Illustrations by Marsh Davies
All week long, we're peering ahead to what the future holds for the PC gaming industry . Not just the hardware and software in our rigs, but how and where we use them, and how they impact the games we play. Here's part two of our five-part series; stay tuned all week for more from the future of PC gaming.
The future of PC gaming is online. So is the present, actually—Twitch livestreams and massive League of Legends tournaments are already integral pieces of the PC gaming community. As the audiences for livestreams and eSports surge over the next few years, our broadband infrastructure's going to be hard-pressed to keep up. Here's our look at what the future holds for online gaming: bigger and better eSports, the culture of livestreaming, and the slow spread of fiber Internet that could hold us back from our gigabit dreams.
Esports: Making hardcore games accessible
By Rob Zacny
Open up Twitch at any time of day or night, and the odds are good that you'll find a competitive gaming stream from somewhere in the world. An insomniac or early-riser might greet the day with an evening StarCraft or League of Legends broadcast from Korea. Take a break from a dull workday, and you might find a Dota 2 tournament in Eastern Europe or a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive match taking place in Sweden or Germany. You can watch the latest matches in Riot's League of Legends Championship Series with dinner, where the best players in Europe and the United States are showcased with production values that rival or surpass some TV broadcasts of more traditional sports.
Esports are global in a way that few traditional sports are. They transcend national borders, language barriers, and markets. They are also defined by their allegiance to hardcore PC gaming. While mainstream gaming was becoming increasingly focused on mass-market blockbusters, eSports celebrated deeper experiences that rewarded skill, commitment, and cooperation. Thanks to eSports, PC gamers around the world can play demanding RTS games, MOBAs, and shooters with a community of millions.
That has had tremendously exciting implications for PC gaming. There was a time, just five or six years ago, when it seemed like high-skill ceilings were about to be permanently lowered in favor of accessibility and mass market appeal. You didn't have to be a professional gamer to be depressed about the disappearance of fast-based twitch shooters in favor of slower, ostensibly more realistic military shooters, or the shrinking RTS genre.
This is always the anxiety behind “dumbing-down” complaints: some of us want more. You don't have to play games where you spend hours studying build orders, working on tactics, and coordinating with friends. But it's nice to have the option to forge that kind of relationship with a game, where you don't just skim the surface, but dive so deep that you understand how the pieces fit together.
Esports have proved there's a huge audience for that, and one that will reward developers who don't compromise in the name of accessibility. Look no further than the growing success of Dota 2, with its legendarily steep learning curve. Dota 2, like many eSports-focused games, is not a game that rewards its players over a period of months, but years.
That's a big ask for a lot of players, but eSports lower the barrier to entry by showcasing these games at their best, and demystifying what it is that makes them special. Even if you never play a ranked match or compete in a local LAN tournament, you can appreciate and engage with the most advanced gameplay in the world.
And players have responded around the world, proving that high-skill, competitive games have a bright future and a tremendous audience that's hungry for them. But it is a PC-based audience. The PC is the lingua franca of eSports, the only thing that unites these huge, disparate international audiences.
That means PC gaming is likely going to remain the home for these kinds of experiences, and we're going to get more of them. In the last year, Wargaming.net has launched major eSports initiatives to showcase what's possible in World of Tanks. Wargame: European Escalation has been spotlighted by Europe's Electronic Sports League. Between GDC and E3 last year, it sometimes seemed like every developer was trying to keep an eye toward the eSports potential of their upcoming games.
It doesn't really matter whether a game turns into a major eSport on par with CS: GO or Dota 2. Nor does it matter if eSports ever become so massive that they are broadcast in primetime on a cable sports network.
What matters is that eSports celebrate, preserve, and promote some of PC gaming's greatest traditions. In gaming landscape rife with Quicktime Events and meaningless scavenger hunts, eSports show that greatness awaits those who are patient enough to work for it. They ensure that the PC will remain a remain a place where players can earn achievements that don't need a badge or an icon. Esports can—and should—open up the hardcore to the masses, and the PC is the perfect place for that.
