on PC.

The PS3 definitely has trade-offs with the ability to play multiplayer games (e.g. 32 player console versus 64 player PC maps in games), and there is no competition when it comes to available resolution options.  Even though the spec calls for 60 FPS, the practice is really 720P or in some cases 1080P gaming at 30 frames per second max.  In contrast, dedicated gaming PCs can easily do 1080P or higher and are often performing at 60FPS or more.PlayStation Move BundleThe Sony PS3’s GPU equivalent is a handicapped Nvidia 7800GT, and is probably more comparable to the Nvidia 7600GT that I used to upgrade my computer all those years ago.  While Sony’s game development is based on OpenGL, it could be considered the same as DirectX 9 to PC gamers.  From what I’ve read, the XBOX 360’s GPU is only a little faster than the ATI Radeon 1800XT.  Similar to the PS3, XBOX is also based on a DX9 level architecture with a few graphics features borrowed from DirectX 10 as well.

Reflecting on the sheer age of these console specifications, modern PC and console game releases shouldn’t be competitive at all, so something is very wrong with this picture!

While the weak economy is part of the problem, the PC’s biggest challenge is the content itself.  Instead of creating unique gaming experiences for the much beefier desktop platform, it’s far too common for developers to just port their processor-light console games and fill in the market gaps by diversifying their platform support.  Sure, as filler they up the resolution options and add some eye candy features to drive the GPU cycles, but it’s not the dramatic improvement over the console experience that the PC platform is really designed and intended to be.  Where is the justification to buy a better graphics card or upgrade to the next round of CPUs beyond “max setting ego”?

Over the past few years, Intel and AMD have started to market motherboard solutions that feature the CPU and GPU on a single processor.  This is a great way to inexpensively get their tech on a wide scale of machines through licensing deals and all-in-one computer purchases.  The marketing promotes the technology as being able to support modern video games at low to mid level graphics settings without the need for a discrete graphics card.  I’ve read that the first generation Sandy Bridge on-die GPU is nearly equivalent to an Nvidia 7600GT in terms of processing power – just like the Sony and XBOX 360.  This clearly ties in well with the existing console to PC transition market, especially since a GPU on a CPU die reduces the QA diversification issues faced by game makers.

This seems like great news for the first round chip makers and PC manufacturers looking to put complete products in consumer hands, but where is the motivation for game developers to take things to the next level?  By creating a common lowest denominator, there is limited motivation to do something unique on the PC platform.  Where is the up-sell potential?  How will programming for more powerful machines increase a game developer’s sales potential if the PC market’s standard is already in-line with a modern console?

While there is a belief that the Windows 8 OS will bring on a PC resurgence among enthusiasts, I think it will do little more than print money for Microsoft and fizzle out.  Why?  There is nothing happening to encourage uniquely featured and much improved video games compared to console, which is inching closer to PC competitiveness with their next generation release.

PC is still the financial winner, of course.  According to the PC Gaming Alliance’s website, there are at least 250 million computers with discrete graphics cards (based on 2011 statistics).  Most recently, the games taking the number one sales spot internationally were Guild Wars 2 and Diablo 3 (PC-only games!).  The remaining titles are all on console or games available on PC and console.  Why you ask?  With its keyboard and mouse, the PC is uniquely qualified as a multiplayer and MMOG platform, something consoles can’t do as effectively.  It also helps that some MMOG’s are extremely profitable with monthly fees, micro-transactions, and online communities.  It could be argued that the PC’s sales benefits have had as much to do with the physical nature of PC, as they do with the graphics and processing power of PC.

For me, modern PC gaming with the right equipment has a great deal to offer.  When faced with a choice to play the same title on console or PC, I always go with PC.  I max out my AMD and Nvidia GPUs all the time, and I know I’m getting a visual experience I couldn’t dream of on my 3D HDTV backed console.  However, for the PC platform to continue as a wide scale enthusiast’s dream machine with hopefully much bigger hardware and software profit margins, the experience gap between console and PC needs to grow wider and wider and wider.

It’s understandable that game makers have sided with console and the potential of cloud gaming because they are concerned about software piracy on PC.  Things have changed for the better, however, and modern DRM systems have been very successful at helping quash the piracy problem.  Valve’s Steam has been a shining light in this regard, and it’s no wonder that competitors like EA’s Origin and Microsoft’s upcoming DRM efforts are making themselves known.

While I’m admittedly biased, it makes sense why stereoscopic 3D and multi-monitor gaming is so attractive and important for the PC market.  Thanks to stereoscopic 3D efforts by AMD (HD3D), Dynamic Digital Depth (TriDef) and Nvidia (3D Vision), combined with new and improved display hardware, it’s a real opportunity for the manufacturers to add a much improved visual experience with limited help from game developers, and it’s an honest to goodness justification for all those extra processing cycles.

