[The PC Gaming Alliance was established as an organization that would advocate PC gaming and dispel misconceptions about the platform. The new president of the consortium speaks to Gamasutra about its plans and positions.]
Two years ago, the non-profit PC Gaming Alliance was established as an organization that would advocate PC gaming and dispel misconceptions about the platform.
The consortium, which has member companies that create games, software and hardware for both consoles and PC, was meant to act as a unified voice that would address issues like standardization, accessibility, and data collection and analysis related to PC gaming.
But the group has kept a low profile -- outside of the group's annual Horizons report and the occasional announcement of changes to the members lineup, the PCGA has not had much of an outward-facing presence. For PC gamers, it's been difficult to tell what the PCGA has been doing to improve their favorite gaming platform.
Matt Ployhar intends to change that. He's the new president of the PCGA, replacing fellow Intel employee and founding PCGA president Randy Stude. Here, Ployhar, an avid PC gamer, offers the PCGA's stances on piracy and DRM and he also challenges the modern definition of a "PC game."
Ployhar also explains how he and the PCGA plan on combating "industry propaganda" that has tried to "Chicken Little" the PC gaming industry.
Can you start with a little bit of your background? Where does your interest in PC gaming come from?
Matt Ployhar: So I'm currently at Intel, and have been for almost three years. I'm kind of a hybrid strategic graphics planner, if you will. One of the main reasons I came over was to kind of get exposure to hardware, and at that point in time we were actually working on the Larabee project.
And so we obviously sunsetted about this time last year, roughly. While that was going on in parallel, I was also the chairman of the research committee for the PC Gaming dAlliance.
I guess [PCGA] liked what I did, and they said, "Hey, that would be great to take the rein and chair, and to go through an election process, in October." They then nominated me and put me in as the next president to take over for Randy Stude. It could have gone any way, it could have been any board member who would become the president. So I'm flattered, and I'm honored, to take the reins.
Prior to Intel, I was at Microsoft for 12-and-a-half years. When I first started there, I cut my teeth back in the late '90s when I was in the Sidewinder Gaming Devices Group. I did that for about four years, then I was poached and brought over into Microsoft Game Studios when Ed Fries was still at the helm.
Then I was the lead program manager with one of the Test and Tools Team. My direct report [Matt Alderman] actually ran the Microsoft Game Studios Beta Program. And then I also had another test guy that was reporting to me at the time.
I just felt like I'm much more aligned with Windows gaming than I am console gaming, at any level. And the Windows guys for years were trying to get me to move over into the DirectX group. So then I moved over, out of Microsoft Games, to get into Windows Div/DX. And then halfway through the [Microsoft Game Studios] re-org, I went on to my last Microsoft stint, which was a couple years on the Windows 7 planning team.
Intel approached me and said, "Would you be interested in coming over?" and I said, "I'm not looking." If I had stayed, I would have been working on Windows 8. Basically, the rest is history. I just felt like I've got the software thing down, I've been doing it for a long time, now I need to go out and get an idea of what hardware can teach me.
Intel's a fantastic corporation to work for, it's got a lot of similarities and dissimilarities to a company like Microsoft. The size is roughly the same, but they operate very differently.
So the PCGA is -- how to describe it -- low-visibility. I hear from you guys maybe once or twice a year. So, do you think that part of your job is to bring up exposure of PC Gaming Alliance and what it does?
MP: Yeah, so once to twice a year -- that exact sentiment is something, I'm thinking, is one of the immediate aspects to fix. What's interesting here is when the PCGA was founded, almost three years ago, it was sort of when ... there was a lot of companies that just didn't feel like there was still really a champion for PC gaming, there wasn't really a voice or a place to air out things, if you will.
And, so, there was no sanity, etc. And there was also kind of a big, large sentiment to address with what I would call industry propaganda or FUD, right? There are a lot of people running around, Chicken Little-ing it, saying "Oh yeah, the sky is falling, PC gaming is dying, blah, blah, blah."
And I won't say who the source is, but I know who a lot of the research was based off of, and that's just a very narrow point of the whole picture. Holistically, if you step back, there's a bigger picture thing going on.
The PCGA was founded for two reasons. What they did, is they went into the mode, if you will, where they felt like instead of, "OK, it's better going loud and proud and being really vocal and visible," it was kind of like "OK, let's build out a body of research so we've got kind of a belated backup to what we're saying here."
And you can't really do that overnight. People know that you're a real entity, and you're data-driven, and it's not opinions and emotions-based. So really, the biggest thing that they've done, once or twice a year, comes back to that Horizons Report that they've published.
When I came on board, I'm looking at this going "OK, well you guys did really well on the second thing, which was turning around the messaging about the sky is falling." Nothing could be further from the truth. And you've got all these other things that you publish internally for members, like the anti-piracy doc, white paper and guidelines.
There's also additional research that we've got that we don't really talk out. And then, that was one of the things I'm looking at and going, "You guys got all these software best practices, all this stuff, but you don't talk about it." And what happens is a lot of people in the industry kind of have spooled off and they started speculating, and a lot of people started getting these expectations that the PCGA would instantly be able to snap a finger or wave a wand and instantaneously, everything about PC gaming was going to be better. [laughs] You know?
