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PC Game Piracy Examined

[Page 6] PC vs. Console (Pt.2)

PC vs. Console Game Quality

Another factor to consider is whether there are substantial quality differences between various versions of the same games. If PC games are of a significantly lower quality for example, this would explain why sales are much lower. Quality is almost wholly subjective, so using Metacritic scores for a sample of multiplatform games provides a reasonably robust way to gauge overall perceived quality:

Fallout 3: 92%/79% (PC) - 93%/84% (XBox 360) - 91%/74% (PS3)

Dead Space: 86%/84% (PC) - 89%/90% (XBox 360) - 88%/92% (PS3)

BioShock: 96%/81% (PC) - 96%/87% (XBox 360) - 95%/77% (PS3)

Call of Duty 4: 92%/87% (PC) - 94%/84% (XBox 360) - 94%/91% (PS3)

What we can see in each case is that there isn't a significant difference between the console and PC scores. Furthermore none of these games, whatever the version, has been ranked under the 70% mark, indicating that they're all considered reasonably good games. A Metacritic search on the recent PC-only gaming titles Crysis 91%/77%, Crysis Warhead 84%/82%, and STALKER: Clear Sky 75%/79% shows similar, sometimes even lower scores, as those of games released on other platforms. In short there doesn't appear to be any weight behind the argument that perceived quality differences could be driving a 5:1 sales ratio in favor of the console versions of these games. That's not to say these games are all perfect, or that the PC versions don't indeed have issues - which we'll discuss shortly. Rather it indicates that the majority of users don't currently perceive major quality differences between these versions, so as a descriptive variable in why console games outsell PC games by such a large factor, quality doesn't appear to be significant.

Console Piracy

The next logical question is: if piracy is a reason for the discrepancy in sales, why would it affect the PC so much and not the consoles? This is a perfectly valid question, because a torrent search will show you that pirated versions of most any console game are also available. Consoles are definitely not exempt from piracy. However the data we examined in the Scale of Piracy section provides a clear answer to this question: the scale of piracy is far lower on consoles than it is on PCs. Looking at torrent data for the same games on PC vs. XBox 360 vs. PS3, we saw that the number of downloads of the PC version is often five or ten times higher than the console versions. The number of individual active torrents for the console versions were also noticeably lower; in some cases there were no PS3 torrents at all for certain games.

The most likely reason is that undertaking console piracy is not as straightforward an exercise as PC piracy for the average user. To successfully play a pirated game on a console, you need to modify the console in some way, whether by installing a 'mod chip', or flashing the console with custom firmware. Indeed on some consoles, even these steps are not enough - on the PS3 not only the complexity of the hardware, but also the use of Blu-Ray media for games has significantly deterred piracy. Furthermore hacking a console to allow piracy carries risks which the user may not consider worth bearing, including being banned from popular online services such as XBox Live, or being denied warranty repairs. PC piracy on the other hand carries no costs and usually has insignificant risks, it's as quick and easy as downloading and installing a small torrent client, clicking a torrent link, and within minutes you're off and running. There is one exception: the Steam client does introduce additional risks to piracy and this has aided its success - we discuss this in the Copy Protection & DRM section.

Is This Really a Problem?

After all the information above, I can imagine people might be saying something along the lines of "So what if developers focus on making games for consoles... let them. As long as we get a PC version, what's the problem?". The problem is that there are already several observed negative impacts stemming from this shift in games development. The problem with multiplatform games is that the PC versions are usually hamstrung with the design decisions intended to accommodate the hardware and control limitations of ageing consoles, as well as suiting the more casual gaming style of many console gamers. This results in potential issues for PC gamers such as:

  • Fewer options for properly configuring and adjusting the various graphics and audio parameters in a game. Consoles are a fixed hardware platform, hence don't require as much fine-tuning as PCs, nor have as much scope for improving visuals.
  • Framerate caps built into the engine.
  • Poor performance because the engine is optimized for fixed console hardware not a variety of PC hardware.
  • Graphics compromises necessary for consoles but not for PCs. Examples include lower resolution textures, forced texture streaming and aggressive distance LOD systems, resulting in less immersive graphics.
  • A lack of modding tools, often a complete lack of even the ability to apply basic modifications to the game engine, resulting in even less flexibility and longevity.
  • Inappropriate or unmappable control layouts due to the controls originally being designed for console controllers not a keyboard/mouse combination.
  • Console-orientated user interfaces resulting in awkwardly large or badly placed HUD or menu elements on the PC for example.
  • Artificially restricted areas, less complex gameplay and storylines, highly scripted linear gameplay, automatic aiming systems, and shorter games with far less replayability. All designed to satisfy not only the hardware limitations, but more importantly the more casual gaming style of the mainstream console audience.