It’s unfortunate that too many game developers have shot themselves in the foot by treating 3D as a publisher requested (and public relations motivated) check mark with few requirements, rather than a well conceived artistic add-on that is purposely designed to mix with the fabric of the game.  It’s a sad truth, and represents a clear problem facing modern game developers, and their willingness to try new things seriously and responsibly.Oculus RiftOn the plus side, Palmer Luckey and his new Oculus team have struck a chord amongst gamers for a John Carmack endorsed VR helmet complete with head tracking.  Their Kickstarter campaign raised about $2.5 million, and game developers are grasping (grabbing?) the potential.  If products like this require more processing power than the next generation of consoles can deliver, this is a good specialty market for PC games to build on.  I’m hopeful that the nature of the technology will force game developers to take their product development responsibly, because you can’t actually support devices like these unless you know what you are doing…I hope.

However, let’s step out of the clouds and forget about the potential of 3D and virtual reality for a moment.  The desktop monitor, 3D or otherwise, will remain king for a very long time.  What ultimately matters for the PC above all else is that it can deliver gaming experiences - not just visuals - beyond what can be done on console.  The industry needs to stop limiting its imagination to screen pixel counts and fill rates; we need a new class of gaming that only PC can deliver.  With modern consoles and even smartphones encroaching on what used to be a strictly PC domain, the desktop and its gamers have to move to higher ground and break out of the imaginative confines of the capped console market.

Gamers need a really good excuse to pay for endless supplies of processing power.  With content makers just filling the platform spaces, that excuse has gone by the wayside in favor of filling some publisher’s checkmark form, and customers deserve better.  Game developers deserve better.  It’s as though the game makers have suddenly grown old and out of ideas beyond finding ways to creatively make $60 a pop.

When our industry figuratively wakes up one morning and asks “what can I do with my game now that I have NASA’s computing power at my fingertips”, the customers will again feel justified to buy that $3,000 PC with regular upgrades, the manufacturers will have every reason to push out more cycles in the consumer’s home, and the game developers will again make money off premiums and up-front game purchases as the norm, and not the exception.  Yes, the PC industry can continue as it has for decades, but much like my regularly updated computer which reinvigorated my love of video games, we can do better.


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Comments


Bart Stewart
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I certainly agree that developers could do more with the PC. Unfortunately, that's been true since games stopped being designed firstly for PC around 2000. The promise of seeing increasingly big, deep games with rich world-simulation features was cut short by the arrival of limited, static-hardware consoles whose sole owners made publishing deals. (Bethesda games are the exception... and even they aren't all they could be.)

I'd suggest that that's not the question. The real question is, what has to change in the development/publishing environment that would allow designers to "do better," and how can those environmental changes be achieved?

k s
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I wouldn't blame consoles for stagnation I'd blame publishers and graphics. Graphics cost a lot to produce and for some reason some seem to think you can't use the same texture more then twice. Publishers have always been risk averse but as the cost of development has gone up over the years (PC being one of the most costly platforms to work on) the risk has also gone up and they just aren't willing to take it.

The stagnation will end when publishers realize great gameplay sells games not graphics. Look at Halo, it doesn't have the top of the line graphics but it sells very well and that's because of the gameplay, MineCraft is another example.

I've been gaming for over 25 years and I choose what to play not on the graphics but the gameplay which is why I love my Wii, it has some really awesome gameplay based games and doesn't tend to bankrupt the developer.

Bob Johnson
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People like interesting.

And the strength of video games and really the soul of video games has always been about your interaction with the screen. And that invisible stimulating mental connection that forms when interacting with the game.

IT probably is closer to what happens when one is reading a book than what happens when one is watching a movie. I think that is lost on many today.

Although I think many making movies forget that the story is more important than explosions too so....

Kelly Kleider
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Really?

"Graphics cost a lot to produce and for some reason some seem to think you can't use the same texture more then twice."

I have to admit, this is my third attempt at not sounding like a total prick, but that has got to be one of the least informed statements I have seen here in a while.

So in your estimation, games can be reduced to two things, the part that sells (gameplay) and the other stuff (graphics). What about level design (art + design), audio design (audio + design), narrative design (writer-ey stuff, design I think), combat design (animation + design + FX + textures as you call them). Don't regurgitate a mantra from the early '90's and think it applies today, you do a disservice to the hordes of developers you just dismissed with a wave of your ill-informed hand.

Looking at sales data will tell you that the market is more complex than A or B. In fact, throw in the casual game market, a tablet, phone and some browser games, and the picture that emerges makes the android fragmentation landscape seem like the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Bob Johnson
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I think it is all just an evolution of what was happening on the pc since the 80s.

Genre by genre died out on the pc as cheaper consoles did it good enough or the audience wasn't there given the investment needed for the latest graphics.

