Stolen Pixels #141: After Curfew, Episode 5

By Shamus
on Nov 10, 2009
Filed under:
Column

Breen talks a bit about the lack of dedicated server support in Modern Warfare 2, which is a story I find morbidly fascinating. Borderlands, Modern Warfare 2, and Rage… a lot of developers seem to be coming to the same conclusion at the same time: The PC is just barely worthy of the investment it takes to do the (half-assed) port of the game, but building a separate client / server system for the PC is right out. The fact that this decision is happening in so many places independently suggests this isn’t some short-sighted cuts on the part of a blind bean-counter, but is the reality of the market coming to bear: There just aren’t enough of us left to support all of these games.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next couple of years. As support for the PC dwindles, fans will consolidate around the titles that continue to offer them the experience they want. Sooner or later it should reach some sort of equilibrium. Valve will be there, naturally, but I wonder who else?

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202040 comments. (Forty is the only number whose letters are in alphabetical order.)

From the Archives:

  1. Randy Johnson says:

    DICE is making an effort to show that they will continue with PC specific support, so maybe them.

  2. stormbringer951 says:

    The Russians and Eastern/Central Europeans can’t be discounted – consoles haven’t really got such a big market share and their biggest games are detailed PC games See: Armed Assault 2, Men of War, Stalker, Gothic etc…

  3. neothoron says:

    Well, for my part I hope that Bioware stays there too, at least for some of their games (*wink* toolset *wink*)

  4. Nickless says:

    I recall from a lecture that 80% of all game sales are for console games. It’s sad the way PC gaming is dying when it offers just so much more customizability and control compared to consoles.

  5. tba says:

    I see the release of the UDK as another step in this progression, I think other developers will soon follow suit. PC gaming used to be unique, but as the platform grew more complex, games on it grew to be more generic. Now with a large amount of the heavy tech set to one side, some indie games can be made that will be unique, but still visually cool.

  6. Optimist says:

    There will still be a market for games on the PC, maybe just a very different one. Maybe we’ll see a different world where “gaming on PC” is not the same as “gaming in Windows”.

    As stand alone servers and toolsets… hey you just can’t get NWN-style of gaming to work on a console… :)

  7. Eric says:

    I can’t imagine a world where Blizzard doesn’t support PC gaming, so I’d count them in.

  8. Factoid says:

    @Nickless: I used to feel the same way. I have always owned consoles, way back to the Atari 2600, but for many years I considered myself primarily a PC gamer. In the last 5 years, though, it’s switched and I now consider myself primarily a console gamer.

    I still game on the PC, but less and less. I’ve shed myself of the ridiculous notion that gamepads “dumb down” games. There’s a huge difference between simplifying and dumbing down, and if you compare the control schemes of most PC games you’ll find that games which use more than 15 buttons are pretty rare and those that do tend not to lose any functionality when switched to console…some controls are simply redundant (like voice menu controls), some no longer make sense and others are simply collapsed to share buttons in a context-sensitive way.

    The PC has two major advantages in my mind: Mouse control (for FPS games) and game editors for custom maps and mods and suck.

    Both of those can be solved on the console. Interactivity between PCs and Consoles seems pretty much inevitable. Unreal 3 experimented with it, but that game wasn’t popular enough to make it really take off. People will start experimenting with ways to build mods on PCs and ship them onto consoles. The console makers will eventually relent to allow user-made content easily available. They’ll have to because if they don’t someone else will come in and steal that market out from under them.

    The mouse issue is harder. I personally like FPS games on a gamepad now. I know that I can turn and aim faster and more precise with a mouse, but I just don’t care that much as long as I win about as often as I did before, which I do now that I’ve gotten used to it.

    My suggestion for “fixing” the thumbstick aiming problem is to use a “two-button” method for quick turning. If you hold down, say the left shoulder button, when you tap the right analog stick your POV switches instantly (or at some max-turn speed) to that direction. So if you hold the button and tap down, you’ll do an fast 180, if you tap right you’ll do a quick clockwise 90, etc. Once you let go of the second button you turn normally.

    Sorry, this post quickly became about my solution to thumbstick mechanics. Basically I am sad that PC gaming is “dying” but I agree that it will hit an equillibrium and eventually become some sort of “console hybrid” as time goes on. Maybe not in the current generation, but I think the next-gen SDKs will start to play around with PC integration a lot more.

