From the Outside Wanting In: The PC

In my last two articles in this series, I focused on two heavily closed systems, XBox Indie Games and iPhone Games. Those systems have specific dev kits and a single source of distribution. The PC is vastly different. There is no central point of contact for game development. There is no single distribution source. The possibilities of PC development is wide and one could write a good number of articles and possibly books about development and marketing games on the PC.

In the interest of your sanity, I will focus on only a few key elements and won’t go into too much detail.

First I would like to discuss the two main types of games people associate with their Personal Computers, Executable Games and Browser Games. Executable Games are those that are installed on the player’s PC and run through the OS. These are the types of games that players generally purchase from retail or from download services such as Steam and Impulse. Web games are those that can only be played inside the browser. They do not normally require the player to install anything outside of general plugins such as Flash and Unity.

Executable Games

There is no single way to develop an executable game. The number of libraries, SDKs and engines available to PC developers are astounding. Many are available free of charge while others require licensing fees. Choosing one often requires the developer to make other choices such as supported Operating Systems and potential porting to other platforms.

As an independent developer, my goal is to spend as little money as possible in choosing the tools and technology to develop games. So the lower the cost the better for me. Let’s take a look at some of the licensed technologies you can use to develop PC games:

  • XNA – I have already discussed XNA in terms of making games for the XBox 360. But the same tools and licensing can be used to create executable PC games. You still have to pay for the Creators Club license in order to create the games, but that is only $100 a year. These games can only be played on Windows PCs so if your interested in making your games available for Mac or Linux, this may not be the best choice. However, games created for PC using XNA can easily be ported to the Xbox 360. Games developed in XNA are coded with C#.
  • Unity – Unity Recently made their Indie License available for free. So no reason to purchase a license as long as your project falls within the parameters of the Indie License. Similar to XNA, programming for this Engine is done in C#. This engine has the advantage of being Cross Platform for Windows, Mac and Web.
  • Unreal – Epic recently announced the release of their Unreal Development Kit. This free game development kit allows anyone to create stand alone games with the Unreal Engine. Unfortunately this license is limited for non-commercial projects and if you expect to sell your game you have to agree to one of several licenses. Fortunately, you can license it on a royalty basis. This license is purchased with a $99 upfront fee and 25% royalty on all sales after the first $5,000. Games created with Unreal are Windows only.
  • Torque – Garage Games’ Torque Game Builder comes in a variety of flavors. The Cheapest option is the Torque 2D builder for $250. Torque also has support for cross platform games for Windows and Mac and also has native support for creating projects for the Wii and Xbox 360. While you would still need to become a licensed developer for the Wii or 360, the capability of easy porting of your PC games is a huge Plus. If you want to develop your Torque games in 3D the licensing fee increases to $1000.

If however you want to roll your own engine, there are a number of free SDKs out there to choose from. This path however will considerably increase your development time. Technologies you can use for this path include but are not limited to:

  • Direct X – Microsoft’s proprietary SDK for developing games for Windows. This extensive library of C++ classes has everything from graphics rending, movie playback, input and output control, sound and networking. It is an impressive suite of tools that you can use in creating games for Windows.
  • Open GL – Open GL is an Open Source graphics library that has cross platform support for Windows, Mac and Linux. When partnered up with other open source libraries such as Open AL, it can be quite complete and allow you to do many of the things that Direct X can do. Its cross platform support allows you to easily create games for most all PC users.

Those are just some of the many technologies available for PC game developers. Each has its pros and cons and it really falls down to what your needs are when determining which is the right one for you.

Browser Games

Browser Games are similar to Executable games in their technology options. There are a number of commercial engines available for development on the web as well as browser standard development options.

Here are some of the Commercial Engines for Browser Development:

  • Flash – Flash is the most common licensed tool available for web game developers. A commercial Flash License will run you $700. This is a proprietary technology and uses Adobe’s Actionscript 3 language for development. Games developed in Flash require that the players have the Adobe Flash plugin installed in order to play. It is possible to develop games for Flash with out the requirement of purchasing the Flash IDE.
  • Unity – The Indie License of Unity as described above allows the developer to export their games for play in browsers that have the Unity Player plugin installed
  • Torque – Only the Torque 3D license allows the developer to export for play in the browser.

Aside for developing games using the technologies listed it is also possible to develop games using simply a combination of HTML, CSS and Javascript. Many games found on Social Networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace use these technologies. Using this combination also has the advantage of not requiring a plugin for the players to access your game.

That is merely a brief description of some of the technologies one can use to develop games for the PC. So what do you do once you decide on the technology? Where do you go from there?

