Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Stranglehold (PC): The 0.40% Conundrum

On Tuesday of last week, the minimum system requirements for the PC version of Stranglehold were published. Take a look:
Windows XP SP2 / VISTA (Games for Windows compliant)
Dual Core Processor
2 Gigs of Ram
Nvidia 7800 or higher / ATI x1300 or higher
Disk space: 15 gigs

I think there were some bulging eyes and protruding tongues when those specs were released, and with good reason: how many people actually have a system that can even pass the minimum requirements for the game?

Not many, seemingly, and we can use Valve's hardware survey results (collected May 30-present of this year) as a clue. Over one million people have participated in this survey, and I think it's fair to say that the average system specs are well above the mid-point for the PC user base in general.

Here's a look at a few of the hardware categories:
--XP or Vista: 98.3%
--dual core processor or better: 23.8%
--minimum video card or better: 19.8%

Then there's system RAM. What percentage of systems have 2 Gb of system RAM or more?


That's not a typo. Less than one-half of one percent, and remember, the hardware in these systems is undoubtedly better than the average PC system.

We've all talked for years about the fragmentation of the PC market in terms of hardware capabilities. Until this generation of consoles, though, the most demanding PC games in terms of hardware were exponentially more impressive experiences graphically than their console brethren.

With the 360 and PS3, though, the gap has narrowed substantially, and in some ways, it's closed. A 360 is more powerful than 90%+ of the PC base (that's probably a very, very conservative estimate, too), and that's over eighteen months after its launch.

With the highest of high-end PC hardware, though, a PC's capabilities are still far past a console's. And games made for those highest-end PC's are still significantly better graphically.

It's just that hardly any of those games get made anymore.

Like I said, we all knew this was going to happen eventually, but guess what? It's happened. What came out last year that really pushed PC graphics hardware to its limit? Oblivion. What's come out so far this year? Stalker.

You could also put in Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander, if you wanted to include games that were heavily demanding on systems in general.

I'm sure I'm missing some, but just the fact that I can't even really think of any more gives you an idea of just how few games are being made at the high-end with the PC as the primary development platform.

The performance of the fastest PC components has continued to evolve at an incredibly rapid pace, and the gap has gotten wider and wider between the fastest PC and the slowest. Actually, it's incorrect to even call it a "gap"--it's exponentially beyond that now. So if a developer really wants to make a game that taxes the fastest PC systems out there, he's got huge problems.

Here's the paradox: the more a developer spends on making a high-end PC game, the fewer people he can sell it to. His potential market is fractional, but he can't charge $99.99 because he made the gaming equivalent of a Ferrari. In the gaming market, if you make a PC Ferrari, you're selling it for only a few dollars more than the guy who made a Ford Escort.

Oh, and the guy who made a Ford Escort probably made three of them while you were making one Ferrari.

In that situation, what do you do? Well, if you're rational, and if making money matters to you, then you make Ford Escorts.

In the console market, though, you're pouring those development costs into a game that everyone who owns the console can play. There's no fragmentation. And here's the bonus: after you make the game for the 360 or the PS3, you can port it to the PC and still have it max out the hardware for the vast majority of systems out there. So big budget games, inevitably, are almost all using a console as the primary development platform.

This may sound like a disaster, but it doesn't strike me that way. It's just where we're going.

Site Meter