We had games like Lode Runner in the 80s. Choplifter. Those games went away.

Then it was the SSI war games. And point to click adventures. And sub sims. And then Flight Sims. And now fps games are barely hanging on. Rpgs are threatened.

Some of this is changing as digital distribution matures as one of the other variables in this equation is the limited shelf space in a physical retail store.

So now niche games are practical. And the barriers to entry for small teams are wide open again.

But some of those games just died out because newer experiences were more fun especially to the new younger gamers coming up.

And the pc market suffered because it never had a leader watching over the platform. Microsoft grew into a monopoly that dragged its feet. Then it introduced the Xbox. Why would MS make gaming great on Windows when it is better for them to sell you an Xbox for gaming and Windows for everything else?

And pc games were notorious for bugs and patches. And getting pc games to work? It could be quite hellish. And still can be.




Michael Joseph
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Bring on the stagnation.

Some industry exec once said (probably on the same evening he greenlighted the first 10 million dollar game budget in the late 90s) something along the lines of "The days of garage game development are over!" And he was right... for a time...

Incidentally I googled but could not find who said that. Anyone?

Well I for one am glad that the AAA titles that focus on graphics and rail-like content visiting gameplay have lasted so long.

Stagnation has been a key factor in the indie revival.

Kelly Kleider
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Couple of points:
On-board graphics are 95% crap (made up statistic, but it's true!)

Your grasp of hardware constraints is really lacking.
Chip speed doesn't dictate quality
Hardware consistency allows for iterative innovation rather than hardware innovation
CPU/GPU speeds are not following Moore's law anymore
Poly counts do not = good game
3D (as in stereo viewing) is a gimmick. As much as I love 3d/stereo stuff, it's still a gimmick

HD is capable of 60 hz (aka 60 fps):
720p (FPS 23.976, 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 50, 59.94, 60, 72)
1080p (FPS 23.976, 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 50, 59.94, 60)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-definition_video#Common_high-de
finition_video_modes

You seem to have created a flame-bait title to push 3d stereo stuff.
You should have a bi-line that states your association with the S-3D Gaming Alliance.

You should consider being an advocate for 3d tech rather than concocting poorly understood arguments against competing platforms.

Neil Schneider
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Hi Kelly,

Thank you for your message. I'm not sure what your core argument against my statements are. Just clicking on my name indicates my credentials for all to see, and I've shared featured blogs/editorials here several times before. Even so, 3D was a very small part of the article, though I see nothing wrong with that.

While I don't know if you are an experienced game developer or not (I don't see credentials to reference), your sentiments directly tie in with what I was saying.

First, better hardware and processing power hasn't done a great job of leading to better games, and this is an artificial limitation. It's as though we all have rocket ships, but instead of flying to Mars, we are purposely flying to the moon because it's something we have done before - and heck - everyone else is doing it, so why take the risk?

I'm afraid your statements about HD and FPS is only partially correct. Yes, the display hardware and connectivity (via HDMI and DisplayPort) is very capable of this. However, even though the game development spec calls for 60 FPS when possible, many (if not most) AAA game developers on console do 30FPS so they can get the visual quality they want. It's a forced balancing act because of the console's processing limitations.

As for 3D being a gimmick...yes. As I indicated in my article, too many game developers have treated it as a publisher requested add-on without giving it proper artistic consideration. It was a marketing check mark that had to be filled without any real substance behind it. This is why way too many games are using 2D+Depth or re-projection techniques on console. They want the 3D Ready statement, but they don't want to invest the development time to do it properly. I will take this further. Many "3D Ready" game developers honestly couldn't care less how their products ultimately look in 3D. I know these developers very well, and there is no denying it.

So yes, 3D gaming has become very much a gimmick because developers chose to build it as such. There are some strong exceptions to this - especially on PC - but we still aren't where we should be in this regard.

One more point. You made a remark about "competing platforms". That's just it...they shouldn't be competing. That's the whole opportunity being missed here. I'm not saying game developers should stop creating console games. I'm saying game developers should do creative and new things on PC according to the abilities of PC.

Regards,
Neil

scott anderson
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"While Sony’s game development is based on OpenGL, it could be considered the same as DirectX 9 to PC gamers."

This is wrong and perhaps one of the most commonly mentioned pieces of misinformation about the PS3. PSGL does exist, and early on Sony claimed the PS3 was "OpenGL compatible" because of it, but outside of a handful of PSN titles I don't know of any PS3 titles that actually use it. There is tons of public information available on Sony's low level graphics API, libGCM, which doesn't look exactly like DirectX or OpenGL.

Neil Schneider
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What is the best way to describe Sony's graphics equivalent in PC terms? The API didn't really matter to me from the point of writing the article. I was more interested in expressing the equivalent in graphics results (or as to close the equivalent as possible).

Regards,
Neil


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