The fundamental problem is that game engine developers such as Epic made it clear back in 2006 that their current generation of game engine, Unreal Engine 3.0, used for games like BioShock, Mass Effect and Unreal Tournament 3, is focused mainly on consoles: "With Unreal Engine 3, we designed it to fall in the sweet spot of next generation consoles... we've been really in tune with the next generation consoles this time around". Worse still, they've pointed out more recently that their next game engine is being built specifically for the next generation of consoles, with the PC coming in last in their considerations:

[Unreal Engine 4.0] will exclusively target the next console generation, Microsoft's successor for the Xbox 360, Sony's successor for the Playstation 3 - and if Nintendo ships a machine with similar hardware specs, then that also. PCs will follow after that.

Similarly, Crytek has recently said that CryEngine 3, the next version of what was once a high-end PC-specific gaming engine, will now be targeted for the console, specifically the PlayStation 4 due out in 2011-12.

This means that the console-based limitations and problems experienced by PC gamers are now being built into the very foundation of all major games from day one. Multiplatform games can't take full advantage of PC hardware, and developers don't create two completely different versions of the same game. At best they may provide an 'enhanced' console port for the PC by slightly increasing texture resolution, or ensuring that the controls are configured better for PCs for example, but this doesn't always happen, and in any case is not the same thing as designing a game for the PC from the ground up.

To add insult to injury, these days many major games are released on the consoles up to 6 months or more ahead of the PC version. This means that PC gamers often have to wait long periods to play the same game their console counterparts have been enjoying for many months, during which time the game becomes even more dated in its visuals. Of greater concern is the fact that some games are now being deliberately delayed for the PC, due to explicit concerns that piracy of the PC version will undermine potential sales of the console version. As an example, Tom Clancy's EndWar was deliberately delayed for PC, the creative director Michael Plater saying quite simply that:

To be honest, if PC wasn't pirated to hell and back, there'd probably be a PC version coming out the same day as the other two. The level of piracy that you get with the PC just cannibalizes the others, because people just steal that version, piracy's basically killing PC.

Some major games aren't even slated for a PC release at any point, the developers stating categorically that there won't be a PC version. Star Wars: Force Unleashed and Gears of War 2 are two prominent examples. In other words the situation has become so bad that in some cases developers and publishers simply conclude that releasing a PC version isn't viable. Epic explicitly attribute piracy as the reason for deciding not to release Gears of Wars 2 on PC; LucasArts is less clear, deliberately skirting the issue of piracy and instead giving a somewhat flimsy reason regarding insufficient PC specs, despite Force Unleashed being released even for the 2000-era PS2.

In light of all this, it would be hard to suggest that the move towards console-centric games development is anything but a negative for most PC gamers.

Is Piracy Solely to Blame?

So far there's a very strong case for the premise that piracy is a substantial reason why there's such a discrepancy between sales of the same game among different platforms. No other plausible explanation accounts for the way in which console games outsell PC games by such a large factor. However PC game piracy is by no means the only reason why developers are moving to consoles. There are other benefits for developers, which several of them have spoken about. For example John Carmack of id explains that the PC has various drawbacks compared to consoles:

While a high-end gaming PC is many times more powerful than current generation consoles and you could in theory do significantly greater things on it, the downsides of the platform are having to support multiple generations of different hardware [and] driver interface layers.

PCs by their vary nature are a widely diverse collection of hardware and software, whereas consoles are a fixed hardware platform. This makes development, testing and tech support much easier for consoles. But before anyone suddenly jumps to their feet and exclaims "Aha! So that's the reason why they're all moving to consoles!", consider the fact that lower development costs have nothing to do with differential PC to console sales ratios. Console games may be cheaper to develop than PC games, but they're priced higher then PC games and they sell in far higher numbers - something which logically shouldn't be occurring given the similar install bases. Furthermore the benefits of console development have been known for at least ten years now, why would there be a sudden mass exodus of major PC game developers to consoles within the past year or two? Why for example would Crytek develop a PC exclusive like Crysis in 2007, and then on the basis of faltering sales, announce a sudden switch to console development in 2008, then expend a great deal of time and money backporting their existing CryEngine 2 to console? If they're lying and just using poor sales as an excuse to cover up their true motives, wouldn't it make sense for them to have already developed CryEngine 2 with consoles in mind to begin with, or released Crysis as a multiplatform game, if their real motives were always to move to console development?

So no, piracy isn't solely to blame for developers moving to consoles, there are other benefits for developers in doing so. But those benefits have been around for many years, and don't explain the large difference in sales ratios. Piracy is the only logical variable which seems to be playing the most significant part in the equation, by creating a large gap between the number of PC games sold as opposed to console games sold. As John Carmack says quite openly: "developing games costs tens of millions of dollars now and the focus just has to be on the consoles where you've got the chance to move more millions of units there." It seems that those 'millions of additional units' on the console are in large part due to the fact that although PC gamers may be playing as many games as their console counterparts, they're not necessarily paying for as many games.

