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Titan Quest - Frustrations of a PC Developer

by Dhruin, 2008-02-28 22:22:04

Michael Fitch - one of THQ's producers on Titan Quest - has let rip with frustrations on PC game development in a post at QT3.  Clearly, the closure of Iron Lore is driving the anger but it's still an interesting read:

Greetings:
So, ILE shut down. This is tangentially related to that, not why they shut down, but part of why it was such a difficult freaking slog trying not to. It's a rough, rough world out there for independent studios who want to make big games, even worse if you're single-team and don't have a successful franchise to ride or a wealthy benefactor. Trying to make it on PC product is even tougher, and here's why.

Piracy. Yeah, that's right, I said it. No, I don't want to re-hash the endless "piracy spreads awareness", "I only pirate because there's no demo", "people who pirate wouldn't buy the game anyway" round-robin. Been there, done that. I do want to point to a couple of things, though.

One, there are other costs to piracy than just lost sales. For example, with TQ, the game was pirated and released on the nets before it hit stores. It was a fairly quick-and-dirty crack job, and in fact, it missed a lot of the copy-protection that was in the game. One of the copy-protection routines was keyed off the quest system, for example. You could start the game just fine, but when the quest triggered, it would do a security check, and dump you out if you had a pirated copy. There was another one in the streaming routine. So, it's a couple of days before release, and I start seeing people on the forums complaining about how buggy the game is, how it crashes all the time. A lot of people are talking about how it crashes right when you come out of the first cave. Yeah, that's right. There was a security check there.

So, before the game even comes out, we've got people bad-mouthing it because their pirated copies crash, even though a legitimate copy won't. We took a lot of shit on this, completely undeserved mind you. How many people decided to pick up the pirated version because it had this reputation and they didn't want to risk buying something that didn't work? Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy.

One guy went so far as to say he'd bought the retail game and it was having the exact same crashes, so it must be the game itself. This was one of the most vocal detractors, and we got into it a little bit. He swore up and down that he'd done everything above-board, installed it on a clean machine, updated everything, still getting the same crashes. It was our fault, we were stupid, our programmers didn't know how to make games - some other guy asked "do they code with their feet?". About a week later, he realized that he'd forgotten to re-install his BIOS update after he wiped the machine. He fixed that, all his crashes went away. At least he was man enough to admit it.

So, for a game that doesn't have a Madden-sized advertising budget, word of mouth is your biggest hope, and here we are, before the game even releases, getting bashed to hell and gone by people who can't even be bothered to actually pay for the game. What was the ultimate impact of that? Hard to measure, but it did get mentioned in several reviews. Think about that the next time you read "we didn't have any problems running the game, but there are reports on the internet that people are having crashes."

Two, the numbers on piracy are really astonishing. The research I've seen pegs the piracy rate at between 70-85% on PC in the US, 90%+ in Europe, off the charts in Asia. I didn't believe it at first. It seemed way too high. Then I saw that Bioshock was selling 5 to 1 on console vs. PC. And Call of Duty 4 was selling 10 to 1. These are hardcore games, shooters, classic PC audience stuff. Given the difference in install base, I can't believe that there's that big of a difference in who played these games, but I guess there can be in who actually payed for them.

Let's dig a little deeper there. So, if 90% of your audience is stealing your game, even if you got a little bit more, say 10% of that audience to change their ways and pony up, what's the difference in income? Just about double. That's right, double. That's easily the difference between commercial failure and success. That's definitely the difference between doing okay and founding a lasting franchise. Even if you cut that down to 1% - 1 out of every hundred people who are pirating the game - who would actually buy the game, that's still a 10% increase in revenue. Again, that's big enough to make the difference between breaking even and making a profit.

Titan Quest did okay. We didn't lose money on it. But if even a tiny fraction of the people who pirated the game had actually spent some god-damn money for their 40+ hours of entertainment, things could have been very different today. You can bitch all you want about how piracy is your god-given right, and none of it matters anyway because you can't change how people behave... whatever. Some really good people made a seriously good game, and they might still be in business if piracy weren't so rampant on the PC. That's a fact.

Enough about piracy. Let's talk about hardware vendors. Trying to make a game for PC is a freaking nightmare, and these guys make it harder all the time. Integrated video chips; integrated audio. These were two of our biggest headaches. Not only does this crap make people think - and wrongly - that they have a gaming-capable PC when they don't, the drive to get the cheapest components inevitably means you've got hardware out there with little or no driver support, marginal adherence to standards, and sometimes bizarre conflicts with other hardware.

And it just keeps getting worse. CD/DVD drives with bad firmware, video cards that look like they should be a step-up from a previous generation, but actually aren't, drivers that need to be constantly updated, separate rendering paths for optimizing on different chips, oh my god. Put together consumers who want the cheapest equipment possible with the best performance, manufacturers who don't give a shit what happens to their equipment once they ship it, and assemblers who need to work their margins everywhere possible, and you get a lot of shitty hardware out there, in innumerable configurations that you can't possibly test against. But, it's always the game's fault when something doesn't work.

Even if you get over the hump on hardware compatibility - and god knows, the hardware vendors are constantly making it worse - if you can, you still need to deal with software conflicts. There are a lot of apps running on people's machines that they're not even aware of, or have become such a part of the computer they don't even think of them as being apps anymore. IM that's always on; peer-to-peer clients running in the background; not to mention the various adware and malware crap that people pick up doing things they really shouldn't. Trying to run a CPU and memory heavy app in that environment is a nightmare. But, again, it's always the game's fault if it doesn't work.

Which brings me to the audience. There's a lot of stupid people out there. Now, don't get me wrong, there's a lot of very savvy people out there, too, and there were some great folks in the TQ community who helped us out a lot. But, there's a lot of stupid people. Basic, basic stuff, like updating your drivers, or de-fragging your hard drive, or having antivirus so your machine isn't a teetering pile of rogue programs. PC folks want to have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want with their machines, and god help them they will do it; more power to them, really. But god forbid something that they've done - or failed to do - creates a problem with your game. There are few better examples of the "it can't possibly be my fault" culture in the west than gaming forums.

And while I'm at it, I don't want to spare the reviewers either. We had one reviewer - I won't name names, you can find it if you look hard enough - who missed the fact that you can teleport from wherever you are in TQ back to any of the major towns you've visited. So, this guy was hand-carting all of his stuff back to town every time his inventory was full. Through the entire game. Now, not only was this in the manual, and in the roll-over tooltips for the UI, but it was also in the tutorial, the very first time you walk past one of these giant pads that lights up like a beacon to the heavens. Nonetheless, he missed it, and he commented in his review how tedious this was and how much he missed being able to portal back to town. When we - and lots of our fans - pointed out that this was the reviewer's fault, not the game's, they amended the review. But, they didn't change the score. Do you honestly think that not having to run back to town all the time to sell your stuff wouldn't have made the game a better experience?

We had another reviewer who got crashes on both the original and the expansion pack. We worked with him to figure out what was going on; the first time, it was an obscure peripheral that was causing the crash, a classic hardware conflict for a type of hardware that very, very few people have. The second time, it was in a pre-release build that we had told him was pre-release. After identifying the problem, getting him around it, and verifying that the bug was a known issue and had been fixed in the interim, he still ran the story with a prominent mention of this bug. With friends like that...

Alright, I'm done. Making PC products is not all fun and games. It's an uphill slog, definitely. I'm a lifelong PC gamer, and hope to continue to work on PC games in the future, but man, they sure don't make it easy.

Best,
Michael.

Information about

Titan Quest

SP/MP: Single + MP
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Hack & Slash
Platform: PC
Release: Released


Details