Stardock is now best known s the publisher of the Sins of a Solar Empire and Elemental franchises, after selling online distribution service Impulse last year. They have just released their annual customer report, talking not only about their experiences in 2011 but also looking into the crystal ball of PC gaming in 2012 and beyond. And the future, they find, may be hazy for Windows-based gaming.
The report examines the company's successes in consumer software and game publishing through the past year and also addresses Stardock's reasons for selling their Impulse digital distribution platform to GameStop. There were three main reasons for selling Impulse, the report explains. First, maintaining Impulse was using too many of the company's resources. Second, Stardock Games wished to be able to release their games on Steam, to the enormous audience there. And third, the Stardock internal culture was not compatible with being driven by sales. Instead, the company preferred to maintain its "focus on making 'cool stuff'" and not on marketing.
The report also attempts to tackle the future of home PC use, explaining that the current trend towards having content streaming, networked, and in other ways cloud-based or remote will only continue:
Within 5 years, decoupled gaming will become common. Decoupled computing is the concept in which the device that is doing the processing/rendering is not physically connected to the output devices (display, speakers) or the input devices (gamepad, keyboard, mouse).
How this future will manifest itself remains to be seen. The likely players will be Apple's AirPlay and Intel's WiDi standards. The actual gaming experience won't change very much except that the player will have a lot more flexibility as to how they play their games. However, the development experience will change radically depending on which platforms emerge as the leaders in this future.
However, in their look to the future, the report highlights internal concerns with the company's ability to continue to make cool stuff going forward. In particular, they find initial impressions of Windows 8 worrying, explaining, "Since we are not currently a cross-platform development shop, our success relies heavily on the success of Windows." They cite problems with the Metro interface, issues with program organisation, and inconsistent mouse-over and element discovery, concluding:
[I]it is our opinion that there is not a viable commercial market for software that exists to fix features of Windows 8 because many, if not most, users will simply not migrate to it and may choose other computing avenues.
We maintain that the primary threat to the PC (and gaming consoles) comes in the form of Apple's AirPlay combined with Bluetooth 4.0+ controllers. A Windows 8 failure may buy enough time for Apple to release displays (and get partners to release displays) with embedded AirPlay. The "computing" will be done on an iPad/iPhone, the keyboard/mouse handled by Bluetooth and the display via AirPlay.
So if Windows 8 follows the "every other Windows release is terrible" historical model and tanks, could the future of PC gaming truly belong to Apple? It's an interesting idea, that one could load a high-powered game remotely onto a seventh-generation iPad and then sit down on the sofa to play it comfortably, and effortlessly, on the living room big screen TV.
Apple's desktop computers are hardly known as the best place to play major release games in the current era, and iOS devices, while heavily used for gaming, generally (though not exclusively) run simpler, 2D, lower-budget, or retro content. The blockbuster, mainstream game scene is the one area of modern technology that Apple hasn't yet leapt into and revolutionised. Perhaps the time is coming.
Stardock Customer Report 2011 [pdf] [Stardock]