March 20, 2008


Alex St. John: "Consoles as We Know Them are Gone"

Last week, Tim Sweeney made some dire predictions regarding the overall future of the PC as a gaming platform. On TGDaily, he was widely quoted saying things like 'PCs are good for anything, just not games.'Alex St. John disagrees, sort of.Alex St. John is co-founder and CEO of WildTangent. Before he founded the company in 1998, he was one of the writers and essential in the creation of Microsoft's DirectX libraries. St. John was also Microsoft's 'games evangelist' and pushed the PC and Windows as a key gaming platform.St. John's current endeavor concentrates on online and downloadable gaming for Internet-connected PCs. The company allows players to play games in several ways by offering free, ad-supported sessions, sessions paid for by gamers via 'WildCoins' micropayments, and through full game purchases. A front-end gaming portal, referred to by WildTangent as a 'console' even though it's PC-based, offers both casual and enthusiast-quality games through a simple interface.WildTangent plans to release the Orb, a new PC-based 'console,' in April, and offer its lineup of indie games plus games from major publishers like Sierra, THQ, and more.We interviewed Alex St. John to get his take on the future of gaming. St. John believes, among other things, that the console is doomed, and that PC gaming is due for a renaissance.ExtremeTech: I understand that at WildTangent, you're working hard on the Orb, which is technically a console for the PC. Now, Epic Games' Tim Sweeney, I'm sure you heard, put forth a very widely posted quote, 'PCs are good for anything, just not games.' That was taken out of context; he'd been asked about mainstream computers that lack graphics and audio power. How do you react to that quote?Alex St. John: I've known Tim Sweeney a long time, and he makes a very important point. To be clear, PCs are fantastic gaming platforms, in spite of Intel and Microsoft. And they should absolutely be pinioned for the stupid stuff they've done to make the PC not as good a gaming platform as it would inherently be without their help screwing it up.And so the shame of it is, the PC's a fantastic gaming platform, superior to anything anybody's every imagined, superior to every console, and Microsoft and Intel put crap in the PC that make it not so good. And so if you see a PC that is not denuded by things interfering with it by Microsoft and Intel, in many cases like an Intel crappy graphics chip, or a bloated Vista operating system, it's a fantastic gaming platform. And the shame is, if the low end of the PC market, the mass market PCs that everybody buys did not come with these crappy graphics chips on them and was not burdened with a fat OS, that the PC would be a larger contiguous gaming platform than all the next-generation consoles combined, probably would be clearly superior; the PC is the home of the most profitable game in history generating more revenue than the top 10 console games combined-that's World of Warcraft generating a 1.2 billion dollars a year in revenue, that's a pure PC game.So it is clear that PC gaming absolutely killed [the market] in terms of revenue, killed it in terms of consumer usage-the average console gamer, according to Powers Associates, spends more time playing PC games than console games.ET: Really?ASJ: Yep, they do. They spend more money on the console, but again that's Microsoft's and Intel's fault.ET: How is this Microsoft and Intel's fault?ASJ: Two problems. Two really simple ones. The first one is that, from many points of view, Microsoft and Intel come from an enterprise background. They're enterprise-centric. So in many respects the consumer market, from their point of view, is an after market for stuff really designed for the enterprise. And the consequence of that is in many cases subtle but important. Because what it means is that game and media support and keeping the operating system out of the way is secondary to, in many cases, silly security infrastructure and a lot of useless OS junk that impedes the real-time performance of games unnecessarily.The second thing, in Intel's case is, they ship the cheapest, crappiest graphics chip they can as the commodity component-they push the OEMs to do that, because really what they want to do is sell that big Intel chip, the processor, if they can, because that's really where their core expertise is; from an enterprise perspective, GPU is kind of an afterthought.ET: Intel's been saying for years that Intel graphics chips are going to improve fivefold, tenfold, whatever. Do you actually see a future where they do?ASJ: I believe that both Intel and AMD have very sincere and significant efforts to dramatically bring up the graphics capabilities of their next generation chips, and I think the architecture that they are moving towards could be incredible. Literally revolutionary for PC gaming. Of course, Intel has got it down-you can bet on them necessarily getting it right, but the story and the people working on it are very sincere, and the story, I believe, is a very strong one.So certainly Intel is producing a new generation of chips that have CPU and GPU on the same die which share access to the cache-the L1 cache-coming out in maybe 2009. Those chips should have two interesting capabilities. They should theoretically, in terms of traditional Direct3D performance, be maybe five to ten times faster than the current chips on the market, but they may also have some graphics capabilities that don't exist anywhere on the market because of the change in architecture.Because unifying the GPU with the CPU can produce dramatically faster vector processing and shared rendering performance between