The PC is king?

November is going to be an exciting month for new things. Will we see some Time War closure? No, Ecclestone wasn’t the Doctor then, which was made very clear all the way back in Rose. What does that mean?

There are also new consoles being released. They are exciting too I guess, even if they don’t ever have good Doctor Who games. Why are they trying to ride the Doctor Who hype with their suspiciously timed launches anyway? Which gets me thinking as to why haven’t they hidden a police box in Assassin’s Creed somewhere? I would.

Oh yeah, consoles. Fancy new processors that are as powerful as some PCs today! 5gb of RAM available to games! It’s such a massive improvement on the dinosaurs that are the 360 and PS3 that we can’t help but have better games as a result. Well, we will when they stop designing them to be cross platform with the last generation at least.

The thing is that my gaming PC is faster than these consoles, and has more memory. The PC is the obvious winner next generation, there’s nothing to hold it back.

Only it’s not that simple. Let’s check the Steam HW survey.

Let’s start with some facts before we get into rampant dodgy speculation. In order to support 5gb of memory being available to games you need a 64bit operating system. A quick look at the survey for September 2013 reveals the following:

PC OS Sep 2013

Limiting my data to OSs that are greater than 1% of the sample size we find that 12.83% are on 32bit Windows 7. 6.96% are still on 32bit Windows XP (and due to become a 100% zombie Trojan platform in a few months) while 2.07% are still on Vista 32bit. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that makes 21.86% of PCs that use Steam can’t access more than a couple of gig of memory. Don’t they know that they are wasting so much of their PCs power? We can check that by looking at how much memory is reported on the survey:

PC Memory Sep 2013

If we total up those numbers for 4gb of RAM and below we get a staggering 53.67% of PCs sampled by Steam don’t have the memory available for a fully maxed out next generation console game. These numbers make the 64bit OS stat make sense, there’s no need for these users to upgrade their OS to 64bit. It also means that a lot of users are running a 64bit OS with no real benefit.

The thing that got me thinking about this was the beta for Battlefield 4, which is 64bit only. The released game will have a 32bit version as well, but assuming that the next generation console version uses all of the RAM it physically can then the 32bit PC version has to be lower quality. The 64bit version can beat the consoles on memory no problem, nearly half of PCs have more memory than them.

This gives developers an interesting quandary. Do they strive to make the PC the best version possible, or do they aim at a full half of the market that can’t fit all of those lovely high res textures into memory? Will they come up with a scaling solution that works out what they can do automatically? Or will we just see better versions of the last gen versions of the games for a while and perhaps less PC ports after that?

There is a serious point to this mindless speculation, which is that PCs have stagnated somewhat recently. There’s been no real drive to push PCs beyond the 32bit barrier as most people really don’t need 4gb or more of memory in their everyday usage and most people don’t need a quad core monster processor to use IE and run Word. Gamers are different, but 50% of gamers aren’t waiting to upgrade their PCs when the next gen consoles come out.

The assumption that the PC is going to be the best version of games still this generation is not exactly guaranteed to be true. Some games will be better, but I think some will be worse as publishers won’t want to throw away half of the potential market.

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One thought on “The PC is king?

  1. Sean Boocock says:

    To reinforce what you have said here, I work on a AAA PC-only game powered by one of the three big production engines (Frostbite, UE, and CryENGINE). Even though we don’t have to worry about console platforms (and especially current gen console platforms) our client is still 32 bit and probably will be for the foreseeable future. We’d love to ship a 64 bit client – it would make our lives easier not having to worry about pushing up against the 32 bit address space limit – but simple economics dictate otherwise. The more you spend on development, the bigger your potential audience has to be in order to recoup that investment and make a profit. Locking out half your audience (and it really far more than half when you get into Asian markets) by shipping only a 64 bit client is a non-starter from a business perspective. When you add in the growth of free-to-play as the primary PC business model moving forward, a business model that requires a large audience to be viable, I think a lot of PC games will be stuck at 32 bits for a while (or at least until a lot of people move off of pirated copies of Windows XP to pirated copies of Windows 7/8 64bit).

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