Are Hardware Requirements Crippling PC Sales?
There’s an interesting article at CVG about the state of the PC games market, and how sales are in decline. The difference is that this article adds a new target for the Finger Of Blame ™, namely the need for high-spec PCs to run the games at anything near the game developer’s intended settings.
Traditionally the decline in PC sales is blamed on piracy. The game pirates blame high game prices but the effect of more piracy is fewer sales, and that in turn pushes up prices, meaning more piracy … ad infinitum. Another culprit is less shelf space for the big name titles, as more and more titles battle for the limited space in gaming stores. Both are accepted explanations for the decline in game sales.
However, with the release of hardware hungry titles like Crysis and Assassin’s Creed the minimum spec of the average gaming PC is being pushed ever higher. That means fewer people can play the game, so obviously fewer people buy the game so … duh … sales decline as a result.
Valve had the right idea with Half Life 2 when it was first released. The game auto-detected your graphics card and adjusted the settings as appropriate, scaling back from DirectX 9 down to DirectX 8 depending on the capabilities of your graphics card.
I got to sample the DX8 side of Half Life 2 when I was forced to RMA my faulty Radeon 9800 Pro, which meant I had to stick an old DX8 GeForce card back into my PC for a few days. For a laugh I tried to run Half Life 2 and was first amazed to find out that it worked, and was then even more amazed to find that that it was playable too. The gameplay was intact, the framerates were good, the game was perfectly playable on my ageing card. OK, it didn’t have all the graphical bells and whistles that DX9 was capable of, but it was far from ugly and it didn’t stop me enjoying a good few hours of fun before my replacement 9800 arrived.
It’s this sort of backwards compatibility that game developers seem to be forgetting about. We don’t all have the latest graphics cards, we don’t all enjoy spending £300 or more every few months to stay at the top of the graphics card tech-tree. Many PC gamers, myself included, buy a gaming PC to last for a couple of years. That’s exactly what I did last time I upgraded just over a year ago and, with a few exceptions, it’s still giving me solid framerates on the latest games.
What the developers should be doing is concentrating on making their games playable on gaming PCs that were considered high spec about 2 years before they started development. If they can make the game look good and play well on such a machine then they’re guaranteed a big slice of the potential market when the game hits the shelves. They can then start to add the graphical frills and fancy physics models for the high-spec gaming PCs, safe in the knowledge that they’re already accomodating most of the gamers out there.
Taking the opposite view and aiming the game at the latest hardware means it’s more difficult to scale down the game to work on older hardware. The game doesn’t look as good, doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it should, and the gamer feels shortchanged. That was certainly my experience with Crysis.
OK, so we need big games to push the technology forward, but for PC gaming to survive we need enough gamers. If the casual gamers find they’re struggling to run the latest games then they’ll gradually jump ship and turn to the far less complicated consoles. And fewer gamers mean fewer sales … you know the rest.