the CPU and GPU, so guys like Tim Sweeney will probably have to build their game engines, or may increasingly build their game engines, in entirely different ways than they used to in order to take advantage of the different architecture.And Intel and AMD are planning on putting those chips into their mainstream consumer laptops, and although it's going to take a year or two for that to happen, it's still going to happen in an era in which the existing generation of consoles are well obsolete, they're slow, they haven't improved in performance in five years, they're nearing the edge of their lifespan, and consumer PCs shipping in that area, including the laptops, could have equal to or superior gaming capabilities. So you can say that certainly the intention appears to be in the right place.ET: So we'll hope...ASJ: We'll hope. I'm excited by the vision that Intel is expressing, and I'm an engineer; the architecture they're talking about, if they execute it well, could bring a fantastic revolution or renaissance in PC gaming. It's a long overdue fundamental change to PC architecture.ET: Now, Mr. Sweeney, and also the God of War: Chains of Olympus studio head, Didier Malenfant, indicated enthusiasm for the next generation of consoles-not next-gen consoles as they're referred to now, but the following generation. Now when I spoke to you at Game Developer's Conference, you predicted that the current generation of consoles would be the last. Who's correct here?ASJ: It's a heretical thing to say, but I have a damn good point. First of all, it's not crazy to point out many, major console failures in history completely destroyed the company and stymied the console market for years. Sega and Colecovision being two of the classic ones. They were leaders, everything they did-they could do no wrong, and boom, they're gone.And the thing that's interesting in this era, that I think is significant, is that Sony and Microsoft severely overextended themselves. Burned themselves. Burned more money than they could ever hope to get back on these consoles. Even if the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 are wild successes, they will never get their money back.Billions of dollars. Billions of dollars. And, to say that they will have-for one, to say that they will be eager to do that to themselves anytime soon, is highly improbable, which means that this generation of consoles could be in the market as the only generation of consoles available for a very long time.Second, who are the guys making money in the console space? Nintendo! They shipped off the shelf, cheapo, ATI video chips! And they're killing it! And the reason is that Nintendo correctly observes that graphics is no longer a differentiating feature; it's a commodity. The feature of the Nintendo [Wii] is a new type of game mechanic, enabled by a new controller. And so what that says is that graphics has become a commodity. As we talked about on the PC, all PCs are gonna have great graphics compared to a console, in many cases; the Japanese and Microsoft aren't going to engineer a superior graphics chip in the future than one you can buy from ATI or Nvidia; it's never gonna happen again. For Sony or Microsoft to go and design their own graphics chip would be lunacy in the next generation.So that means that if there is another generation, it's gotta be about either input devices, or online community. Graphics will just be good everywhere. And if it's about community, that puts the console out of business. Because why the hell does Wal-Mart want to sell a money-losing loss leader device, when all the valuable content will be tied to online services and subscriptions and downloadable stuff? So for all the talk about downloadable content on the console, the console depends on the retail channel for that market to be valuable, and the retailer, if they don't get a cut of that, is going to say why the hell am I trying to sell these consoles at a loss for?ET: True...there were rumors last year that the next PlayStation would not have an optical drive. Everything would be downloaded.ASJ: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good-that's a very interesting-and here's another point. Why is World of Warcraft the most profitable game on the PC?ET: Community.ASJ: Yeah, but what makes it so profitable? There are a lot of community games out there. What is it about a massive multiplayer game that makes it make so much revenue? Is it just community?ET: Why don't you tell me?ASJ: There's one very important feature: DRM. You can't f---ing steal the thing.ET: Ah. Gotcha.ASJ: You can't pirate a community. So an MMO has two properties that make it hugely valuable. One is community; frankly, that's almost secondary. The truth is, you can't steal a community-based game. And because you can't steal it, you get all the revenue from it. All a console is is a giant DRM device. A console's job is not to enable you to play games, but to stop you from playing games you didn't pay for. If a console goes online, and plays community based games, its primary value, the reason Microsoft and Sony make the console and get a third of all the revenue, because they control the DRM and security. It's irrelevant if the games are community based games. The developers don't need their DRM and community; therefore, what idiot would share revenue with them?You just make PC community games you're gonna reach everybody, because the average console gamer plays more PC games than console games-they have a PC-so again, you're out of business.A real migration from CD games to online games would break the console business model, so you either have to make up an entirely new one, or believe that consoles as we know them are gone.