Indie Developer’s Response to the PCGA (Updated)

Matt Ployhar, President of the PCGA

Recently, the PC Gaming Alliance’s (PCGA) new president, Matt Ployhar, held an interview with Gamasutra. While over all the interview was pretty good, it was riddled with fluff and non answers. Granted, Gamasutra interviewer, Kris Graft, didn’t ask some of the tough questions I would have asked, he did ask some that I felt deserved more concrete answers.

So in response, I would like to run down the full list of questions and his answers and respond accordingly.

Can you start with a little bit of your background? Where does your interest in PC gaming come from?

Matt Ployhar: So I’m currently at Intel, and have been for almost three years. I’m kind of a hybrid strategic graphics planner, if you will. One of the main reasons I came over was to kind of get exposure to hardware, and at that point in time we were actually working on the Larabee project.

I just felt like I’m much more aligned with Windows gaming than I am console gaming, at any level. And the Windows guys for years were trying to get me to move over into the DirectX group. So then I moved over, out of Microsoft Games, to get into Windows Div/DX. And then halfway through the [Microsoft Game Studios] re-org, I went on to my last Microsoft stint, which was a couple years on the Windows 7 planning team.

So far so good. Someone who is aware of PC gaming both from the hardware and software side of things. So what will this background provide as incite in the area?

So the PCGA is — how to describe it — low-visibility. I hear from you guys maybe once or twice a year. So, do you think that part of your job is to bring up exposure of PC Gaming Alliance and what it does?

MP: Yeah, so once to twice a year — that exact sentiment is something, I’m thinking, is one of the immediate aspects to fix. What’s interesting here is when the PCGA was founded, almost three years ago, it was sort of when … there was a lot of companies that just didn’t feel like there was still really a champion for PC gaming, there wasn’t really a voice or a place to air out things, if you will.

And, so, there was no sanity, etc. And there was also kind of a big, large sentiment to address with what I would call industry propaganda or FUD, right? There are a lot of people running around, Chicken Little-ing it, saying “Oh yeah, the sky is falling, PC gaming is dying, blah, blah, blah.”

The PCGA was founded for two reasons. What they did, is they went into the mode, if you will, where they felt like instead of, “OK, it’s better going loud and proud and being really vocal and visible,” it was kind of like “OK, let’s build out a body of research so we’ve got kind of a belated backup to what we’re saying here.”

I am going to have to agree here. The PCGA, despite its stated mission, was not living up to gamer or even game developer expectations. We were expecting a lot more proactiveness from the PCGA and what we got was a handful of press releases.

Mr. Ployhar wants to turn that around and increase the amount of discourse with the public.

Over the past year or earlier, what would you say that the PCGA has been able to accomplish or change? Or has it been more of an evaluation, a rather lengthy evaluation period, of PC gaming?

MP: I would say the most visible thing is seeing how analyst firms are talking more openly about digital distribution numbers, and talking about how that’s replacing retail to a large degree, and acknowledging, “Oh, look. There’s an extra couple to three billion dollars that we didn’t account for.”

Now granted, some of that may have happened automatically. But at the same time, the PCGA probably made it happen sooner. PC gaming is such an extremely dynamic ecosystem.

Externally, you’ll notice that people aren’t bashing PC gaming nearly at all anymore. And then internally [among PC game companies], I would say we are taking better stock of where we are, and having that self critical, constructive criticism thing going on.

This is something I take issue with. First he claims that more people are talking about digital sales and how that effects sales reports. I have yet to see this. Every NPD report I see only has boxed sales numbers in it. No where is any kind of information on the amount of sales and revenue made through Valve’s Steam or Stardock’s Impulse or any one of the dozens of digital distribution portals. Nowhere is there any information on the revenue of players of Facebook or Kongregate games that millions of people play every day. The most we get from them is 3rd party Monthly Active User quotas. So where are these people who are talking about this missing $3 billion? The closest I can find are analyst giving their estimations of that revenue.

Perhaps it is time for the PCGA to flex its muscles and convince these platforms to share some data with the public.

