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The Thin Client

How Do You Make Q3A "Easily Watched"? ? 2 comments
In the article "Is Professional Gaming Viable?" I took a look at a recent article by Gamespot which contended that pro gaming would most likely remain the niche area it is now.

The main reason for Gamespot's scepticism could perhaps be summarised by their News Editor, Trey Walker, when he said: "[U]ntil a game comes around that is easily watched, understood, and respected by the nongaming public, professional gaming will remain within the confines of the core gaming community". In other words, the current audience for pro gaming consists largely of the gamers themselves, and without that wider audience pro gaming cannot escape the niche.

This prompted CPL president Angel Munoz to respond (in the comments):

If we fail, there will be no shame as everyone in the community knows that the CPL team gave it 150%, if we succeed I will personally send each of the GameSpot writers a "forget me not" bouquet with the following note:

"You said we couldn't, and we did."

Taking our game and making it something that is accessible to a huge Internet audience, perhaps even a TV audience via cable and satellite, is what I referred to in the article as the "holy grail". As Trent said, there are three critical components to achieving this.

  • First, "easily watched" - at the moment the only way to watch Q3A games is by playimng demos on your copy of Q3A, on your computer. This is a major limitation effectively restricting access to the gamers who already have the game and play.
  • Second, "understood" - this is a production challenge, a question of how to make the games intelligible to non-gamers through stuff like expert commentary, slow-motion replays, mixing of POVs from various players, 2D map overviews with arrows pointing out the "plays" you are about to see, and so on.
  • Finally, "respected" - this is an issue which depends on the quality of the gameplay itself. In my article The Wow Factor I ask why a massive Internet audience of non-gamers might want to tune in to watch the finals of a FPS tournament. In order to get that respect from non-gamers, I believe you need visible demonstrations of amazing skill - what I called the "wow factor". Gamespot, in Virtual Blood, Sweat and Tears, said pretty much the same thing:

    Not everyone has the ability to become a top Quake player, just as not everyone has the ability to hit 70 home runs in a season. But as FiringSquad hardware editor Kenn "Spear" Hwang said in a column for Gamers Extreme, "I find watching the top players duking it out interesting to [watch], but I'm not going to worship someone who just clicks a mouse faster than me." This may seem like an obvious statement, but replace mouse-clicking with slam-dunking or home-run hitting and plenty of people will immediately change their tune. It's this kind of respect that computer gaming needs to garner if it's going to eventually attract a mass audience.

So there we have it - solve those three challenges and you stand a better chance of pro gaming "making it". Now, of those three challenges I think it is the first which is the most difficult to overcome. We already know what we need to do to make Quake "understood", it's simply a matter of the production team having enough brains to go beyond showing a few segments of "action" accompanied by crappy techno music. When played at a high level, Q3A can be "respected", though of course I would argue the CPM provides more genuine "wow moments". That leaves how to make Q3A "easily watched" and this is indeed a very tough nut to crack.

What would be the best way to make Q3A "easily watched" by a massive Internet audience including non-gamers? There are several options I can think of - some sort of streaming video, TV, CDs, and what I call the "thin client".

If you transform a Q3A demo into a streaming video format, you might be able to reach the mass Internet audience. But at a cost - you'd get a crap resolution and a letter-box window to view it in. Hardly the sort of stuff that will make Q3A compelling viewing. If you tried adding commentary, music and other "production touches" you would probably end up restricting the audience to those who have oc-48 connections.

The second option is to repackage it for television. You could hop into a studio with a production team and make a half-hour program for cable or satellite tv. You might reach an audience that way, though it won't be a pure Internet audience (at least until the wide-spread use of Internet TV). It also won't have the screen resolution and quality of watching Quake on a computer with a GeForce card. And it won't be cheap either.

Next, you could perhaps make a better quality program using digital video and stick it on a CD. If you distributed it with a popular magazine you could reach a wider audience that way, but you would still be limited to the magazine circulation. It wouldn't be as effective as reaching the Internet audience directly.

Finally, there is another possibility which I call the "Thin Client". Could you take the Q3 engine and engineer a version like an MP3 player which is only suitable for spectating, both live streams and demos? Would it be possible to make it small enough that an Internet user might download it? If you could do this, the only limiting factor would be the fact that to enjoy a broadcast or demo you would have to have a computer with a decent graphics card, but this is actually quite common these days.

The best person to answer these questions would be John Carmack, so I asked him, and here is what he said:

It would be possible, but it would still take about 70% of the game's code to do a good job of it. A not-so-good job could be done with less code if you were willing to remove most of the configurability and options.

We never documented the net protocol to make it more difficult to engineer some cheats, so there wouldn't be much help available, making it a difficult project.

A bigger issue would be that you couldn't distribute any of the copyrighted graphics, models, and sounds, so it would only be legal with total conversions.

Everyone should just buy the game. :-)

I do understand your point, it just turns out to not be very practical for a few reasons.

So the "thin client", if you made it, would not be so "thin", unless you made massive trade-offs in terms of quality. And with such trade-offs, would an average Internet user find the experience worth the trouble? What's more, for legal reasons you'd have to work with a total conversion. The "thin client" option is possible, but very, very difficult.

In summary, if making Q3A "easily watched" is crucial for the future growth of pro gaming beyond the niche market it is now, then we have a challenge on our hands. Without the "thin client" there seem to be only various approaches to republishing Quake games in other formats, using other distribution methods, and all of them currently have their downsides. The best client to use to view the game, in all it's 3D glory, is Q3A itself.

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