PC Game retail

Wow,  I recently passed through a few “big name” game stores and other than a few major titles there were hardly any PC games displayed.  There was a good collection of new Xbox 360 and PS3 stuff, a ton of used titles (probably half the store), but maybe a quarter of a rack for PC games.  Sure, part of the reason has been the gold rush to the consoles, with a number of traditional PC developers walking away from the platform to chase the money.  Sadly, another part is the PC gaming experience itself.  You go out, buy new title X, drop it in your system and it spends 20 minutes installing.  Then either some warning about DirectX or it just starts installing stuff.  Then the inevitable driver hunt starts.  One to two hours or so after the disk was put in the system the first signs of life out of the title.  Not what I would write up as a great user experience.    My worst ever experience was recently with Batman: Arkham Asylum.  After a long install process, It asked me if I wanted to install Windows Live, I said no.  The installer told me I couldn’t save my games unless I installed Live.  I don’t like threats and I don’t like force installed software, so I was already ticked off.  I don’t remember my XBox Live account password so I set up a new account.  It took  forever, forced two reboots of the system, installed a ton of crap and then, about an hour after I “completed” installing the game I was actually able to play.  Brutal, just brutal.

The final part of the PC retail slide is piracy.  Nobody has a really clear picture of how many sales are lost, but the numbers are pretty staggering.  If the game is that much hassle to get legitimately, piracy actually seems the easier route.  to my mind, iTunes has proven if you make it easier to buy content than pirate, the consumers will come.   On the other hand, I look at digital distribution and my poster title for doing it right, “Torchlight”.  The Runic fellows crafted a great experience, built a good demo and skipped the retail hassle altogether.    My experience was totally different, I see the title in a download store, download a quick demo, play the demo to the end and decide to buy the game.  The game installs quick and I load up from the end of the demo and keep playing.  Slick, well thought out and well executed.  The PC can be a great platform and kudos to the runic fellows for hitting it.

My whole reason for starting Beamdog was to re-invent the PC as a gaming platform and I’m pretty confident with a game development mindset, hard work and a strong vision to re-define the user experience we can be successful.  As a long-time (15 years or so) game developer I have a massive loyalty to the fans who purchase games, as they are the air developers breathe.  I also have a strong loyalty to fellow developers and ensuring they can make an honest living off of the hard work they put into the titles they lovingly craft.  I want to create a situation when all parties win and I think we are on the right track.  We are closing in on our open Beta and I’m looking forward to sharing our approach with the world.



Getting into the Games Industry

After returning from GDC and getting asked the standard question of “how to get into the games industry”  I thought I’d put my experience down on paper.

I personally got into the games industry through a mixture of  luck, hard work and timing.   The most important factor was probably the timing.

Rather than apply for jobs, we decided to do a start-up game development studio.

We started development on our first title at the end of the 16 bit game cycle.  We built a tiny shareware title called “Blasteriods 3D” as a proof of concept and we learned a number of key things:

  1. 640 K is not very big.  We took up 618K, which meant you had to “himem” a bunch of stuff to get “Blasteroids 3D” to run.  This wasn’t very user-friendly.
  2. Sound engines are crazy hard to write, in the end we licensed the software.
  3. Big shareware demos can lead to no sales of the full game.  Why pay for it if you can get it for free?

After Blasteroids 3D we started on “Metal Hive”, which later became “Shattered Steel”.  We had joined the game industry at a perfect time as Doom was out using the Dos 4GW 32 bit extender.  This transition meant all the existing developers had to re-learn a ton of content and a great number of tools had to be re-written completely.  This was an excellent time to be a new startup as we didn’t have to run very hard to catch up to the industry.  During the development of “Shattered Steel” we also got in with some new business partners and founded Bioware.  “Shattered Steel” went through some pretty rocky periods during development and it also had lessons to teach

  1. You can’t do it all yourself.  My brother was the sole engine programmer on the title and he didn’t do well under the pressure.  I was the sole artist on the project after moving over from programming and I couldn’t get up to “AAA” quality by myself.  I’m not sure if I ever got up to “AAA” quality as an artist, but that is a point for another discussion
  2. You need to agree up front on the desired outcome before you head off down the tracks.  We had a lot of dreams of game features and business success and in the end most didn’t pan out.

During the development of “Shattered Steel”, Greg and Ray had started another little team and were working on a Windows 95 isometric game they called “Battleground Infinity” .   “Infinity” was a windows 95 application when most people were still writing dos games.  Again, we had a window where other developers had to re-tool and re-learn.  The technical team behind Infinity was from a database tools background, so they were able to handle large volumes of data much better than most game development teams of the period.  After a lack of interest from most publishing partners around “Battleground Infinity”, it was shown to our “Shattered Steel” producer, Feargus Urquhart.  Feargus looked at the demo and stated it would be a great fit with the Dungeons and Dragons license that Interplay had.  Without much debate the title was signed and “Baldur’s Gate” was into development.

From the examples above you can see how we were exceptionally lucky with timing in terms of disruptive platform cycles and a fellow named Feargus suggesting the D&D license.

For new people starting out, it can be hard to get hired into the industry, but if you do your own venture and you look for the technology transitions where you can catch up faster, if you get lucky and you happen to make something pretty cool it can be an uncommon path into the industry.  Look for the new platforms, look for the advantages your team can bring to the table and most importantly be realistic about what you can accomplish.  The games industry is littered with the corpses of companies that thought five guys could build an “AAA” MMO in a basement.  This is an exciting time, the iPhone is nearing the end of the disruptive phase as the bigger developers have tooled up for the new platform, but there is still a lot of room in the other fringe spaces opening up.  I’m personally seeing a huge opportunity in the smaller scale PC downloadable titles.