Smile! The game you're playing is live
By Cory Banks
Unless you suffer from debilitating performance anxiety, chances are good that you've tried livestreaming . Thanks to services such as Twitch and apps like the free Open Broadcasting Software, it's super easy to capture gameplay video or stream your playthrough live on the Internet. Which means the future of PC gaming is a comment room full of viewers, mocking your Hearthstone deck.
Humiliation aside, this near-instant access to people playing games, live right now , means that a game's watchability—a word I just made up—is just as important as its playability. Esports is the prime example: the importance of a user interface that not only conveys info to the player, but the 300 people watching that player jungle in League of Legends, cannot be overstated. But even non-competitive games will embrace streaming in the future, with brighter colors and cleaner UIs. It's just smart business: YouTubers playing your game is the greatest kind of marketing, and there's no better way to discover or learn a game than to watch someone play it.
Livestreaming will also allow us to enjoy games when we simply can't play them, an important factor as our community matures and responsibilities grow. With a family and a full-time job, you might not have the spare 400 hours to conquer in Europa Universalis IV. That's okay: other streamers will have content ready for you to watch on demand. It's yet another way PC gaming will become more social, in the living room, in eSports, and in front of the camera.
Faster, fiber! Spread! Spread!
By Wes Fenlon
As we venture into the future of PC gaming, with games gobbling up 30 gigabytes in a single download, we need a brave new broadband service to lead us to the land of plenty. A service that casts off the heavy chains of bandwidth caps and delivers Steam games unto us at the rate of a gigabit per second. A service with a name that inspires hope, and awe, and salvation. It shall be known as...fiber.
Fiber Internet will shepherd us into this new age of high speed bliss. At least, fiber will lead a chosen, geographically privileged few to affordable gigabit (1024 megabit) connections. 2014 and 2015 will be big years for fiber rollout in the US, but Google Fiber and Verizon FiOS—two of the best-known fiber services—are, combined, only available in two dozen US cities.
The city count is increasing, but slowly. Google Fiber is launching in Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah in 2014, and AT&T has already launched a competing fiber service in Austin.
Some cities, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, have taken matters into their own hands by building public-owned fiber networks. Gigabit Internet costs $70 per month in Chattanooga. If you're not in the mood to cry, don't compare the price-per-megabit to what you're currently paying your ISP.
More cities plan to follow Chattanooga's lead. If those plans bear out, select gamers will have access to incredible download speeds without dealing with Big Cable.
The future doesn't look as bright for the rest of us. A January 2014 court decision overturned the FCC's net neutrality regulations, theoretically making it possible for companies like Comcast and Verizon to prioritize traffic on their networks. This could have a very real effect on PC gamers . Comcast could charge bandwidth-heavy services like Twitch a premium for reliable access to gamers--in other words, an Internet fastlane.
There's more bad news. Netflix's monthly ISP reports indicate that US service providers deliver an average throughput of less than 2 mbps during prime hours. Most online games—even big ones like Battlefield 4—require deceptively little bandwidth, and a steady 2 mbps should keep the bullets flying lag-free. But streaming and cloud gaming demand more bandwidth and rock-solid reliability.
Twitch requires a bitrate of 1.8 - 2.5 mbps, higher than the average throughput Netflix reported for US providers. Nvidia GRID, Nvidia's take on cloud gaming (think OnLive), recommends a 10 mbps connection.
One more downer: Comcast is bringing back the bandwidth cap in seven states, testing the waters with a 300 gigabyte monthly limit. A weekend of heavy Steam downloading and constant streaming could easily blow through that limit.
We need fiber to meet the rising demands of livestreaming and cloud gaming. It's the future of broadband in the United States, and it's expanding, slow and sure. As sci-fi author William Gibson would say, the future simply isn't evenly distributed yet.