Let’s reinvent PC gaming!

July 15, 2013

In addition to the decline of PC gaming described in my previous blog post (The Rise and Fall of PC Gaming), the business model of game development is broken for most developers, on both consoles and PCs. They spend millions to build a game. They sell it for $49.99 for a few months, at best, in an ever more hit driven environment dominated by mega-productions. In a way it’s like the movie business. $200+ million blockbusters and low budget horror movies are profitable. Everyone in the middle is getting squeezed and fewer of the smart dramas I would like to see on screen are getting created. This is true with games as well. The mega-productions like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto cost hundreds of millions to make and generate hundreds of millions in sales. Tiny developers, which are often single employee operations, can scrape by with sales on Steam. Everyone in the middle is getting squeezed. As costs are escalating even $100 million games like Eidos’ excellent Tomb Raider often end up losing money. Tomb Raider did not break even despite selling 3.4 million copies! That’s why I blogged a few years ago that despite being a gamer, I don’t work in the gaming industry: http://www.fabricegrinda.com/business-musings/why-i-dont-work-in-the-gaming-industry/.

Notwithstanding the dire tone of my last blog post and this introductory paragraph, there are some bright spots in PC gaming. Steam’s rise to prominence provides real distribution to independent game makers who cannot command shelf space at GameStop. PC games are uniquely positioned to pivot to a different business model. A lot of the costs of building games come from creating a compelling single player campaign. It requires careful scripting, storytelling and often human actors to provide 10-20 hours of entertainment. Yet the multiplayer component of the best games provides hundreds of hours of entertainment to avid players.

As such, I propose that we build PC strategy games with the following approach:

  • Free to download
  • Exclude a single player campaign and any scripted elements
  • Include a tutorial and unlimited single player games against the AI at various difficulty levels on random maps
  • Require a $9.99 / month subscription for online playing of any sort (co-cop comp stomps and multiplayer games)
  • Allow users to play from any computer, but only one person can be logged in at a time per paying account

This approach has multiple advantages:

  • Many people would try the game because it’s free to play the full featured game with all its functionality
  • The lack of campaign lowers the development costs
  • Piracy risks are limited because you need a paid account to play online and you actually want the free version to be as widely distributed as possible
  • Avid fans who really value the game are the ones paying to use it
  • The ongoing revenue stream also allow to cover ongoing improvements and unit balancing

I am toying with the idea of starting a Kickstarter to fund a next generation real time strategy game using this model. The category is currently reasonably small. Starcraft II is probably the only game with high revenues in the category and I find its game mechanic a bit disappointing. The only real innovation has come from Company of Heroes’ tactical unit control, which was revolutionary when it was introduced. That said, I long for a real time strategy game that has the depth of Rise of Nations, which I feel is the best real time strategy game of all times (slightly ahead of Age of Empires II). Unfortunately, the last extension to that Game “Thrones and Patriots” came out in 2004 and Big Huge Games has since disbanded. Likewise Microsoft shuttered Ensemble Studios, the maker of Age of Empires.

I propose to build “Age of Nations” or “Rise of Empires” combining the best elements of Rise of Nations, Age of Empires and Company of Heroes. The features would be as follows:

  • The richness of strategic options of Rise of Nations in terms of number of resources, ages and concepts like borders and attrition
  • The tactical unit control of Company of Heroes where cover, elevation, and angle of attack influence the effectiveness of troops
  • A dynamic environment that can be destroyed like in Company of Heroes
  • Beautiful modern graphics taking advantage of the latest hardware
  • Automatic multiplayer matching for 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 games on par with the one in Starcraft II
  • The ability to create custom multiplayer games with friends with or without AI players
  • The ability in multiplayer games to have multiple people control one faction, either by explicitly splitting roles: one controls troops and the other the economy, or by giving them full control and letting them figure it out
  • If possible, a strong AI that does not need to cheat (but that might be dropped if too expensive)

I am reaching out to Brian Reynolds, the lead designer of Rise of Nations, Bruce Shelley, the lead designer of Age of Empires, and Josh Mosqueira and Quinn Duffy, the lead designers of Company of Heroes to pitch them on the idea and price it out.

If they acquiesce we’ll create a Kickstarter for the project. In the meantime, I bought AgeofNations.com as a precautionary measure :)

I am open to suggestions and feedback!