  9. Nyaz says:

    I keep my hopes up for Valve and Blizzard to swoop in and save the day with awesome PC games.

  10. krellen says:

    I think this shift was inevitable once HD TV was released. For decades, PCs held a decided graphic advantage over consoles – TVs simply were not capable of delivering the same resolutions a monitor was, and PC graphics enjoyed decades of superiority.

    Now, while PCs still have the edge on consoles for graphics, the edge is much, much smaller, and what HD can deliver is definitely “good enough” to remove the advantage altogether.

    So then the consoles’ advantages of price, ease of use, and sociability come into bare, making consoles reign supreme. Without the graphic advantage, being locked alone with your multi-thousand dollar computer suddenly becomes much less attractive than sitting on the couch playing games on a two-hundred dollar machine with friends around.

  11. Ryan says:

    As a dedicated roguelike and depth RTS/RPG player, the PC is certainly the best platform for my wants. My genres are small enough anyway that it’s already hard to find good games for the PC. I imagine that if this trend continues I’ll find myself moving more and more towards indie published games.

  12. Lex Icon says:

    I know this is dipping my toe into the flame pit, but I wonder if all those people I knew who said they avoided Macs because they didn’t have any games will actually be open to switching in the future, assuming this trend continues.

    Anyway, my guess is that at some point the market will hit a critical mass. There will be a small enough supply for the PC market that smaller indie developers will be the only remaining source of games on the computer.

    Since indies are not usually expecting huge profit margins AFAIK, they’re less likely to abandon the PC during a thin time. Huge companies tend to drive after maximum profits at all times, smaller ones aim for stable niches.

    Just my two cents.

    • Shamus says:

      Lex Icon: You know, I hadn’t considered the angle that this could benefit Macs. Never owned one myself (my day job has me developing on Windows, so a full migration would mean finding a new job) but I have a fondness for the platform in a “grass is always greener” sort of way.

  13. Peter H. Coffin says:

    Mouse and keyboard issues don’t seem to insurmountable, at least on PS3. They work, there’s a couple of specialized ones to work wirelessly with the console and USB mice and keyboards are pretty standardize, and (IIRC) there’s already a couple of PS3 games that can use mouse control. So, we’re all the way back to the eternal debate about the good/evil of having a reference hardware platform that’s stable.

  14. Nick says:

    Randy: “DICE is making an effort to show that they will continue with PC specific support, so maybe them.”

    After abandoning us with making the console-only BF:MC, Bad Company 1, and still console-only BF1943.

    It’s nice they made this next one for PC… and that hopefully it doesn’t appear to be a single-player story-teller as the first one did, with those annoying characters. But to claim they’ve never abandoned us? that’s a hard call.

    As for Dedicated servers… it has it’s place. I don’t really see a need for it for small games, such as L4D and Borderlands. But the more players come in, and the more that drop in/out with strangers is encouraged, the more you need a stable, non-disappearing place to meet up.

    I see no reason to make dedicated servers for Borderlands (The required port forwarding, though, is an issue). And if Rage, which looks a dang lot like Fallout 3 (open world game with quests/etc), then the multiplayer for co-op that won’t need dedicated servers either.

    STILL though… How hard is it to set up a client/server relationship? Really?

  15. Matt K says:

    @Lex Icon, actually I agree. If I was looking for a new PC, MAC and Linux has become that much more attractive knowing that I won’t be missing any new PC releases. My only issue is that I like going back and replaying my old games.

    That said I doubt PC gaming can die. I mean almost everyone owns a PC of some sort and all it takes is some enterprising programers to take advantage of that fact. I do believe though that the big companies will mostly shy away from PC games or just release half ass ports. What devs need to do though is make games that can run on most PCs without hassle. Not just a very small subset with X video card.

    And on that subject I was actually trying to figure out if I could play Borderlands or Dragon Age on my PC and I have no clue what those minimum specs mean with regards to video cards. So either I have to wait for a demo and try it out then, pirate a copy and see if it works or just give up and decide not to buy new games.

    Really it’s surprising how easy it would be to fix these problems and for these companies to really rake it in.