As for the bashing, It is still happening. Recently 3 high profile games were torrented before release and who is to blame? The PC Gaming community. Not the people who stole the copies before release and put them online, but the people who downloaded the pirated goods. Do the people who downloaded the games share some responsibility? Yes, but the brunt of the publishers wrath should be placed on the person who made it possible to download those games in the first place.No, not the inventors of torrents, I am talking about the actual thieves who stole early copies of the game for the purpose of releasing them early.

There is also the the treatment of the PC gaming community by major publishers. Almost all major publishers treat their potential customers like thieves in the making. They riddle their games with DRM in the hopes of preventing paying customers from turning into pirates? Does that make any sense to anyone?

We’ll get back to this in a moment.

In the coming year and beyond, what are the biggest issues for PC gaming that the PCGA needs to address?

MP: If I have to narrow that down, I think it depends on what discipline you’re looking at. From a marketing research angle, I would say the big thing that we need to address is really redefining what the definition of a PC is, and what constitutes a PC game.

I wanted to ask you, too, actually, if you would elaborate on what PC gaming is, because it’s becoming vaguer.

MP: Exactly. One of my cohorts up here in the office, I don’t know if you know Mike Burrows or not. But he and I had this big whiteboard discussion about this. He said, “It’s a shame that they didn’t call us the “Gaming Alliance instead of the “PC Gaming Alliance.” I said, “Well, look. I inherited this.” [laughs] I only had been at this office for about two months. This is what I get to work with.

And I said, “I don’t want to get hung up on the semantics, the nomenclature here.” When I look at it, the iPhone I’m talking to you on right now is technically a PC. It’s got roughly a gigahertz processor. It’s got a 32GB-sized hard drive on it. It’s got the graphics capability of the PC that I bought roughly about 14 years ago for $2,200, my Micron P/266.

Yeah, he goes on like this for a while. Basically every device that is capable of playing games is a PC to this guy and he would rather see the PCGA turn into another ESA than anything useful. At least that is the impression I get.

When the PCGA was founded, I was under the impression that they were going to focus on strictly the Personal Computer. You know, the thing that sits at your desk with a keyboard and mouse and the monitor and such. Not everything is a PC in that since. We want someone who will support PC gaming as it is and always has been. We don’t need them to start shoehorning in console and mobile games into its mission.

In further response to the above question:

And [another challenge is] there’s also limited access to PC gaming content. You walk into EB Games or GameStop and it’s hard to find a PC game, typically. They’re really trying to sell where they make their biggest margins — typically on the console pre-owned game. Access to PC games and awareness is another big issue. Just making PC gaming more profitable to the game developers and publishers is a challenge.

Finally some sense in that response. This should be a prime focus of the PCGA. Unfortunately, the efforts of the PC games industry to treat their paying customers as thieves is the primary reason Gamestop puts all the PC games they sell on a single end cap. The fact that the DRM that riddles the PC games that can be sold in stores prevents players from trading older games they don’t play for new games they will is the primary reason gamestop won’t fill their shelves with them.

So what will the PCGA do about that?

One thing when I spoke with Randy [Stude] a while ago was piracy. You’re talking about publishers needing to be able to make a profit on PC. And you see some publishers commenting about how their PC games just get pirated before they’re even released a lot of times. What stance does the PCGA have on piracy?

MP: I would love to talk about that. [laughs] There’s a lot to say. I don’t exactly remember what Randy’s quote was. But there is a really good article. I don’t know if you can find it off of Google right now. It’s on a blog. The guy’s name is David Rosen. And the name of the article is Another View of Game Piracy.

But let me expand on that. What’s really interesting [according to PCGA research,] is piracy was largely, historically rampant when you had an optical drive or a piece of physical media. And people would go and download the crack for it.

In some cases the crack was done days before the game ever even hit retail shelves. Now what’s happening is piracy was so bad in other geographies — it’s kind of bad everywhere but there are certain places where it spikes — that it was an equation of survival of the fittest. The only PC gaming business models that existed and continued to thrive and that could continue to live were MMOs. They do really well. You can still pirate them but they’re an order of magnitude harder to pirate.

And then there are free to play games. You can’t really pirate free to play. You can but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. So what’s happening is game design is shifting and as a result of shifting game design, piracy, at least on the PC side, is actually declining as a result.

