By Jim Rossignol on November 23rd, 2008 at 11:19 pm.
Last week I spoke to Randy Stude, director of Intel’s gaming program and the president of the PC Gaming Alliance (PCGA). The PCGA is an industry consortium made up of hardware manufacturers and PC games publishers, each with a significant commercial interest in the platform. The PCGA has so far released a couple of studies (pdf link) to its members, each looking at the numbers of PC gaming, for both hardware and software sales. They regard these as the most comprehensive studies so far, and Stude was keen to point out they didn’t support the figures we mentioned previously from Jon Peddie Research. If anything, the PCGA suggest, PC gaming hardware sales are even bigger than that. And they should know: the PCGA members make all the components.
I was keen to learn a little more about what Stude’s intentions were, and what the PCGA really intended to do for our chosen platform. The answers were encouraging, and Stude seemed straightforward about the intentions of this, an industry business consortium, as well as the methodology that such a group should expect to employ.
RPS: We’ve been following the PCGA stuff since we attended your press conference at the initial announcement at GDC in 2008. Can you explain a little more about how this came to be, and how you came to be the spokesman for the consortium?
Stude: The PCGA was actually first casually assembled at GDC in 2007. A bunch of us said “let’s get together and talk about what’s going on with PC gaming”, to see if we could come up with an agenda for dealing with the challenges that PC gaming faces, from an industry perspective. This is stuff that no one company can address without help. And it’s a unique challenge, because the PC is a mix of parts and software where the chief competitors are consoles controlled by one of the three major companies each. There was some noise being made about inconsistencies in approach for PC, and inconsistencies in the platform, and there was the problem of how we communicate with, well, not the hardcore.
Your audience, for example, generally knows how to get most games running, knows where to go for drivers, or to buy games. They know how to make what they like work. Our focus is on the mainstream consumer. They want to be able to play games on their PC too, but they won’t have the knowledge to know if this hardware and this software works together, and that’s what we were trying to sort out.
As we spoke to more publishers along the way they said “that’s fine and dandy, but can you try and do something about piracy, because that’s our big issue for PC games.” So that’s what we’ve been looking at.
As for the second part of your question – we’re a non-profit corporation, and we had elections. I was voted in as president a little more than a year ago.
RPS: So what’s the methodology? What has the PCGA done in the past year?
Stude: Well first up we’re a non-profit consortium, based out in Oregon, which is a friendly place for this kind of technology company. The structure is in place for companies who all want to collaborate for a particular direction on the PC to do so – the USB forum is here – and to be able to address specific issues together. So that’s what we’ve been doing. We’re not doing so casually, but also it should not be misconstrued as our trying to control the market, that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to solve problems, rather than scratch each others’ backs.
RPS: And so far you’ve been gathering data, including the Horizons report, a report for your members which states that PC gaming software accounts for $10bn worth of the gaming industry in 2007. NPD’s retail report puts the entire industry in 2007 at around $18bn. That means that PC games software is half the industry in cash terms? Is that correct?
Stude: It’s more than half. The NPD and other reports always include console hardware, and it was our approach with our Horizons reports to announce software and hardware separately. PC hardware is about $43bn, when you add that on top of PC gaming software it’s huge. We knew it was a big market – we know the subscription, casual, free-to-play people were out there, and we wanted to record that. What we didn’t like was a retail-focused report like the NPD one saying that the market was heading in a certain direction, when we knew otherwise. Retail, as a percent of the market, is only 30% of PC gaming software. NPD aren’t measuring the majority of PC gaming software sales.
RPS: So if 30% still makes up half of gaming in total, then PC gaming software sales are still pretty substantial? You mentioned that publishers still wanted solutions to piracy: how much of a problem is piracy for the PC, really?
Stude: If a publisher says to me “I don’t want to release this game that I invested $50m in on PC, or I want to hold back release for six months” and the reason they cite is that of rampant piracy on the PC – whether that’s a legitimate concern or not, whether their business would really be impacted in that way or not – I stand up and pay attention. There’s an evolving problem there that is a real concern. A trend is evolving there that is disturbing. PC gamers who copy games exist everywhere in the world, and they may know it’s wrong, but it’s easy to do, as easy as it was to get music when Napster kicked off. It’s so easy on PC – it’s much, much harder to be a consumer of pirated materials on the console side. So we formed a committee to come up with data on piracy, and some of the best methodologies for dealing with it.