  16. Atarlost says:

    I can’t say I’m sorry to see the flashy FPS titles go. When they go out of style and TBS or RTS come back the consoles will be stuck. RTS cannot be done split screen on a single box the way FPS and sidescrollers can because information hiding is so central. TBS can be done hotseat on a single PC if you don’t mind waiting through an hour of turns, but is usually done play by email for longer games, which consoles don’t support.

    There’s also no reason PCs must be single controller.

    But I think the greatest pitfall in the console market is that if the economy continues to be lame and people have to choose one box they’re going to want the one they can write blog posts on. There’s also a lot of free content for the PC. The graphics are rarely as shiny, but artfully crafted 2d can beat ugly brown 3d.

  17. chabuhi says:

    …but I wonder who else?

    Interplay, Bullfrog, and Broderbund.

  18. Cineris says:

    @Lex Icon:

    Re: Macs
    I hope not. As a Mac user for over a decade, I have to say I prefer PCs. If I had to change OS, I would move to a Linux distro before moving back to Mac OSX. (That Apple is such an obnoxiously sanctimonious company does not help.)

    As for the indie games thing – I agree. I actually wrote a long-rambling-comment-turned-post here on this topic. Use of phones as gaming platforms also helps, in that you can actually have small studios producing popular games on that platform.

    @Atarlost:

    I doubt RTS will become popular again (by 1999 standards) simply because thumbsticks can’t do RTS well. The industry is definitely invested in consoles enough that the platform itself is enough to determine success.

  19. LintMan says:

    I’m curious – how does multiplayer work on console games? Are they somehow always peer to peer or console hosted? Or do they exclusively use developer-hosted games? If it’s developer-hosted, then allowing user PC servers would benefit the developer by reducing the demand on their servers. If it’s peer or console-hosted, I’m guessing that won’t really work for any of the big (not massive) multiplayer games which allow 16, 32 or more players.

    How many players can play in an online CoD:MW2 game?

    @Nickless: 80% of games sold are console games? That’s almost like saying 40% of all employee sick days come on Mondays and Fridays.

    There’s 3 major consoles out there (Wii, PS3, Xbox360). So on average, the consoles have 26-27% each. (Or probably less, since likely Wii is about 40%.) 20% marketshare for the PC doesn’t look that bad compared to those numbers.

    @Lex Icon: if there were no games for the PC, or if I moved to a console (extremely unlikely), then I’d consider getting a Mac. Gaming is a big part of what keeps me on the PC. I do like building my own PCs, though and I’d lose that on the Mac.

  20. @10: There was a long “Who’s getting Dragon Age” thread on my guild forums. I’d say it split about 70/30 consoles. The majority of people said something like “I’d like to get the mod tools and stuff, but I’d rather sit in my recliner and play it on my 42″ HD TV.”

    So I’m completely in agreement with Krellen – HDTV makes the PC advantage small enough that “sit on the couch” and “easy to deal with” outweigh it for a lot of people. Also, if 70% of the people you know are getting, say, Borderlands on 360, is it worth getting it on PC? I had planned for PC, but rented it on 360, and noticed that only on of my friends had the PC version. If I wanted to play with friends, I had to be console.

    But I did get DA on PC.

  21. Gregory Weir says:

    Indie games will be mostly-PC for some time to come, especially the freeware and Flash sorts.

  22. Agammamon says:

    Well, MW2 supports only 9×9 and no dedicated servers for PC according to an interview on Ars Technica.

  23. B.J. says:

    @Ergonomic Cat:
    What’s even better about HD TVs is that you can sit on your couch and play PC games on them too. It’s the best of both worlds! Since so many xbox games are also released for Windows, I don’t mind that we get the second-string treatment. As long as graphics quality stays plateaued at the current level I won’t have to upgrade my rig any time soon. Also, I haven’t seen it myself but most people say that Dragon Age is significantly downgraded on consoles, both in controls and visual quality.

    Overall though Shamus is correct, the PC is falling drastically in priority as a platform. However the greatest scam of this generation of gaming is the nickel & dime scheme that is DLC. I was pleased when I noticed that Dragon Age was not under Microsoft’s BS Games for Windows Live ‘platform,’ until I realized that it was because EA/Bioware wants to launch their own platform! Everyone is jealous of Steam/Xbox Live and wants to jump on the money train. Trade in your dollars for their fake money then spend, spend, spend. Mark my words, the reason for cut features from Modern Warfare 2 is so they can bilk the customers through their own “service.”

