Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

27 September, 2007

A message for PC game developers and publishers
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:20 PM

Dear PC game developers and publishers,

Please stop fucking up the industry.

I wish I could end this post right there and everyone would realize the error of their ways, but I am certain that I have to explain myself. It seems that many game developers are blithely on the road to self-destruction, and don’t care. Most publishers are only interested in squeezing a bit of money out of PC development while focusing on the “real source of income”: console games. Nobody seems to understand why PC games are important.

Let me go into some more detail, okay?

Why are PC games worth saving?

PC games are important for one primary reason: independent game developers. The PC is the only platform that remains open and available for people that want to do their own thing. Yes, this means you’ll have more competition, but it also means that in the long run you’ll also have competent developers to lead studios and create teams. Many notable game developers started out independent. Most of the best game developers I know started their career with the simple curiosity of, “How can I make a game?” That person isn’t going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a console dev kit, even if the console maker’s policies allowed that to happen in the first place.

Without PC gaming, the game industry closes off and stagnates further, and we risk our chance of becoming an influential medium in the future. So, what are the major problems?

Bad business

The first major issues harming the industry is bad business relationships in the industry. Publishers think nothing of screwing over a developer. Developers often ignore business issues, then lament that their studio has to close down despite having a string of successful games. Business is bad in the industry, and not just because people are buying less games. There’s a reason I spent a lot of time editing a whole book dedicated to business and legal issues.

The root of all this is that publishers are only paying attention to the short-term.. They think nothing of destroying a development studio for a bit more profit. Ideally, the publishers should be nurturing the studio that shows promise and developing a long-term reciprocal relationship. Instead, publishers are all too happy to “eat their own young.” This means that the time and money invested into a developer is ephemeral, and even one misstep can cause problem.

On the developer side, they are often happy to ignore the business aspect of games. Unfortunately, it’s all that business stuff that keeps the company running. And, equally unfortunately, publishers have shown that they are all too willing to take advantage of naive developers. It’s unfortunate that a developer that enjoys a major success often doesn’t get to share in the financial side of that success.

The problem of laziness

Another major problem is plain laziness. This problem is obvious to anyone that has played games, read any magazines, or has not been in a coma recently. We see games with a complete lack of inspiration. Worse yet, we see games that are just sloppy ports of titles primarily developed as console games. The few really original titles we do see are weighed down by the greed issues I talked about before.

There’s already been a lot of ranting about this, so let me talk about something else at length.

The role of greed

I believe the biggest way these groups harm the industry is by being too greedy. The prime example of this is the copy-protection systems that PC developers have employed over the years. These systems hurt legitimate users too often and turn them off of PC gaming by causing more problems.

Now, the obvious caveat here is that I’m an online game developers, so I don’t have to worry about people copying my software. (Well, at least not the software I distribute….) I don’t have to rely on heavy copy-protection to make my money.

Of course, copy-protection has been a money and time sink for a while. Much of my time years ago working on the only single-player title I’ve ever shipped was including copy protection into the builds. This ended up being worthless since the game, developed by 3DO, was too terrible to copy. :P My (underpaid) time and the CS time spent dealing with CD-ROM incompatibilities were almost certainly worth more than the sales generated.

The most recent example of this waste of time, money, and goodwill has been the SecuROM problems with Bioshock. Having to deal with drivers and all that details is already frustrating enough, so the last thing on anyone’s mind should be to add more potential problems for the average user. I’ve avoided buying what many people are considering a pretty good game simply because I don’t want to have to deal with the problem.

Further, many copy-protection systems interfere with game development. I run a virtual CD drive program in order to test CDs I burn before I waste physical medium burning it. Some copy-protection systems won’t allow a game to run if it even detects tools such as these. SecuROM also prevents 16-bit executables from being changed. This means that older games, the only 16-bit executables still in use for the most part, are harder to run if you install modern games. As I’ve ranted before, preserving and cherishing our history is an important step toward advancing the industry.

Another example of greed comes from Microsoft’s support of DirectX. While DirectX helped the industry, it is now fracturing it. The two big examples are the lack of support for Windows 2000 (introducing minor incompatibilities and not fixing them on older systems), and making version 10 Vista-only. In the online side of things, we’ve learned that supporting a wide audience is a way to be successful. Requiring people to have cutting-edge computers to run games is a sure way to limit our audience and our income. I still use Windows 2000 myself because it works just fine, and I don’t want to introduce more variables into developing Meridian 59. But, this means that some of the newer games (including Bioshock) won’t run on my system without a bit of trickery.

How to fix the problems

Well, there are a lot of problems, and each area requires specific solutions. No magic bullet here, I fear.

What about business? The first step is that developers need to learn about business. They can’t rely on others to show them the way, because that often leads to other people getting rich at the developer’s expense. As a developer, you can’t ignore business and expect to continue making games. Further, developers need to stop selling their souls just to get a game published. As alternative distribution systems, most notably digital distribution, becomes better and better, this can be an alternative to dealing with a publisher. Once publishers learn that they can’t dictate terms, some of the business “realities” in the industry will change.

What about laziness? Well, there have been enough rants about that. I just included it because it would be silly of me to ignore this. Go read the rest of my blog for some more complete thoughts about this.

