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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