    It’s the same way with Starcraft 2. They cut LAN support and when the fans complained they LAUGHED at us. Most companies would be crapping their pants if they had 100,000 angry customers screaming in their forums. Instead Blizzard insulted us and acted like LAN was some kind of ancient polytheistic cult to be left behind by their enlightened wisdom. Bull. Shit. They left out LAN to funnel people through their new Battle.net “platform” where they will undoubtedly be bombarded by ads and offered the chance to purchase ‘premium content’ and a low low price.

  24. Sean Riley says:

    I’m still not convinced the underlying logic for the dedicated server issue is economic. I mean, fans run a lot of the dedicated servers, don’t they? It’s more an issue of code than hardware, I thought.

    No, to me this smacks of increasing control, ala DRM, than saving money. Am I wrong here? I’m a console gamer myself, so I’m unfamiliar with the PC landscape.

  25. Heron says:

    I’ve never been interested in MW2 (nor Rage), but it’s not just that genre that’s starting to move to a more console-like controlled multiplayer environment. Starcraft II, I’m looking at you.

    B.J.: They didn’t just laugh at us for wanting LAN, they called us pirates. That’s even worse.

  26. krellen says:

    And people still think it’s the same Blizzard.

  27. Cineris says:

    @Sean Riley: You are not wrong.

    Most dedicated servers are paid for by players of the game. Many game companies offer “Official” dedicated servers, but these are rarely necessary if a game is actually successful.

    Given that server/hosting companies make a mint off of hosting players’ dedicated servers, it’s not even clear whether dedicated servers are cost or a source of revenue generation for a game.

    The point is whether coding the game to make use of dedicated servers (not trivial, but surely no more complex than a P2P system) is worth the cost.

    But ultimately it smacks more of wanting to crack down on players who modify the game with non-default settings or make custom maps. DLC is just not going to be that effective when you have these 3rd party “Fans” making better content than you are and giving it away for free.

  28. JKjoker says:

    i think these choices about locking players into p2p servers and forcing them to sign up into forums/social networks is more about getting players into a comfortable position to force fed them DLCs maybe even dreaming about setting up a Steam like site (and destroying the used game market) than lack of investment.

    i remember reading an article about online registration DRM in the escapist that said that publishers enjoy having a kill-switch for games when they want to pump out sequels, that could also be part of the reason, Activision CEO’s comments about how he only cares about franchises that can be milked with sequels makes this even more likely

  29. MechaCrash says:

    I bet when the PC version does worse than the console version, they’re going to blubber about those mean ol’ pirates cutting into their sales, and not consider things like “smaller customer base to start with” or “none of the features PC users have taken for granted” or “costs ten dollars more than other PC games because FUCK YOU that’s why.”

  30. I’m not really sure what this server thing they’re leaving out is, exactly. Are we talking a full vendor-run playserver infrastructure a la battle.net (which I thought was pretty exceptional)? Because the “dedicated server” as I understand simply means offering the player the chance of serving up a game on a machine of their own, which I can’t really see costing them all that much.

  31. Yar Kramer says:

    I’d say part of the problem is that the developers are making games for consoles. Saying you’re making a game “for PC” is considerably different, in terms of what kind of hardware and surrounding software you need to program for, from making a game “for PS3.” It’s a lot harder, for one thing, and that because there’s a lot more variety. “Phasing out” PC support is just the easy way.

  32. Mark says:

    PC games tend to be much, much better online. Steam, at least, does everything XBox Live does, but better, and free. However, I know better than to play popular games online (excepting only Team Fortress 2, where by some miracle I manage to avoid running into morons most of the time). So for major blockbusters to be predominantly or exclusively console-based is no skin off my nose. More modest releases don’t compromise as much on features (for platform reasons; the budget, as always, remains a serious constraint), so if it needs something that only a PC can do, it will be on PC.

  33. Nick says:

    @31:

    There is really only one way for multiple computers to connect together for a game: They connect to a server. Now, you do this by either make that server yourself and are playing in it too (Peer 2 Peer), running a small program that only allows others to connect to you but you’re not actually running the game code itself (dedicated server), or you connect to a central server along with thousands of other players at once (MMO games, plus a few others such as MAG.