When I say “best methodologies” I mean that we want to know how big the phenomenon is, what the methods are that are being used today, and what our members can do to deal with it. We don’t want to alienate loyal customers, and we want methods that won’t cause a revolt against PC gaming. Rights management doesn’t have to impede on gaming.
RPS: Do you agree that big publishers are harming themselves with over-zealous rights management?
Stude: I agree that some of them are. I think they are losing some potential sales. The most controversial one recently was Spore, but Spore is selling insanely well all over the globe. So while the Amazon one-star blitz had impact in terms of creating awareness, I don’t think EA are that concerned about it impacting on their sales. Would they do things the same way next time? Probably not! They’ve probably got that message loud and clear, that the method of rights management implementation they used on Spore (and Mass Effect I think) was not friendly to the gamer.
You know the gamer will often say in the same breath “DRM is hurting the games industry, but you what? If you’re doing to use DRM, Steam is great.” It’s what I see on gaming websites: people see Steam as an acceptable way of dealing with rights management. Personally I had a laptop stolen, and all the games on it were on Steam, and all I had to do was retract rights on my machines, and then reissue. It was really easy to make sure that the fool who stole my notebook didn’t get several hundred dollars worth of games with it.
Another thing about rights management is that the companies that offer the solutions, offer very flexible systems, and to attack these companies, such as Sony for example, is probably not the right thing to do. If you look at say, Spore’s implementation of rights management and say “that’s not a good example of how to implement DRM”, that’s not necessarily Sony’s fault. With SecuROM they offer quite different options. One of the PCGA members, Christian Svensson of Capcom, corrected that notion by our own members who were not familiar with the system: Sony give you the menu, and you pick and choose how you implement this rights management. We want to look at all these options, see what works for gamers, and see if we can’t suggest a consistent approach. We’re going to say “this is what our research suggests” and “this is how you could implement rights management, based on what we’ve found”. We’re certainly not going to be issue claims against people with pirated games or anything like that! We just want to find the best method for approaching this challenge.
RPS: So you want the PCGA to be a centralised voice for the platform, just as Nintendo is for their platform, or Sony is for theirs? Although clearly not analogous in any controlling sense – not that there’s got to be a ruling body or anything like that – just that there should be a central body speaking for the platform?
Stude: That’s right.
RPS: Shouldn’t that be Microsoft’s responsibility? Hasn’t it fallen to everyone else associated with PC gaming because of the Xbox project?
Stude: Microsoft are a major component of gaming on the PC, and their focus as been a lot on the Xbox. But they’ll also be the first one to tell you, and show you, the legions of engineers that work on the Windows gaming technologies. I’m talking about the core toolset that all the publishers rely on to bring their products to market. The DirectX updates are far more aggressive than anything you see on the consoles. They’re static for five or six years at a time, and we’re getting DirectX 11 just a couple of years after DirectX 10. That’s important because the platform I enjoy the best has the potential – via Moore’s Law – of doubling its performance every few years.
Now some people think Microsoft should take the lead from a marketing perspective for PC gaming, and some people don’t. I’m in the camp that says the industry owns the platform, not any one company. If someone wants to play games on the PC there’s as much Microsoft involved in that that equation as there is Nvidia, ATi, AMD, or Intel. The marketing falls to Acer or Dell, or anyone else involved in selling on the platform. If there are people rowing in the wrong direction, well, that’s why we’ve got a Consortium to pull it all together: the consortium can speak for PC gaming, as opposed to one company saying how they think the world should be.
RPS: So there’s an extent to which you need to change perceptions about the PC as a gaming platform, both inside the industry and among consumers… Could there be a situation in which you can encourage people to say that buying a laptop for your family is better value for money than buying a next-gen PC and an HDTV?
Stude: I’d love to be able to make that claim! As an Intel employee and shareholder I’ve certainly enjoyed the success of laptops, but there’s a bunch of challenges to be resolved with that, in terms of consistency. A consumer wants to buy a laptop and they want to be able to go to a laptop sales men and have them say “this one gets seven hours of battery life, but it’s not PCGA compliant,” just for example. What does PCGA compliant mean? Well that standard doesn’t exist, of course, but let’s say in the future it could, and what would that mean? Well it would mean that a laptop was compatible with a certain category of games. No one is telling the consumer that today. They’re going out and buying something on a bunch of criteria which might be the operating system, a few other criteria described by the OEM. The consumer should feel comfortable that if they buy a notebook that it should play games, and we’re going to address that with our min spec.