Here is some more sane thinking from this guy. This back and forth between quackery and sanity is really annoying. But that aside, it is nice to see someone bring up that providing value to the customers is better than beating them over the head with DRM when it comes to fighting piracy. Free to Play games and MMOs are very good at preventing a lot of piracy. It is not perfect, but no system is. There are just some people who are inherently dishonest and refuse to pay for games. So why waste your efforts fighting them? why not focus on what paying customers want?

What’s your stance on DRM, since that’s something that PC gamers are very vocal about?

MP: Very vocal, yeah. I actually out got Slashdotted recently for something I said in some other article, it’s funny. We’ve got [DRM providers] Sony [DADC] and Arxan that are part of the PCGA. DRM, I don’t know what its future is.

…I don’t have, honestly, a great answer for all my fellow gamers out there in the world to “what is DRM’s role in the future?” But you have to take a low level approach [to protecting IP] that’s not invasive or going to detract from the gaming experience. Again, there’s no instant fix. We can’t snap our fingers and wave our wands, so instantaneously that problem goes away, because you’re always going to have retail to some level.

And to expand on the DRM thing, there is an interesting thing going on where I’ve heard of people — I won’t mention names — who one of the first things that they’ll do is they’ll go crack the retail copy that they bought and load it onto a drive. And that way they can take it to any other PC that they’ve bought.

And the driving factor there is, that they want the extra level of flexibility that comes along with that, when you don’t need that disc spinning in your optical drive. … But they still legitimately bought the game, right?

But then, they’re downloading this hack, which is going to light up in some of these forums, “Oh, there are 50,000 downloads of XYZ crack.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, but some percentage of those are from people who legitimately bought the retail box for that, they just want the extra flexibility that you would get, almost as if it was digitally downloaded.” It’s a weird perspective, but it happens.

This is interesting. While he does make a genuine effort at explaining the current situation, he does nothing to explain what the PCGA’s stance on DRM is and whether they are willing to get publishers to stop treating their customers like criminals and giving them the flexibility that cracking a game provides. Computer games are the only software I have ever used that required the person running it to have a disk in the drive. No other software requires it. I can pay $800 for a copy of Flash and Adobe does not require me to put the disk in the drive every time I want to work on a game. I can pay $2000 for a copy of 3D Studio Max and I don’t have to put the disk in the drive. Yet, if I pay $60 for a computer game, I have to put the disk in the drive to play it. This makes no sense whatsoever.

So will the PCGA be a driving factor in making that possible? From the answer provided here, it is not likely.

So that is what we have here. A lot of talk and a lot of of dancing around major issues.

There are some things that I would really like to see asked that Gamasutra is not all that interested in. One thing I would like to ask is if the PCGA is going to bring in Apple and some representatives of the Linux gaming. Apple has really expanded their gaming side in recent years and they are not listed as a member organisation. Linux is a growing platform and recent sales, like the Humble Indie Bundle, show that Linux gamers are out there and want to pay for quality gaming. So will the PCGA expand their focus to include Apple and Linux PCs or are they going to settle with Windows only? That would explain to me their relevance if they would explain that.

Update: It has come to my attention that both Microsoft and NVidia have left the PCGA. These are probably the two most important companies for the group as 1 is the largest OS producer and the otehr is one of the best graphics chips producers. What does this mean for the PCGA? Well, Mr. Ployhar seems openly optimistic about the situation:

Ployhar told Big Download in a brief phone interview that he doesn’t feel that the departures will affect the PCGA, He also told us that he is moving the organization away from just being a group that does research and issues reports on the industry to a group that will be more active in trying to assist game developers, publishers and hardware companies make better PC games. In a post on Ployhar’s Intel blog, he states, “Another key thing we’ll be doing is creating a more technical based advisory board that you’ll all be hearing more about very soon. We’re doing this to flesh out the PCGA’s technical expertise while simultaneously addressing perceived gaps in membership.”

I certainly don’t want to consider this a harbinger of doom for the group, but it really shows that the PCGA is not a high priority for two large and very influential companies in the PC gaming industry.