    Ok, now you’ve got a server up and running (dedicated or peer 2 peer). How do you get people to connect to your server? How do they find you, among the billions of other computers out there (some hosting web sites, some hosting other games)? You have your server basically advertise to a central place as somewhere other gamers can connect to. In the case of COD4MW, Infinity Ward was providing that service. You had to use their service to see the huge list of thousands of other servers.

    That is a service the company has to provide for years. However, this time around, Infinity Ward decided to go above and beyond the normal. Instead of simply showing you the list of other servers out there, they decided to do matchmaking. As in, they’d see that you want to play a game. They’d pick from that list (which you never get to see) a server and just plop you into it. If they’re nice, they may even allow you to put out some preferences when you go into matchmaking.

  34. Dan says:

    I don’t think that dedicated servers were cut because of the cost of implementing them. (The players bear the cost of the actual servers in the first MW anyway.) The different developers are under the same pressures, so it isn’t surprising that they would come to the same conclusion independently. And that’s assuming that these developers never communicate with or observe each other. They are all in the business of making as much profit as possible. It’s much more likely that those bean counters want to monetize the free mods that are so integral to PC gaming. They see the constant stream of revenue that MMOs get and want a piece of that action. Paid DLC is a good way of getting that piece.

  35. Danath says:

    Bioware so far, Bethesda, but I don’t like their games so…

    I don’t mind, I like my PC games, and to be honest, if the console makers don’t want to make a shitty port, PC’s will eventually just emulate and rip all the games, especially as the consoles become more and more similar to being “specialized” PC’s.

  36. stormbringer951 says:

    Well, the really in-depth PC games will be difficult to recreate on Xbox or PS3. I’m talking about games like ArmA2, which would be absolute murder on the console (imagine trying to snipe an enemy from a kilometer away with thumbsticks…) or games like Men of War or RTS games.

  37. utzelgrutzel says:

    What bothers me the most is that so many people are okay with stuff like this.
    It’s the console gamers that should be in uproar so they too can get dedicated servers. Why do you pay 50$ a month for Xbox Live and still only play with 8 other guys? Even less if your connection is bad? Why do you have to play with a controller? There are USB ports and you still are limited with your choice of an input device? Why do you almost never get the mods and editors, although Far Cry 2, OFP Elite and Little Big Planet show that it could work? Why is there still no transfer for mods from the PC? You pay for some DLC that the publisher would have got laughed at as a late april fools day joke a few years ago.
    Instead they laugh at the PC for getting worse and worse ports every year, not seeing that they are still limited in the same ways and it’s coming down to their level. But yeah, we get exclusives or can play it 6 month before them, so haha…

    Then we just bitch about why MY system is better than YOUR system and along the way we give up more and more control over our games and even personal information. We register for personalized ads just so we can get achievements and an arbitrary number that shows how much time we stuff into this.

    And we still buy this in bigger numbers every year. It’s not the publishers and developers that will kill gaming, it’s the gamers.

  38. utzelgrutzel says:

    Whoops, should be 50$/year obviously. See it as an exaggeration to underline my statement ;)
    And sorry for ranting, but now I feel better :D

  39. GoodApprentice says:

    I’ve been a gamer since the 80s, and people have been predicting the death of pc gaming by the hands of consoles for as long as I can remember. Dozens of consoles have come and gone since then, but pc gaming still remains, as it always will. The planet is knee deep in computers since people need them and use them for everything. It’s a market that will never dry up. As for as the big game companies turning their backs on pc gaming, this could turn out to be a blessing to the hardcore gamer. PC gaming has a long history of innovative, excellent games coming from small, unknown developers with the desire to create something groundbreaking. Companies like EA and Activision play it safe and try to appeal to the lowest common denominator with proven game concepts and simple game mechanics. PC gaming is best when it’s not connected to console gaming at all. The attempt, over the last few years, to merge the gaming markets into one uniform, console business model has been bad for everyone. Let the talented computer geeks develop PC games, and the greedy accountants develop console games.

    Oh, I’d also like to add that I’m one of those PC gamers who plays his games at home on the sofa.

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