Console Exclusives

Update: In recent months a new and interesting theory has emerged as to why PC gaming is declining in terms of both quantity and quality of major games. It involves the belief that Microsoft and Sony are actively paying games studios large sums of money to ensure that big-name games are developed primarily for the console platform, and released only as console exclusives to the deliberate detriment of the PC platform. The reason why Microsoft and Sony are named as the main culprits in this conspiracy is because Microsoft is the company behind the XBox 360 console, while Sony is the owner of the Playstation 3 console.

This is certainly a plausible-sounding theory from the point of view of piracy advocates, because there is no doubt that companies like MS and Sony have in the past paid game developers to secure exclusive releases for their particular console for particular games, and continue to do so in a range of cases. More importantly, it's also a very attractive theory because it perpetuates the notion that large faceless evil corporations are to blame, rather than individuals pirating software. However when examined closely this theory is logically implausible.

The chief reason why this theory cannot account for the rapid decline in PC gaming is quite simply because while it may explain why some games are coming out on the console before being released on PC, it does not and cannot explain why almost every game then eventually comes out for PC as such a poor-quality console port. Console exclusives have been around for many years, indeed I remember when I owned a Nintendo 64 console back in 1997 that many games were not available for it for quite a while (if at all) because they were exclusive to one of the rival consoles, like the Playstation. Similarly, console ports and multi-platform games have been around for a long time - The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was released in 2002 first on PC then on the Xbox. What would trigger a sudden change such that console exclusivity would only just now completely erode PC gaming? Is there really a conspiracy against PC gaming?

If we think about this logically, firstly it is impossible to believe that even if MS and Sony decided to undermine PC gaming, that they could remotely afford to pay every single major games developer large sums of money each and every year to lock in exclusivity for each and every major game title to be released. By definition they would have to pay more to the games developers than the developers would expect to make if they released the game as a PC exclusive. If the potential sales of the PC market were as high as armchair experts and piracy advocates claim, then this would run into the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars for each and every gaming title!

Secondly, even if MS and Sony could somehow manage to bribe all of the major games company in this way, even if a games company agrees to an exclusivity contract, once that contract period expires, they should then have every reason to invest an additional sum of money into properly porting and optimizing their game title for the PC platform and then releasing it to an eager PC market, to reap the allegedly high profits which PC gaming would also bring. After all, games companies don't care where their income comes from, they use their assets to give the greatest return on investment possible. Yet once again, we see that in reality, the PC market is an afterthought for almost all games companies now - they release PC versions of their games which are clearly the result of minimal investment in porting the game over. This is of course because they understand from their recent experiences and market research that the PC market simply does not have the sales necessary to warrant even a moderate additional investment.

Ultimately, this theory is therefore yet another in a long line of superficially plausible, intuitively attractive, but logically impossible arguments which essentially place the blame for the decline in PC gaming on everything but piracy. Piracy remains the only valid descriptive variable which explains why games developers have moved almost in unison to the console platform, because essentially that is where the actual sales are due to much lower levels of piracy. There is no corporate conspiracy to undermine PC gaming, companies simply choose the platforms which give them the greatest returns on their investment. Although technically superior to consoles, and even with a gaming user base at least as large, if not larger, than the major consoles combined, rampant piracy has made the PC a poor platform in that regard.

A Cautionary Tale

Before concluding this section, take a moment to consider the impact that piracy has had on the Mac gaming industry. Gaming on Macs is virtually non-existent, and it's not for the reasons you think. This article from a couple of years ago explains the serious problems the Mac-focused gaming industry had with piracy:

Mac gaming is in serious trouble - people aren’t buying games like they used to... You might think that because the Mac game market is so much smaller than the PC game market, piracy isn’t as big a problem. Looking at the lost revenue dollar totals, you might be right, just because the Mac market can’t compare to PC gaming in terms of size. But, nevertheless, piracy has a profound effect on individual Mac game publishers’ profit and loss sheets. In many cases, it’s the difference between being in the black and winding up in the red....

When I asked [Mac developer] Tamte what game publishers can do to staunch the flow, he gave a telling answer: Shift development to platforms where piracy is less of a problem like game consoles.

The Mac example shows us that regardless of the platform you're on, if piracy is rampant enough it can affect the viability of the market to the point where developers and publishers will either shift to a less piracy-prone platform, or implement more intrusive copy protection/DRM. I'm sure most PC gamers don't want the PC to end up being similar to the Mac in terms of its gaming appeal.

In the next section we look more closely at other ways in which the games industry is adjusting in reaction to challenges such as piracy.


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