I've really only been at the helm of [the PCGA] technically for three months, and one of those months was obviously over the holidays. So what I did was I started going one on one with all the members, and white boarding it out and saying, "OK, here's what we've done well, here's what we haven't done so well. Let's address people's concerns here. Let's level some expectations. Let's talk about this more. Instead of holding back 90 percent of our cards, and only talking once or twice a year, let's just release something every month."
We've got a ton of things to talk about, and a ton of things that we are already working on. So, better communication, level-setting expectations, outlining what we're going to be doing for 2011. We've got a pretty big announcement coming up for GDC.
The way I look at it or articulate internally, is taking this organization from crawl to walk. This is a marathon, not a sprint. That's where we are today. It's helping and gathering, building things out, so that we can be a lot more public and vocal, and vociferous.
Over the past year or earlier, what would you say that the PCGA has been able to accomplish or change? Or has it been more of an evaluation, a rather lengthy evaluation period, of PC gaming?
MP: I would say the most visible thing is seeing how analyst firms are talking more openly about digital distribution numbers, and talking about how that's replacing retail to a large degree, and acknowledging, "Oh, look. There's an extra couple to three billion dollars that we didn't account for."
Now granted, some of that may have happened automatically. But at the same time, the PCGA probably made it happen sooner. PC gaming is such an extremely dynamic ecosystem.
Externally, you'll notice that people aren't bashing PC gaming nearly at all anymore. And then internally [among PC game companies], I would say we are taking better stock of where we are, and having that self critical, constructive criticism thing going on.
In the coming year and beyond, what are the biggest issues for PC gaming that the PCGA needs to address?
MP: If I have to narrow that down, I think it depends on what discipline you're looking at. From a marketing research angle, I would say the big thing that we need to address is really redefining what the definition of a PC is, and what constitutes a PC game.
I wanted to ask you, too, actually, if you would elaborate on what PC gaming is, because it's becoming vaguer.
MP: Exactly. One of my cohorts up here in the office, I don't know if you know Mike Burrows or not. But he and I had this big whiteboard discussion about this. He said, "It's a shame that they didn't call us the "Gaming Alliance instead of the "PC Gaming Alliance." I said, "Well, look. I inherited this." [laughs] I only had been at this office for about two months. This is what I get to work with.
And I said, "I don't want to get hung up on the semantics, the nomenclature here." When I look at it, the iPhone I'm talking to you on right now is technically a PC. It's got roughly a gigahertz processor. It's got a 32GB-sized hard drive on it. It's got the graphics capability of the PC that I bought roughly about 14 years ago for $2,200, my Micron P/266.
And I'm looking at that and I'm going, "Wow. There are games that I would play on that that I can actually play and look as good on my iPhone. Or an iPad looks better." And this is with an ARM processor and with whatever graphics station they're using in my iPhone. So to change that definition... The way Mike said it is, "Let's emphasize the "P" [in 'PC'] here."
You've got PCs that technically are personal. They fit in your hand. Then you've got PCs that are your notebooks your laptops your iPads, your slates. As you move up the stack then you start getting into your desktops. You also end up with consoles, which I would also call a proprietary PC. People may not like that, but that's technically what they really are.
You crack the console box, there's hard drive, there's a processor, there's a mother board. On and on it goes. So you've got that. Then you've got, even moving further down the stack... You end up with smart TVs. They're coming down the pipe and they are integrating PC guts into them. In a sense, to me, these are all PCs.
You've got all these gray areas. To me, in a sense, a PC game fits all of those categories. Another way of looking at it, another angle, is you've got a screen, a display. Does it matter if it's in a three-inch display, all the way to the 30-foot IMAX screen or whatever it's going to be?
That would be the research angle -- redefining what a PC is, expanding the definition. At the end of the day it's a digital bit. You've got music, you've got movies and you've got games. They can be delivered in different formats and fashions and all that stuff. That's the research angle. In terms of what another issue is that really warrants attention, if you will, is that PC gaming has come leaps and bounds from where it was 15 years ago. But it still has lots of room to grow, in terms of doing a better job, in terms of ease of use.
And in a weird sort of way, some of these things are being fixed with or without anybody's attention. It's just they're getting better. Games are becoming easier to port back and forth across different platforms. Certain controller standards are emerging. But it's one of those things where it's still very nebulous. I would say ease of use is a big challenge.
And [another challenge is] there's also limited access to PC gaming content. You walk into EB Games or GameStop and it's hard to find a PC game, typically. They're really trying to sell where they make their biggest margins -- typically on the console pre-owned game. Access to PC games and awareness is another big issue. Just making PC gaming more profitable to the game developers and publishers is a challenge.
One thing when I spoke with Randy [Stude] a while ago was piracy. You're talking about publishers needing to be able to make a profit on PC. And you see some publishers commenting about how their PC games just get pirated before they're even released a lot of times. What stance does the PCGA have on piracy?
MP: I would love to talk about that. [laughs] There's a lot to say. I don't exactly remember what Randy's quote was. But there is a really good article. I don't know if you can find it off of Google right now. It's on a blog. The guy's name is David Rosen. And the name of the article is Another View of Game Piracy.
