this space intentionally left blank

August 13, 2009

Filed under: gaming»perspective

The Future is Non-upgradeable

This was a submission for the 2009 Call for Writers at Gamers With Jobs. It wasn't a good match for them, but I still enjoy parts of it, so I'm posting it here.

The PC has been killed so many times, they put a revolving door on the coffin. It's been declared deceased so often, the death certificate has scorch marks from the copier. The tech community has buried it so deep, Australia's complaining about the tunnelling's environmental damage. And yet, somehow, it's still around. As someone who has long identified with the PC, I find this strangely comforting. When they start writing editorials about the great shape the industry's in, I'll start worrying.

Of course, the constant hum about its mortality masks the traditional role of the PC as a weathervane for gaming elsewhere. For example, Sean Sand's "Don't call it a comeback" points out that big-budget titles may make up a smaller portion of the platform's future library--what's that but XBLA and WiiWare writ large? Likewise, the shift to digital distribution over Steam, Impulse, and other services puts the PC at the forefront of an industry-wide trend away from physical media. It's the open nature of PC development--its generativity, as author Jonathan Zittrain would say--that lets it lead the pack this way.

But in another sense, PC gaming is changing on a more basic, demographic level. The platform itself is evolving, and gaming will have to evolve with it. I'm referring, of course, to the gradual rise of the laptop and netbook as computing platforms. Like it or not, both of these hardware configurations are increasingly common, carry serious implications for developers, and have already begun to influence this corner of the industry.

In 2007, desktop sales dropped by 4%, while laptop sales rose by 21%. The gap has no doubt risen since that time, in part due to the rise of the netbook niche--indeed, laptops outsold desktops in 2008 for the first time, ever. Those kinds of numbers aren't broken out by profession or use, unfortunately, so we don't know how many gamers specifically have moved to portable. But it's not outrageous to assume that it's true for the general gaming population, particularly as we gamers get older and want a computer to pull double-duty for work and play.

When the time came to replace my own aging, hand-built tower PC, I ended up going with a Lenovo Thinkpad. It has a discrete graphics card, putting it roughly in the midrange of portable rendering power between the poor suckers with integrated Intel chips and those city-block-sized, SLI-capable monsters from Asus and Alienware. For a two year-old business notebook, the Thinkpad is pretty good at gaming: it runs Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 acceptably--if not extravagantly--well, which was my priority when I bought it. Fallout 3 also plays well enough that I can't complain about the graphics (the controls, on the other hand...). Not everything fares so well: Crysis was a slideshow (literally: "What I Did On My Summer Vacation--Visited Beautiful North Korea, Fought Aliens, and Choked People With My Terrifying Robot Fetish Suit"). But then, people with small nuclear reactors under their desks had trouble running Crysis when it first came out. I don't let it get me down.

The salient point is not that the hardware's a bit behind the cutting edge. It's that, as a laptop, it's mostly not upgradeable--at least, not in the parts that really count for 3D rendering, like the graphics card. My laptop will never run so-called AAA titles, no matter what I do. This doesn't mean that I've stopped gaming, or buying games. But it does mean that my purchasing dollars tend to go to companies that will support a somewhat more lenient range of hardware when it comes to their software. I end up buying from companies like Stardock or Valve--developers that still target graphics cards from a few generations back. Or I've found a new interest in the indie scene--games like World of Goo or Introversion's back catalog. When all else fails, I'm catching up on older titles I never played, like the original Fallout games. In a way, the laptop hardware lag has been a gift.

The PC gaming industry's become accustomed to being the top performer in the rendering game for a while now, and that will no doubt continue among the niche of hardcore enthusiasts. But anyone who wants to actually be profitable in this space would do well to keep us laptop gamers in mind. You think World of Warcraft's success isn't at least partly due to its generous system requirements? The shift might even be a blessing in disguise: notebooks, while still diverse compared to console hardware, are notably more standardized than desktop systems--a complaint that developers have against the platform for years.

It will be painful for a while, as publishers and developers adjust to the new reality of notebook gaming, but ultimately I think we'll be better for it. From constraint often comes inspiration. That's true in other media, and I think it will be true in gaming as well. So feel free to cheer for the end of PC gaming--after all, it's not going anywhere.

Future - Present - Past