Tomorrow’s world: The rise and rise of PC gaming

By Stace Harman
7 November 2011 09:00 GMT

Stace Harman takes a look at how PC gaming is inspiring developers to push boundaries, and speak to Nvidia’s Ben Berraondo about health of a much maligned and misunderstood market.

For as long as I have paid attention to industry rumblings, PC gaming has been dying. Or is dead. Or is to be given a new lease of life thanks to a fresh initiative, a new distribution platform or the arrival of a software title or programming standard that signifies such a leap beyond that which has gone before that the whole sector is reinvigorated.

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Of course, bold statements by commentators and ill-considered rhetoric by irked publishers will always grab headlines: declaring the death of anything is quite the proclamation but, in this instance, it’s a foolish notion. We forget sometimes that publishers and developers are not one cohesive group of like-minded individuals working towards a common goal.

Instead, they are a loosely defined gaggle of individual companies with conflicting opinions and varying business strategies that will likely never agree on how best to deal with any of the issues that affect the entire industry; just look at the myriad approaches to evergreen topics such as DRM, second-hand sales and DLC.

And so, one high-profile developer or major publishing house declaring their lack of interest in the PC sector does not a downfall make. Furthermore, recent high-profile titles like DICE’s Battlefield 3 highlight just how stark the difference is between the capability of current PC technology and that of consoles that are at least half a decade old.

Unsurprisingly, this is something that graphics card manufacturer Nvidia has a vested interest in and when I meet with Ben Berraondo, the company’s PR manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he’s quick to highlight the importance to the PC sector at large of milestones such as Battlefield 3’s release.

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Battlefield 3 PC beta on ultra settings.

“I think a lot of people will use Battlefield 3 as a benchmark title as they did with Crysis,” he begins. “Some of the key issues that developers have right now is they need to make a [PC] game with the lowest common denominator in mind – and that means working to make games run on even a humble Intel integrated chip in order for them to market to as many PC owners as possible.

“However, what we see with a game like Battlefield 3 is that it causes so many people to upgrade that, as a developer, you can sit down and say ‘we now have a huge user base that has DirectX11 and at least a mid-range card, so we create titles that are PC-led and look great without our publisher getting cold feet because we haven’t got a big enough market to sell to’.”

A piece of the pie
It’s possible to indiscriminately wield figures and pie charts to prove and disprove almost any view but nonetheless, let’s look at some numbers: interactive entertainment and videogame research firm DFC Intelligence suggests software revenue from PC games will outperform that of consoles by 2014. In that same period, DFC also predicts that digital PC game software revenue will account for ten times that of PC packaged software products – up from the seven-fold that it currently represents.

Interpreting figures like this, it seems more accurate to say that the PC market is in a constant state of flux and transition with pronounced peaks and troughs becoming apparent over a longer term than is used for judging the retail performance of a console generation. More objectively, it’s clear that the PC market is predominantly a virtual one, with mass-market acceptance of its distribution model far greater than that of consoles.

This factor further befuddles attempts to spot-check the health of the PC sector, not least because Valve does not publicly release revenue figures or market share data for Steam, a platform which is considered to be by far the biggest purveyor of digital PC software.

Ultimately though, forecast graphs, numbers and retail models are best left to the bean counters. They do not excite and they do not inspire; nobody ever coveted a bar chart. In contrast, tangible results from talented developers are much more evocative.

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Epic’s Samaritan tech demo.

“As much as a lot of developers are happy to have a long-hardware generation because it really allows them to get under the hood, just as many other developers are excited by new tech and will push boundaries just to see how far they can go,” says Berraondo.

“The Samaritan demo by Epic is an example of that. That was running on three GTX580s, so it’s still ultra high-end even for the PC but it shows a glimpse of where we’re going. If you imagine that, roughly speaking, an SLI set up of previous generation’s chips is the equivalent of around 1 to 1.5 next gen chips, so we could be looking at maybe one or two generations before it’s possible to get to that level of performance on a single chip in your PC. It’s very realistic to imagine that becoming a standard for next gen.”

Future vision
Those willing to upgrade their GPUs on a regular basis will always be ahead of the rest of the market and whilst many more people are now willing to carry out the physical process of opening up a PC to replace components, the cost of the latest and greatest GPUs still proves prohibitive.

By comparison, 3D gaming looks to offer a more affordable way of obtaining dramatic results. Nvidia’s recently released 3D Vision 2 features a number of enhancements over the original technology, with some easy to understand improvements such as more comfortable 3D glasses with bigger lenses, sitting alongside the surprisingly complex Lightboost technology supported by LED screens.

A demo of Batman: Arkham City reveals the undeniably impressive results that can be achieved if 3D is incorporated into the development process early on. Here, Rocksteady’s non-intrusive, subtle and sparingly used out-of-screen trickery mixed with comprehensive depth-of-field effects make it wholly evident why games, not films, are the real champions of 3D technology.

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Arkham City PC graphics comparison.

“We’re getting to the point where developers are learning how to best use 3D effects,” says Berraondo. “I think 3D is best described as an addition to your toolset but I compare its early use to that of HDR. When HDR first came out every developer put massive amounts of lens flare in, every game had sunset scenes but it lost its effect because of that.

“That’s been the case with 3D both in film and games, there have been some developers that have added 3D really late on in the process and you can tell it’s just tacked on. This kind of practice doesn’t do anyone any favours and people start to view 3D as a gimmick because of that, whereas if you actually have 3D thought about from the beginning it becomes much more effective.”

Witnessing its possibilities it’s difficult to think of PC gaming as being on anything other than the ascendency but it’s also galling to think of what could be achieved with a more unified vision and whole-hearted publisher support.

PC gaming should be celebrated by the industry and gamers alike for it’s the efforts of the pioneering few that inform the gaming experience of the many. Unfortunately, PC gaming’s headlines all too often concern rampant piracy, draconian DRM measures and inexplicable delays to PC versions of multiformat titles, threatening to undermine its achievements.

Yet achieve it does, both through its application of innovative technologies and by offering a tangible glimpse of the future, and thus it ensures that rumours of its death continue to be greatly exaggerated.

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