But let me expand on that. What's really interesting [according to PCGA research,] is piracy was largely, historically rampant when you had an optical drive or a piece of physical media. And people would go and download the crack for it.
In some cases the crack was done days before the game ever even hit retail shelves. Now what's happening is piracy was so bad in other geographies -- it's kind of bad everywhere but there are certain places where it spikes -- that it was an equation of survival of the fittest. The only PC gaming business models that existed and continued to thrive and that could continue to live were MMOs. They do really well. You can still pirate them but they're an order of magnitude harder to pirate.
And then there are free to play games. You can't really pirate free to play. You can but it doesn't make a lot of sense. So what's happening is game design is shifting and as a result of shifting game design, piracy, at least on the PC side, is actually declining as a result.
There are stats that do corroborate that. ... I'm not saying that piracy is going to go away. It's fascinating to watch. For example, you get a game like Crysis that got hit hard by piracy. Now what you're seeing to combat that or reduce the chances of piracy are developers implementing achievements, in-game pets, all of these things that are tracked and stored in the cloud.
So even if you pirate the game you're still not getting the bragging rights. You've got all these additional mechanisms where the value proposition of the game, where if you pirate it, it's just not going to be as fun.
It's more like a value-add strategy.
MP: Exactly. I think you're just going to see more and more of that take place. Even a Facebook game -- I'll use FarmVille as an example. Here's a game that most people access off their PCs. I use it on my PC and my iPhone. What's interesting is it's a simple, free to play game. They've done a genius job of taking my money, in terms of using the microtransaction.
It's really stupidly simple to do a microtransaction on FarmVille. What's funny is that someone won't pirate the game. What you're seeing is a shift more towards what I would call identity theft. That's what I would say is the next big thing to combat.
The game design is now shifting to combat piracy, but because the value propositions are altering and changing, now you're getting more of increase in the identity theft space.
These retail games, your brick and mortars, are declining, and some of that forcing function was piracy. What's picking up the slack are your Steam accounts, your Wild Tangents, your Orbs, your EA Downloader, your Battle.net.
Even GameStops are now offering digital downloads of a lot of these games. ... It's interesting. I don't think retail goes away. But it's going to continue to diminish in a while now at some point in the future. Piracy has been that forcing function.
What's your stance on DRM, since that's something that PC gamers are very vocal about?
MP: Very vocal, yeah. I actually out got Slashdotted recently for something I said in some other article, it's funny. We've got [DRM providers] Sony [DADC] and Arxan that are part of the PCGA. DRM, I don't know what its future is.
...I don't have, honestly, a great answer for all my fellow gamers out there in the world to "what is DRM's role in the future?" But you have to take a low level approach [to protecting IP] that's not invasive or going to detract from the gaming experience. Again, there's no instant fix. We can't snap our fingers and wave our wands, so instantaneously that problem goes away, because you're always going to have retail to some level.
And to expand on the DRM thing, there is an interesting thing going on where I've heard of people -- I won't mention names -- who one of the first things that they'll do is they'll go crack the retail copy that they bought and load it onto a drive. And that way they can take it to any other PC that they've bought.
And the driving factor there is, that they want the extra level of flexibility that comes along with that, when you don't need that disc spinning in your optical drive. ... But they still legitimately bought the game, right?
But then, they're downloading this hack, which is going to light up in some of these forums, "Oh, there are 50,000 downloads of XYZ crack." And I'm like, "Well, yeah, but some percentage of those are from people who legitimately bought the retail box for that, they just want the extra flexibility that you would get, almost as if it was digitally downloaded." It's a weird perspective, but it happens.
One thing that, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have over the PC is that they have the family room TV. And obviously I can and I do hook up my PC to my big screen TV.
MP: Yeah, I do too.
But most people don't, and a lot of people don't have the capability or knowledge to do that. What else can the PC gaming industry do to make PC gaming friendlier for TVs?
MP: It's interesting that you bring that up for two reasons. Reason one is, with my PCGA hat on here, the living room strategy is something which several of our partners and founders have always wanted. And now that I'm on board I'm going to be looking at this very seriously. Because there is no reason why you can't use PC gaming in the living room. You hit the nail on the head. It's an awareness thing.
It used to be more difficult to configure. I was on the Windows 7 planning team, and I think Microsoft has done a better job over the last however many years it's been since Vista and Windows 7 of getting to that plug and play experience of, "OK. I've got my laptop, my Alienware or my Dell here sitting in front of me, I have my HDMI cable, a modern, high-definition TV that has an HDMI input."
If you're playing WoW or StarCraft II ... I use a thing called a "lappy." It sits in my lap as a laptop. You could do it where you've got your mouse and keyboard there as your inputs. And my HDMI cable strings up behind my back to my 82" projector.
It comes back to an ease of use thing. [The challenge is] just how to get the message out there. That'll be something that I start doing inside the PCGA -- to build that additional consumer awareness for that living room scenario.
Again, we have no instant fixes, but I've got some really cool things that we're going to be announcing and bringing into play, to really start giving us a lot more traction. So I'm excited.