Monetizing a PC Game

After choosing your technologies, the next step is to decide on how you expect to make your money, or how your plan to monetize your work. As I mentioned near the beginning, it is not as easy as it is for iPhone and XBox Indie Games. There is no single channel of distribution. So you really need to think it through.The most common forms of Monetization of PC games are as follows:

  • Direct Sales – Selling the game directly to the public is the most common form of monetization for any game. For the indie PC game developer, there are a number of channels you can use to get your game out to the public. The most common digital distribution system used is Steam. Steam has some very favorable terms and technologies you can use to sell and track your game. There are also other popular platforms such as Impulse and Greenhouse. Each distribution platform offers varying terms and fees. As an indie developer retail is most likely not an option without a partnership with a publisher or distributor.
  • Subscriptions – Most MMOs have gain their money from subscription fees paid on a regular basis, most often monthly. This method of monetization is not normally found outside of MMOs. These fees while bringing in revenue are often used to pay for the costs of running the servers necessary to host the game that the players enjoy.
  • Microtransactions – Microtransactions consist of selling bits and pieces of the game to the players. These can be anything from items, equipment, levels, new skins, pets etc. This form of monetization has taken off quite recently with the popularity of Free to Play games and social games.
  • Advertisements – The ability to monetize games through selling advertising space is no longer unique to PC games. Console game developers have also dabbled in this as well. In games however, advertisements are mostly the realm of Browser Games. These can be ads that display before the player can play as well as ads that appear around the game screen. It is also possible to embed ads directly in the game as well.

It is quite common for a game developer to utilize more than one monetization method in a game. For example, WoW sells their game and expansions directly to the player and they also charge a monthly subscription to be able to play the game. Another example would be many browser games that sell microtransactions while also employing ads on the page hosting the game.

Marketing Your PC Game

After choosing how you plan on monetizing your game, it is time to think of how to get the game players to find your game. One thing about the PC market is that its player base is extremely fragmented. Not all PC owners play games from the same source. Getting their attention can often be quite difficult. Here are a number of things for you to consider when marketing your game:

  • A Website – You want a well designed website for your company and game. This will allow anyone interested in your game to find information easily. You want to post everything you can on here to help keep people excited. Examples of things you can post are screen shots, videos, developer diaries, etc. Keep the content interesting and relevant and post updates on a regular basis. You can also include a forum and blog to allow potential players to discuss what you are doing.
  • Contact the Press – Send out press releases to gaming news sites. Try to target web sites that focus on the type of game you are making. There are a number of indie game sites that love to hear from new developers. When you contact the press, make sure you include embedded images or links to images. Always include contact information for you and your company, including a link to your website.
  • Buy Advertising Space – This may be out of the budget for most indie game developers, but it is possible to find good deals for advertising. Be cautious when going this route as it is possible to drain your marketing budget rather quickly.
  • Utilize Social Media – Start a Twitter feed for your company or game. Create a Myspace or Facebook Page for your game. Post updates regularly and include links back to your site. There are a large number of people on these sites that will follow you and want to learn more about your game.
  • Communicate – Communicate with your customers as well as the press. It doesn’t matter who is asking the question just answer it. Even if the person asking is not an editor for a major news site, they still have friends that they will talk to about your game. By communicating with the customer, you will be able to instill a greater excitement for your game and increase the chances of them spreading the word about it.

Utilizing all these methods will greatly increase your chances of success. The failure of many projects often boils down to the lack of marketing.

Is PC Development Right For Me?

All this said, PC development is a complicated decentralized process. The amount of choices and possibilities for development and distribution is staggering. There is no central authority controlling anything from quality to prices. It is a free for all unlike anything found on any other platform. In this dog eat dog world of game development there are many project casualties ranging from incomplete projects to product failures.

Yet, The possibilities are just as great. The successes of Everquest and WoW has started a slew of projects that hope to become the next great MMORPG. Their success has also resulted in a number of popular MMOs that are content with not being #1 but still provide an excellent game for their customers. Facebook has brought huge success to companies such as Playfish and Zynga. These companies have done many great things in the realms of microtransactions and social game design. As well, many popular game development studios such as id and Epic made their start on PC.

But you have to do most of the work yourself. The iPhone and XBox Indie Games have that specific process for development, submission and distribution. The rules are set in those platforms but not so for PC development. The developer is responsible for quality control, distribution and monetization.

Out of the three platforms reviewed, PC development requires the most amount of work and planning. But that does not negate the potential for success. It is there but you have to play your cards right.

Out of the three platforms reviewed, PC has the most wide ranging costs associated with it. It can go from considerably cheaper than iPhone and XBox Indie Games to considerably more. As a PC owner and holder of a Flash Professional License, this would be my cheapest option of the three.