We want there to be a min spec that says that a notebook is gaming ready, and that should be based in a set of criteria that an independent industry body came up with, that really makes sense. With that information a consumer can make an informed decision – and if they’re not buying for gaming they can buy something else. Those little netbooks, for example, aren’t really gaming machines, and people buy them for quite different reasons. But they should be able to buy that knowing that it isn’t designed to play games.
RPS: That will sidestep some disappointments, I guess. So you are going to suggest standards for rating PCs?
Stude: We try to stay away from the term “standards”. A stable minimum spec is probably the best way to look at it. Minimum game specifications are published on every game box and supported by most developers, so what we want to do is to stabilise that, and make them consistent.
RPS: Do you have a timeframe for that? Do you have a min spec release pending?
Stude: We’ll be announcing our approach next year, around GDC, but we’re still settling that.
RPS: So we were looking at the John Peddie research this week, which shows that there’s tens of millions of gaming PCs out there. And that seemed to suggest that the health of PC gaming, and the health of the PC gaming business were actually two different things. There are millions of gamers, but a lot of them are just settling on playing one or two games for an extended period – World Of Warcraft, for example. Or I play Eve Online regularly, and my comrades regularly play that to the exclusion of other games. Then there are mods which extend the lifespan of a single game indefinitely. The idea that the PC is in any way struggling is based purely on the picture of sold products, isn’t it? When in fact gamers are happy playing the same game for year on year. That’s a really significant aspect of the PC, isn’t it? It’s a cultural difference between PC gamers and console gamers, and one that people need to understand. Do you agree?
Stude: Right now it’s not part of our research agenda to look at how many gamers are playing a game that is a year or older, but that would be really interesting set of data. But yes, what’s powerful about the PC is how gamers will often have a love affair with one game, or with several games. That love affair doesn’t end when the game isn’t in the shelf any more. The console model relies on an attach rate of six or seven games per year, per console, right? If they don’t get that kind of sell-through, they don’t have a viable business model for selling the hardware in the first place. They have a demand that there’s a constant pipeline of games. I guess there’s this danger that games become too good, and players would play it day in, day out. If that happened then the console business model would fall apart. In PC gaming some gamers will have half a dozen games and play, say, Team Fortress 2 for a few months, and then maybe go back to Unreal Tournament 2004, or play World Of Warcraft or Civilisation for a few months. They cycle through these games.
Look at what sells so well on PC: Sims expansion packs. There is no comparison for that in console gaming, apart from experiments in downloadable content. And on consoles there is no modification of the games – which is particularly interesting for PC games. That could potentially be stopped overnight, and then it would become more like a console and we’d lose what was great about PC gaming.
The people who really address the PC market well – Blizzard, Valve, the Epic licensees – understand that you’ve got to keep it fresh. The PC market falls in love and sticks with a game for years on end, and they cater for that. Also Crytek are really starting to realise that, even if they’ve not had huge retails success so far. When we see more high end mods arrive for their games I think you’ll see more success there.
RPS: The console manufacturers are able to sell their consoles with the “next-gen console” and “next-gen game” message. Shouldn’t we be seeing the PC sold as “next-gen platform” and also “oh and we also have a twenty-year back-catalogue”? Could the PCGA members utilise what is unique about their platform a little better?
Stude: Well as someone who works for the producer of one of the most important components of the PC [Intel] I am guilty of the “next greatest thing” mentality. To provide value for the guy who decides to upgrade this year, I need some showpiece titles. If I don’t have a game like World In Conflict that scales to Quadcore, he might settle for Dualcore instead. We want games to make use of additional computing power, for games to evolve to do more – to wave your arms around to make things happen, to control games with your mind, right? To need the computing power to do that! That’s the reality of our business. We need the audience to buy into the need for computing power. That said, we are cognisant of the World Of Warcraft phenomenon and we do multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns with Blizzard. That’s a game that runs on a PC that is a few years old, but if you’re in a PvP scenarios or quests with forty people on screen it won’t run fine. I mean the big guilds might say you need a particular spec PC so that you don’t slow everyone else down, that kind of thing. That’s the last thing you want, if everyone’s experience in a dungeon run is slowed down because one guy is running on five year old gear!
RPS: Agreed. Okay, thanks for talking to me. We look forward to seeing the PCGA “min spec” announcements in the new year.