Q&A At the Game Developers Conference in February, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, and other companies that sell PC gaming hardware and software announced the creation of the PC Gaming Alliance, an organization whose specific purpose is defending the PC as a gaming platform.
Its goals include defining an accurate scope of the PC gaming market and establishing a hardware baseline for developers to use as a reference point. We spoke with PCGA President Randy Stude, who also works for Intel as director of the Gaming Program Office, about these topics and other plans the PCGA has for the future.
Q: I think there's some confusion about what it is exactly that the PCGA intends to do.
Stude: Are you familiar with how the PC industry gets together in consortiums and sorts things out? In this case it's not really a standard necessarily. But like the Wi-Fi Alliance and other initiatives, we've got to come together as an industry. Otherwise we've got a bifurcated industry that doesn't have any consistency whatsoever and creates consumer confusion that doesn't lead to mainstream success of anything.
That's basically the elevator pitch for why everyone is sitting at the table and having this discussion. It's a little bit unique in that the focus is on a use model not a standard, and coming together and aligning to make sure that the interests of the PC game industry are heard and that consumers who may have certain issues with the PC as a platform for gaming may have those issues heard by the PC industry and dealt with as best possible.
Q: It's harder to define a usage model versus a standard, isn't it?
Stude: Very much so. It definitely strains the imagination of each of these companies that are participating. But when you start to level-set on what we're trying to do, it starts to make more sense. You have an industry that's being beat up in the Western press in terms of its health or its perceived lack of health, so we in the industry who sit back and pay for analyst reports and take a look at the numbers didn't really like the perception that we were hearing that PC gaming is on a decline. When in fact while certain markets of the PC gaming industry might be in a decline, others are sky-rocketing like never before.
So that became one of the key charters that we wanted to tackle to make sure that the data was being reported by someone in an authoritative fashion.
Q: And it's primarily this year's NPD sales figures that are behind that perception?
Stude: I chuckle when I read through the articles or opinion that say that PC gaming is in a decline and they continue to quote NPD's North American retail sales figures as the reason why they believe they're in decline.
The reason why I chuckle is that NPD decided in the first quarter of 2008 to attempt to quantify North American MMO subscription revenues. And lo and behold, after just a quarter of research, they found--under a rock that they hadn't looked at before--a billion dollars. So what does that tell you? I think they were very limited in terms of the number of games that would even support their research request, so it's not even a comprehensive review of the entire industry. A certain number of companies self-reported to NPD and the rest of the numbers were extrapolated from press releases and figures that were publicly available.
So if you add the billion dollars they claim to have found in annual subscription revenues on top of the $920 million that they were previously reporting in retail, suddenly the PC game piece of the pie is closer to a quarter of all software revenues generated in North America. That's one platform out of eight that's generating a quarter of all the revenues. There isn't another platform generating that big of a share of the pie. And that is woefully underreported at a billion dollars. That's why we're here. That's why we're trying to course-correct the research and reporting problem in PC gaming today because there are decisions that are made based on the results that NPD publishes. It impacts where publishers invest their big budgets to develop new games.
Q: Can we expect a public statement from the PCGA soon?
Stude: In August, we will announce at GCDC (Games Convention Developers Conference in Leipzig) or IDF (Intel Developers Forum) the first set of financial research for global hardware and software sales, as well as lay out the time line for when the minimum system requirements committee will have their first guidance out of their work. Those are the first two key milestones that are coming out this year. The research results will come out in August and shortly after that the system requirements.
Q: You mentioned minimum system requirements. If the PCGA comes up with a standard, what does that mean for gaming spec programs from hardware vendors, such as AMD Game?
Stude: (Nvidia's) "The way it's meant to be played," (Intel's) "Runs Great on" and "Play to Win"--you can keep going on this list, right? Just about every member of the PCGA has their own marketing program. And that's what we all agreed was potentially a confusing direction for the PC industry. If the association with PC gaming became a certain company's brand or logo and it was one logo, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing as long as it was the right one company for us all to fairly compete with. But that isn't happening. There's enough logical resistance to every one of those brands that we just discussed to continue to create confusion within the industry.
You can't tell Blizzard, for example, that they have to be "Games for Windows" compliant. They have no reason to follow that recipe. It isn't going to impact their success with World of Warcraft. Maybe in a future title, but not today. I'm not slamming Microsoft, but there are people like that in the industry who are not going to go in that direction.
Now if the industry came out and said, "We've collectively decided that in order for a game to have a good experience on a PC this is what it should play on," then you can say that's a more ubiquitous approach. It's not any one company out for the betterment of their brand, but the industry trying to prop up one of the key areas which creates consumer confusion which is the area of minimum system requirements.
