26 May 2011

PC Gaming Is Dead

Looking at the PC section of my local video games store is a depressing sight. The shelves that were once pride of place are now consigned to the back, flanked by preowned console games. The content of these shelves isn’t much better – it’s full of “safe” titles. Sequels, sure-fire hits and money spinners.

When did the PC lose its lustre and sparkle? When did it become the third choice for developers? Why are only a few genres – strategy and MMO – still PC centric?

But most importantly, if anyone can make games for the PC then when did it become so boring?

Back when I was a kid my dad had this prophetic vision that computers were going to become the Next Big Thing. I don’t think it was anything involving parting clouds and a booming voice, but it seemed to have a profound effect on him. Keen to do something about it and eager to make sure that my siblings and I hit the ground running, he went off and bought a ZX Spectrum.

Back then the Spectrum was one of the few ways you could play video games at home. Coders would crank out cassette tapes in small offices (if they were lucky) or from their bedroom (if they weren’t). There would be a store in every town with racks upon racks of small plastic boxes, each selling for less than a fiver. Sometimes we’d get something brilliant while other times we’d get a lemon. Above all though it was exciting and cheap.

For a long time the PC took over where the Spectrum and others like it left off. The place was crammed full of innovation – of shareware games secretly traded on floppy disks. This was before the days of the internet. You were considered well connected if you had a modem and the phone number for a nearby BBS.

Nowadays innovation has largely taken a back seat in PC gaming (and largely gaming in general) in favour of polish and refinement. Tried and tested mechanics are developed upon and iterated, buffing them into a brilliant shine. The process has become less about the game itself and more about the story, the player experience and the franchise or IP.

Even MMO games, once seen as the home of innovation on the PC, are no longer seen as being unique. Ryan Seabury, one of the developers who worked on the actually rather good Lego Universe, has stated that he will never work on an MMO again. I can see his point: in a world where almost all games need to be socially aware there’s a shrinking amount of content that splits an MMO from the rest of the pack. Sooner or later all games will be massively online and persistent by default.

So where has all the innovation gone? Those of you that remember the days of Spectrum will have noticed the familiar sights – the smartphone app stores and even Steam are playing host to a legion of indie titles from small-time developers. Some of these games are outrageously good fun to play – take a look at Total Biscuit’s “WTF Is” video series. There are game concepts here that would probably never make it to mainstream. This isn’t exactly new thinking – Ben “Yahtzee” Crosshaw was saying the same thing six months ago.

Can big studios do innovation like the small indies?

Ironically, it’s probably the MMO developers who could incorporate this “pocket gaming” style of development the easiest. At its core, an MMO is split up into loosely coupled games of questing RPG, raiding, player versus player and crafting/economics, all united by an over-arching theme or meta-game. It’s this kind of modularisation that would easily support additional experimental game components, even if these components were played outside of the game proper.

Imagine being able to play parts of an all-encompassing game via Facebook or on your Phone, or even via an ARG. Make your core platform extensible enough and you can literally drop in and pull out sub-games as you feel like, depending on how they perform. It’s through efforts like this that you can keep a game fresh and interesting even when your core product is suffering.

To conclude, I think that traditional PC gaming is standing still. In the absence of radical new ideas, the crown goes to whoever can give their product the most polish and shine. Those new ideas haven’t vanished though – they’re just in different places now. And I reckon that MMO games with their diverse play styles are best placed to take advantage of it.

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10 Responses to PC Gaming Is Dead

  1. Grimmtooth says:

    “Looking at the PC section of my local video games store is a depressing sight. The shelves that were once pride of place are now consigned to the back, flanked by preowned console games. ”

    Replace “PC” with “Amiga” and it’s 1995 all over again. The wheel turns, does it not?

    Oddly, though, I’ve never been keen to buy titles in Video Game stores like GameSpot et al, but instead stores that sold a wider selection of AmigaPC titles. Of those, at least two have folded in the last three years.
    Grimmtooth recently posted..WipeMy Profile

  2. spinks says:

    It’s not dead, it’s on Steam 🙂

    • Runzwithfire says:

      Gotta agree with Spinks here, it is on Steam. Moreover, I think when you look at PC gaming now compared to what, about 5 or 6 years ago PC gaming has actually progressed – OK it’s not like like it was in its heyday but there has definitely been improvements over the last few years.

      We still have problems with the big AAA publishers sticking to the same old tired titles (OMG can they milk the Call of Duty series anymore???) and they’re only prepared to support new titles once some small developer has already put all the work in with no support and actually been successful – and yes they usually end up buying the developer and completely cocking them up before closing them down. These are issues that that I think publishers really need to get a grip off and deal with.

