People are sick and tired of buying PC games. Why? Because when they show up at a consumer retail store and purchase a game, there's no guarantee that their machine will be able to run it.
It sounds like a problem that only affects parents who buy games for their children, or "lite" computer users. But even hardcore gamers don't always know offhand which version of which graphics card is in their PC.
"They get fed up and don't buy PC games any more," said Rick Carini, CTO of gaming technologies at Dell, at his recent session at Southern Methodist University's Game Education Summit.
Carini is the chair of the PC Gaming Alliance (PCGA), a newly established organization that believes in not only promoting PC games, but eliminating all the headaches that come with them.
PC -- 'Problem Child'
The main problem with PC games -- and this relates directly to the hassle of buying a game and not knowing whether it will run on one's machine - is there are no standardized conventions, said Carini.
He conceded that there is a coding system on the back of most PC game boxes that theoretically helps users determine if the game is compatible with their hardware, but the system is ineffective and has staunched the growth of the retail PC game market.
Without conventions for measuring PC game sales, Carini contended, some people will debate what constitutes a PC game: Do web-based casual games count, for example?
Despite the annoyances consumers feel about PC games, the medium is far from dead "It's alive, and well, and thriving," said Carini, but comes down to a matter of understanding how many different types of games can be labeled PC games.
"Most of the [recent] growth has been in MMOs," he said, citing a steep increase since 1998, with tracking site MMOGChart projecting MMO subscriptions to reach 16 million by year end. And by 2010, PCs are projected to own 70 percent of online games.
Carini explained that the PCGA consortium was made up of industry-wide companies was founded "to drive the worldwide growth of PC gaming," as well as to provide an open forum to discuss and promote solutions to drive PC gaming. "The focus is really on the customer experience."
A few corporate members of the PCGA to date are Dell, Intel, Activision, Epic, AMD, and Microsoft. In addition to focusing on the consumer experience, the PCGA intends to provide "platform leadership" and a united voice for PC game makers and sellers. "It's really kind of left up to individuals companies to do that" at the moment, Carini says. "It needs to be an industry type of thing."
The Alliance plans to address issues in PC gaming with a number of subcommittees dedicated to specific issues. For example, there are subcommittees for minimum bar guidelines, marketing, piracy, and data research.
Hard Questions About Hardware
When Carini says "minimum bar guidelines," he's talking about hardware. Having worked for IBM prior to Dell, hardware seems to be Carini's strongsuit. When Carini talks about the near future, he envisions an "entry-level PC that would give you an acceptable gaming experience."
What exactly that might that entail, in terms of precise performance benchmarks, was discussed in a PCGA symposium. "What does the performance have to be, the frame rate, etcetera, in a host of genres?"
"It doesn't matter what the bag of parts is as long as the performance benchmarks are met," said Carini. A PC owner should always be able to scale up, he says, but if a machine is sold as a game-playing PC, then there should be a minimum bar that ensures the consumer that the majority of games will be playable on his or her computer.
"We're actually building hardware at this consortium," Carini explained. "We're effectively going to take the hardware, take the software... and SMU is going to validate across a series of games
and series of usability tests and prove that these [specs] are valid for a gaming experience."
The PCGA is dedicated to thorough testing to make sure it has its specs right. Carini admitted that he doesn't think a good solution will be found on the first try. But he is committed to tweaking and retesting until an acceptable set of criteria is determined.
One issue Carini didn't address is whether consumers -- and the PCGA -- should anticipate the disappearance of shrink-wrapped PC games, as the push for online games, downloadable content, and episodic game experiences take an ever stronger hold of the market.
In his talk, Carini remained extraordinarily focused onbrick-and-mortar retail, concluding that "the big hole here is obviously retail."