27 September, 2007
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?
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.