      But the I really feel (in my own humble opinion) that the statement PC Gaming is Dead would have been more apt a few years ago, just not now. If you look at the massive success of Steam (and Valve’s support for smaller indie developers which has been a massive financial win) I think it’s hard to really justify that statement. OK you really don’t see PC titles in game stores any more, but honestly I can’t blame game stores for that – any new game I buy for the PC nowadays is always by digital download (unless it’s a special collector’s edition in which case it’s usually pre-ordered from Amzaon or Play.com). I think most PC gamers nowadays prefer buying digital downloads so why would stores like GAME stock PC titles when everyone with a PC is connected to the internet and downloading all the latest titles. No boxes, no losing discs, no clutter – it’s the future, I’ve tasted it (Peter Kay reference there).

      In fact I’d go so far to argue that this development has been so successful that it has prompted console producers to look into it – the ill fated wiiware store (which failed due to Nintendo’s crippling restrictions on developers; oh nintendo will you ever learn?), XBox Marketplace and spinoff XBox Live Arcade, and ofc the Playstation Store on PS Network. I would argue that all of these were prompted very much by the success of Steam and the increase in gamers wanting to buy on demand. That’s also why Blizzard now offers downloadable games as are a number of other developers and publishers. Add to this that most publishers have removed their frankly shocking DRM restrictions that used to be so prevalent (even the hated Ubisoft has relaxed DRM – publishers finally realised that they actually lost sales through DRM because PC gamers didn’t want to be treated like criminals and we didn’t all pirate software on an hourly basis like they believed) and I’d probably say PC gaming is on the up and up.

      Will we still have to cope with cross platform games? Yes because that is becoming more the norm but we there are less cases or piss poor console ports being released on PC because publishers now realise that people won’t buy them if the controls suck (ie were designed for a gamepad – I’m still looking at you Ubisoft, you suck). Look at Portal 2, it’s cross platform but the PC version was designed for the PC and the Xbox version was designed for Xbox – that’s how it should be (although I’d still argue the PC version is superior).

      Anyway, that’s my copper’s worth (actually several gold’s worth but all in shiny one copper pieces).

    • Jaedia says:

      I was basically going to say this, but a little wordier. Might as well save my time and go all: “This ^” 😉
      Jaedia recently posted..Vashj’ir HighlightsMy Profile

  3. Duncan says:

    PC gaming is in the best health it’s been in years. It’s just not found in the shops any more. It’s found on Steam, Impulse and with indie hits like Minecraft (so addicted). The weakness of it at retail is a good thing as it is opening the door wider for the imaginative indie developers. So yeah, the big guns are largely “playing it safe”, but people are, by and large, not buying it. 2,300,000 bought Minecraft instead. The future is bright.

    • Gazimoff says:

      All very true. I’m picking over the best bits of Steam myself, and I’m also one of the two million or so people that bought into Minecraft. Imaginative indie developers is a good thing.

      I think that the big guns have the potential to be as innovative, but that for whatever reason they don’t. Game genres that have typically been PC only will drift to consoles in time. I reckon it’s only by being able to offer truly innovative gameplay within the larger gaming frameworks that the big guns will be able to survive on PC, long term.

  4. Jamin says:

    I’ve discussed this topic many times. What I will say, which is obvious, is – CONSOLES (Namely PS3 and the XBOX)

    I think it’s more so ‘where to money is at’. Which is why PC game development isn’t as diverse as it could be. Maybe the numbers have dropped, or maybe it’s just overshadowed by the huge population of more ‘casual’ (Debating whether to insert word) console ‘gamers’.

    I see the world of PC gaming as more of a Niche now.

    Anyway, good post!

    – Jamin

  5. Ceraphus says:

    I have to agree with Spinks, if its not on Steam, its available via digital download in most cases, developers have realized they can save a ton of money on marketing materials, boxes, media and just provide the software via download.

    Gaming is alive and well on the PC, evidence by all the indie titles popping up on Steam lately
    Ceraphus recently posted..Blizzard and the Rise of Premium FeaturesMy Profile

  6. Nostalgeek says:

    Yeah it makes me sad too. Retail PC gaming seems at death’s door and the last holdout is Amazon and eBay.
    I dislike digital copies so I actually wait for stuff like the Telltale episodic games to come out in a nice box. Not easy to do but I’m holding on.

    I fear about all these digital games in 100-500 years…. will they have been lost and completely forgotten while are floppy disks of Doom will still be played?

  7. snuzzle says:

    I’d have to assume, also, that it’s a lot easier and “safer” in a way to make a console game than it is to make a PC game. You know exactly what the limits are of an xBox 360… they’re pretty much all the same. You can figure out how to maximize your performance and beauty on the console so that everyone can enjoy it. On a PC? Not so much. If you make it require too much specs you’re alienating a huge portion of your playerbase (I can’t run the new FF MMO on my PC, much as I’d like to). Utilize too little resources on the other hand, and you’re behind the curve and no one wants to play the game.