We chose that first strategically because that's what starts to define a platform. If (a game developer) wants to support this year's spec, or the first spec--we haven't decided how we're going to market that yet, the marketing committee is hard at work trying to figure that one out, too--if you look at it like "here's your starting point," if this is the lump of consumers that you're going to go after, that helps solve the confusion in video game development and it's no longer a guessing game.
The industry comes out (and) we're going to say there's this many gamers, and we're going to make a recommendation of a certain spec, and at a certain point in time we're going to say there are x number of hundreds of millions of gamers who have that spec or better.
Q: Will the various vendors need to dial down their own brands to make this work?
Stude: I don't think anyone needs to think about dial down their branding at all. I think if those who are making PCs and those who make software agree that this is the right place to start with video gaming, then what we've done is shorn up the wild wild west of the PC gaming industry that currently exists, which is "no one knows where to start." No one's coming to them as one voice saying, "Here's where PC gaming should start." Just start.
We're still going to compete for scale. There's still going to be a better and a best code path for PC gaming. That's going to be incumbent on each of the members and their desire for the developer community to decide where that better and best will end up. That's not going to change. We're all going to compete in the next two or three code paths above that. That's what defines each of our companies and our capabilities. So that will continue and everyone on the PCGA agrees that that will continue.
But there may be some games like console ports for example that previously didn't know where to go. That just say we're bringing this game to PC on the same day and date as the console release, and just to simplify things so that those who own PCs can play at the same day and date, we're just going to do a straight port, one code path, just like we do on console. And perhaps at some point in time they'll say (the) PCGA spec is the right one, the only one to port to, because they'll know there's a substantial audience and there's a consistency that the PCGA spec will bring.
Q: Do you imagine that the PCGA spec and other branding programs will co-exist?
Q: Can we expect a badge for that minimum spec, like you might see on the exterior of a desktop?
Stude: The beauty of the organization is that everyone has an opinion on the way things should appear and there's open and spirited debate on multiple sub-committee and sub-sub-committee calls each and every week. Marketing the new PCGA brand, which we have settled on (as) an actual brand, or I should say a logo right now, is one we're registering as a trademark. But we're not settled as an organization yet on whether that should be a marketed brand, whether that brand should appear on game boxes, whether that brand should appear on hardware that's sold as PCGA compliant hardware. That's all in the to-be-determined stage. Right now what we're trying to do at a very minimum is make an alignment that doesn't exist today, which is to say here's what the majority thinks the minimum system requirements are, and here's how big PC gaming is. Now support PC gaming.
Q: You also have a piracy sub-committee. What kind of piracy initiatives are in the works?
Stude: What I can tell you is that we're collecting research on PC game piracy that doesn't exist today. That's the first thing we're doing, trying to have some understanding of how big it is, and then hopefully quantify the economic impact to the PC game industry. If we get to the point where we see it being an overwhelming challenge for the industry--and I would say off the top of my head that I think it is an overwhelming challenge for the industry--but if we find that we need to make certain recommendations for the future based on the size and scope of the problem, we'll go there.
We don't intend to become the police force for PC game piracy. We're not the RIAA, we're not going to become the RIAA. Rather we're a group that's trying to look out for PC gaming, and if there's a problem with it, we're going to make industry recommendations to all the members.
Q: Microsoft has made it clear that it intends to compete with Valve Software's Steam service. Do you think the industry can support two distinct download-and-community services like Steam and Games for Windows?
Stude: I've been in gaming a long time and I'm very familiar with GameSpy and their relationship with the industry for years and years, and certainly there was a lot of complaining on their part for what Microsoft was attempting to do with Games for Windows Live in particular. But how many games are supporting Games for Windows Live? Are they really a competitor? Is Games for Windows that big of an issue? Why can't they just compete? Do we really need a standard for achievements and online servers?
As long as you plug it in, the game works, and you find the service you need to find, I don't think consumers will really care. Xbox Live is a closed dance card for the Xbox platform. I don't think that methodology works on the PC. Consumers like going to Yahoo and Google. Consumers like going to ABC's Web site and NBC and CBS. Once you touch the Internet realm, I think you need to throw away your notions that everything has to be sealed and closed and locked down tight in order for it to work. That's an excuse. And that's what I consistently hear from Valve, that if developers developed games that just worked, there wouldn't be as many issues with PC gaming right now.
Q: What do you make of Valve's nonparticipation in PCGA?
Stude: I actually expect Valve to join at the right time. That what I dialogued with them about.