This week, Crytek president Cevat Yerli, mastermind of the next-gen blockbuster Crysis, mentioned in an interview that his company will no longer produce PC-exclusive games, asserting that piracy has become so rampant on the PC that making exclusive games for the platform is too risky. Right on the heels of this disconcerting interview, EA Sports president Peter Moore explained the company's decision not to bring future iterations of Madden to the PC, again citing piracy as a central issue.
Yerli and Moore are certainly not the first to express such concerns. John Carmack, who for the entirety of his career developed next-generation technology exclusively for the PC, has stated that his new "Tech 5" engine is being developed with a multiplatform focus. Epic, the company that makes the Unreal engine and the games of its titular kin, has stated that its engine development is tied to console cycles. In both cases, piracy was cited as a major problem on the PC. Not too long ago, an Activision employee stated that piracy of Call of Duty 4 was rampant. More and more we are seeing long-time PC-centric companies shift their focus to a more multiplatform focus, because there's just too much risk involved with PC-exclusive development due to rampant piracy.
Gamers may rightly point out that consoles have had their share of piracy issues as well; it's arguable for example that Mircosoft suffered significant sales loss due to the rampant and easy modding of the original XBox console. However, downloading pirated PC games is much easier than modding a console to play pirated games. Like pirating music, pirating games can be so easy and convenient that it's all too easy to forget that it's theft, a despicable act that robs hardworking developers of their right to be paid for their hard work.
PC piracy has become so rampant that it's clearly beginning to take a significant toll on the industry. Developers are regular people with bills to pay just like everyone else, and when hundreds of thousands or even millions of gamers are stealing games instead of buying them, making PC games simply becomes too unprofitable to sustain. Money does not grow on trees, and game development is a long and costly process.
If you can afford a PC that is powerful enough to play modern games, if you can afford to pay for high-speed internet access that would allow you to download such massive files, and if you can afford to spend many hours of your week relaxing in front of a good videogame—you can afford the meager $50 it costs to buy a new PC game. Game pirates come up with all kinds of rationalizations, from gripes about copy protection to the quality of the games themselves. But playing videogames is a privilege, not a right, and no one is entitled to excuse themselves from paying for a game simply because they don't like the way certain elements of it might be handled.
Does this mean the end of PC gaming as we know it? What kinds of solutions are there to piracy?
Many PC gamers feel that games developed exclusively for the PC tend to offer an experience that is superior to anything available on consoles. Recently, Crysis reinforced this notion with cutting-edge gameplay and graphics, and Cevat Yerli proudly stated that the game could not be ported to consoles due to its highly advanced technology.
Personally, I believe this to be somewhat of a fallacy. I don't buy Yerli's line that Crysis could not be ported to consoles, particularly because it scales well to lower-end PCs that are not even as powerful as modern consoles. This is not to mention the fact that Yerli also stated that Crysis would utilize quad-core processors to great advantage and be faster in DirectX 10, neither of which has held true. And we've seen with titles like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto IV that large, open-ended worlds with complex physics and artificial intelligence are indeed possible on consoles. Even in the previous generation of consoles, we saw a faithful port of the venerable Half-Life 2 to the XBox, with the only concessions being low-res visuals. Indeed, it seems that with today's engine technology, PC gaming's benefits are primarily aesthetic—the ability to play games in much higher resolutions and with greater graphical fidelity than consoles.
As a life-long console gamer, I made the switch to PCs primarily because of the superior graphics, controls, and mod communities—as well as to branch into some new genres that rarely see the light of day on consoles, such as RTS games and MMORPGs. Nearly every major PC game has been ported to consoles successfully, and as consoles have evolved I feel the technological differences are less important from a programming perspective, since modern game engines are designed to be scalable across a variety of platforms. Thus I tend not to believe that PC gaming is suffering because of the increasing focus on multiplatform games. Consoles themselves have far fewer exclusives than in the past, because game development has become too costly in most cases for developers to focus only on one platform. I will be intently watching games like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 later this year to see what kind of impact multiplatform development really has. I suspect enthusiast-level PC gamers' fears will be largely unfounded.
However, there is no denying that PC gaming has in the past always set the pace for gaming technology, and it would be disheartening to see that trend come to an end. And if piracy continues unencumbered, we may see not just fewer and fewer PC exclusives, but fewer multiplatform titles and ports as well; indeed, the entire quality and quantity of PC games could suffer greatly. What can be done?
It seems that as long as torrents are a reality (and they will not be going away anytime soon), piracy will always be a threat. Game developers are forced to create more stringent anti-piracy measures, but these measures have been known to cause problems for some users—some who use this as justification for more piracy! Fortunately, there are a few beacons of hope on the horizon. Mircosoft, nVida, Intel, AMD and others have formed the PC Gaming Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to solving many of the problems PC gaming is facing. Valve, developer of the Half-Life series and the Steam digital distribution platform, has released a set of developer tools called Steamworks that is designed to help developers combat piracy, and indeed a DRM service that functions as a community and distribution service may be the only viable long-term solution to combating piracy; it may not be long before we see an end to retail-box PC games. Certainly the bandwidth of sending a game across the internet is cheaper than manufacturing, packaging and shipping games across the country. With digital distribution, there are no unplayed copies collecting dust on store shelves. Combining the cost-saving measures of digital distribution with better publisher control over DRM and encryption may be PC gaming's best hope.
Ultimately, there will always be some schmucks out there who for some reason feel justified in stealing software. They've done great damage to the PC gaming industry, but the nail is not in the coffin—not by a long shot. On the contrary, there are many in the industry who are not about to take it lying down or fold over like clean laundry. Instead, they are looking for innovative solutions to combat piracy and reinvigorate PC gaming. I'm confident that there are enough people passionate about PC gaming to crush the rampant spread of piracy and breathe new life into the market. Crysis, I think, will not be the last game of its kind.