Wednesday, October 27, 2004

More PC/Console Ruminations

I spent some time yesterday thinking about the implications of the Half-Life 2/Halo pre-order information I posted yesterday. Some of you wrote in and pointed out mitigating factors, all of which I agree with, but you can't mitigate 15X the pre-orders. All that can be done is lessen the magnitude of the difference.

I realized yesterday that there's an additional factor in this evolution of the gaming market that I never seriously considered before. If a company is going to plow five million dollars into a game, the first thing they're going to do is assess the potential market. The basic determination that has to be performed before committing to development is how many units can be sold. If that number's not potentially profitable, the game's not going to get funded.

So Company X has five million dollars, and they're trying to decide whether to make a game for the Xbox or for the PC market. The Xbox analysis is straightforward, because the installed system base is very easy to determine--take the total number of systems sold, make an adjustment for systems out of service, and you're done. All existing systems in the installed base could potentially be used to play the game.

I know that there are territorial lockouts by region, so different versions must be made, but I'm considering only the U.S. to keep this as simple as possible.

Now let's try to do that for the PC. To start with, there's no way in hell to have any idea how many systems are out there--any number is an absolutely wild guess. And of those systems, there's no way to know how many of them are personal versus business. And of the personal systems, there's no way to know how many have 3D accelerator cards, which are needed for every high-budget title now. And the systems that do have 3D acceleration could have any one of fifty different cards (or more) spanning the last five years. Plus all of those systems run at different speeds. When a game is developed for the PC, it's like developing for a dozen different markets, and each of those markets is going to get a different experience.

What a pain in the ass.

So if I have the money, and there is no way to establish the market for a PC title, I'm developing primarily on the console platform, and then I'll put out a PC version six months later. Maybe.

Before the PS2 era, the installed base of consoles wasn't so huge that the potential audience blew away the PC market, but I think that's the case now.

I've said before that I don't think this is necessarily such a bad thing. Digital distribution is going to make PC games more profitable for developers, certainly more profitable per unit than console titles. The new generation of consoles is going to have high-definition support built-in, so even if it's not a PC game, the quality of the experience will be very, very high. Plus porting a 720p game over to the PC is going to look far better than what we're getting now for ports, because with 1280x720 as the resolution standard for the initial development platform, textures (and text) are going to be higher-res and the game will not suffer as badly visually when it goes to the PC. Plus the XNA tools Microsoft is developing for cross-platform development should be very useful.

The PC game market will always survive--it's just being forced to evolve.

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