What about greed, particularly copy-protection? The easy solution is to not use copy-protection systems. We’re already turning ourselves into a ghetto of gaming, why are we introducing more systems to make it harder for people to play games? Is upsetting our most dedicated fans really worth squeaking out a few more sales? I suspect that the industry is starting to lose more sales from people like me that simply don’t want to work around all the incompatibilities just because we have game development tools installed on our machine. A little while ago the game Galactic Civilizations II got a lot (perhaps too much) attention for shipping a game without copy-protection. It seemed to strike a chord with many PC gamers.

Beyond these solutions, I’m not sure where the right answer is. Perhaps it’s time for the larger companies to focus entirely on consoles and let the MMORPG developers and indie game developers do their work in peace.







7 Comments »

  1. What’s truly sad about copy protection, is that it is broken within days of a game’s release. So, pirates often times will have a copy of a top-selling game well before a legitimate player. When will these companies learn that they will NEVER beat the crackers. The segment of gamers that are going to illegally download games ARE NOT LINING UP AT STORES TO BUY THE GAME! Why punish or throw up barricades for those of us that are standing in line? I am in the same boat as you, I refuse to buy Bioshock and it very well may be the game of the year.

    What’s even sadder is how so many companies are revolving down to the business model of “if it makes money, it’s good business”. That is why we are transitioning into this glut of micro-transaction and advergaming bullshit. I know that you have some different views on this, but as a gamer, I will not buy a micro-transaction game. I will not buy an advergame that does not directly cut the price I pay for the game or it’s services. It’s disheartening to see some great developers chasing what amounts to nothing more than Beanie Babies.

    Comment by Heartless_ — 27 September, 2007 @ 6:22 PM

  2. I’m pretty sure TAGES has gone from three-to-four weeks without being cracked on a few of their titles. That’s the best I’ve ever heard.

    I’m very afraid that the future of PC-video-game copy protection relies on internet verification… Which does, unfortunately, shut a few unfortunate PC gamers down. But 90% of PC gamers have fast internet connections now.

    Comment by Patrick "Norin" Rogers — 27 September, 2007 @ 8:40 PM

  3. Is it not possible however, that there are just too many developers for the amount of cash available? It may be the case that the attitude of publishers comes around because a majority of developers make games that never really had much chance of turning a profit. It seems to me that in the middle ground between the tiny indie houses who require little or no initial outlay to develop, and the major developers who are good enough to hit the mark almost every time, there are a lot of average developers who are spending something resembling a AAA budget on something that is of nowhere near AAA quality, with inevitable results.

    Perhaps game development just needs to be made cheaper. To do that, developers may need to try and differentiate themselves in different ways, instead of seemingly forever chasing graphical tech that imposes massive requirements on content generation.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 28 September, 2007 @ 8:05 AM

  4. I want to play my video games on the airplane on my laptop which lacks a cdrom drive.

    If the concern is the three-four week window before a pirate version appears, why not instead publicly patch out the copy protection after a month? That gives you the “exclusive”.

    I’ve never understood the logic that the only buyers who count are those that buy on the day of release.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 28 September, 2007 @ 4:36 PM

  5. Warning: contravercial statements ahead. This is a position paper from a concensus I don’t entirely agree with, but it’s worth saying:

    Vista has been called, with a great deal of justice to my mind, “The longest suicide note in history” – http://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~pgut001/pubs/vista_cost.html. It is trite to call Vista ME II, but that is precisely what it is. Microsoft need to realise that cripping an operating system for the sake of Hollywood isn’t a good idea. hey need to grow a backbone, to tell the studios to walk, and to build a new OS.

    And yes, they need to bring DirectX10 to WindowsXP (I can understand, even if I don’t agree, why they won’t bring it to 2k). The only fundermental incompatability is in the design – they’ve allready very badly shot themselves in the foot now creative have coded OpenAL for the Xbox 360 (and we recently shifted our game audio base to it as a result. OpenGL 3 threatens the same for graphics.

    Only a few publishers doing well with PC games, and while it might surprise adovcates of games DRM that Stardock is among them, it most certainly is and Galactic Civilisation 2 turned a nice profit. Games are not unique snowflakes either, Baen Book’s success with Webscriptions, offering DRM-free books – and making a very nice profit again – debunks any such statement. Amazon’s stride into non-watermarked, non-DRM MP3′s is a striking gesture that the market has changed, as well.

    The cartels, the RIAA’s, the Sony BMG’s, the MPAA’s and the Apple’s (yes, I include them) and the Microsoft’s of this world need to wake up and smell the coffee. PC gaming is allready in (a perhaps terminal for many genres) decline, but there are yet other things to save.

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 4 October, 2007 @ 12:15 PM

  6. PC gaming is nearly dead already, because this generation of consoles have internet connections. I prefer console gaming now for anything that doesn’t *require* a keyboard and mouse (which is most anything non-MMO).
    Consoles are a fixed hardware target and have no hassles with drivers. They are truly pop-in-disc-and-play.

    And with all respect to Brian, I believe there are two kinds of game development: small/toy projects (which will always be possible on the PC) and large-scale AAA development (which requires teams of 100+ people). There is a serious difference between the two. Many of the people who do the latter as a full-time job, did not have any experience on decent-sized projects until they were hired by a large developer.

    If PC gaming withers away more than it already has, the large console developers will find ways to bring indie to their platforms, and that’s where the next generation of devs will come from. So I’d say don’t worry much about it.

    Comment by moo — 17 October, 2007 @ 4:26 PM

  7. More on the importance of indie game development

    [...] a previous post, A message for PC game developers and publishers, I asked people to stop harming the PC game industry. The main reason I think PC games are [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 19 October, 2007 @ 4:22 PM

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