PC Gaming's Turf War

PC gaming gets a bad rap. High-end game rigs cost thousands of dollars. Hardware and driver conflicts plague players. It's too much work just to have some fun. AMD agrees. So do Intel, NVIDIA, Microsoft, Dell, Acer, Alienware, and a number of software developers that are finally sitting down at the same table to form the PC Gaming Alliance. Question is: can they do the job?

This non-profit organisation has noble intentions: To give a common voice and common goals to a huge and hugely disorganised platform. Industry forecasters say $US2.67 billion in PC games sold in 2007. That discounts all those casual games that suck up your midday doldrums. For 2008, projections peak in the $US9.6 billion range. About 263 million folks around the world play computer games.

But who are these people? "If you asked one of us the breakdown of who was playing these games right now, you'd get different answers from each company. It's tough getting a straight answer," says Kevin Unangst, senior global director of Games for Windows. "Going forward we're sharing data and trying to solve problems together instead of on our own."

Microsoft knows all about going it alone. Its Games for Windows initiative has made some progress in the year since it launched, educating the masses and trying to create a unified player experience. But the road got lonely and sometimes rocky as Vista launched. Microsoft had to foot the bill for a whole marketing campaign to push a platform. Now, with a membership behind it, the PCGA hopes to tackle real issues. Eventually.

What can they hit first? Piracy and online security? The PCGA isn't providing software tools or enforcing laws. "We are NOT going to become the RIAA," says Randy Stude, director of the Gaming Program Office at Intel. While some of the people on the panel look to digital distribution, Mark Rein of Epic Games (developer of titles such as Gears of War and Unreal Tournament 3) says shrink-wrapped boxes aren't going away – it's pricing that's the issue. Pirates won't pay no matter what. Stude suggests it may be time to consider the free-to-play models that have exploded in Asian markets. The point? There is no one, simple solution.

OK, here's another obvious problem: setting a baseline for hardware requirements. Where is that sweet spot for gamers? Intel's Stude is quick to point out that many current games have incredibly high system requirements – beyond those of most people who want to play games. Rein jabs back at Intel: "If I buy a $3000 notebook, it should be able to provide some sort of gaming experience. It's not difficult to get a good graphics solution, is it?"

As playful and good-natured as the conversation was, it still underscores a very real issue: the industry recognises the problem and wants to address it. Right now, the bar is too high, requiring players to purchase discrete graphics cards just to get any sort of gaming experience. That instantly weeds out people who just bought a new computer and discover it won't play many games. Would Intel consider an integrated NVIDIA graphics card or shared technology to solve the problem? Intel's Stude instantly shuts down the idea. "[The PCGA] isn't about sharing corporate roadmaps," he says. Well, that's going to make progress tougher. People may sit at the table, but aren't prepared to take action.

While some companies can't sign up fast enough, others are stepping back with a wait-and-see approach. At least one PC vendor is "happy to sit on the fence for now." The insider notes that the PCGA "is asking for a big chunk of money to join, but I wonder how much they can accomplish. Maybe we'll join at some point."

The fledgling organisation doesn't really have a powerbase. Oh, sure, the membership roster is mighty, but this is an organisation of volunteers who don't set policies for the platform, but only suggest a course. The PCGA won't have a strict set of rules. Members will share information. They hope to educate consumers. They'd like to tell us about a concrete plan for the future, but have none yet. They promise that they are on the case, making progress . . . check back in a couple months.

Many different organisations are coming together here with the same goals. It's the means that could trip them. God forbid Apple joins the PCGA and adds to the confusion with its own sets of concerns. If handled poorly this might be as effective as an interim government.

Don't get me wrong: the PC Gaming Alliance has great intentions to get the PC gaming market back on track. But might I suggest a velvet glove to help lead the way and nudge developers, hardware makers, and consumers in the right direction? Oh, yeah, and will you please do something about integrated graphics?

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Darren Gladstone

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