As a lifelong PC gamer and a full time game reviewer since the release of the original Half-Life, there’s almost no issue in this industry that is as important to me as the vitality and value of PC gaming. Of course, there’s almost no issue that is as tedious in its tireless recycling of the same old arguments and defenses of this often quirky and misunderstood subset of the larger gaming market, either. To me, it’s like the whole “Games as Art” debate; individual opinions on both issues are interesting up to a point, but the real proof is in the games themselves. Even so, given that I’m still a little new here, it’s worth expressing how I feel about the whole thing.
Before I get too deep into this, I don’t want to suggest that PC gaming is better than console gaming. Anybody who feels the need to elevate his or her platform of choice at the expense of someone else’s is just insecure. Sure, there’s a value in the objective comparison, but once we begin talking about the games that we love, worth is entirely subjective. With that said, however, the PC development environment exhibits some unique and peculiar qualities that have helped to spur innovation throughout the entire industry. Over the last few years, many of those qualities have been suppressed as publishers have sought to reduce the risks of investing in new projects by leveraging development across multiple platforms. It would be naïve to deny that some of those compromises are coming from assumptions made in the very different console market.
The PC is most distinct from other popular gaming platforms in the open nature of its hardware and software environments. Both of these qualities leave the PC free from the oversight of a single license-holder. Now, to the extent that Windows has become in a sense, the software platform PC games are most often designed for, my characterization of the freedom of the PC development environment may not be true in its most literal sense. In any case, game and hardware makers are free to enter the market without the approval of a larger company.
Because there are no restrictions, developers are free to try new things – from urban planning simulations like SimCity, to online air combat arenas like FighterAce, to real-time strategy games like Dune II. At one time, publishers were even willing to fund those projects, particularly those with successful precedents. Genres were created and refined without necessarily being subjected to the diminishing effects of the expectations of the mass market. The mass market is definitely more of a consideration in determining what gets greenlit on the consoles these days, and the fact that so many developers and publishers are spreading their releases across multiple platforms means that mass market thinking has crept into the PC catalog.
I guess I should explain what I mean by “mass market.” The term tends to be pejorative but I’m not intending to use it in a negative way. All I want to suggest by it is that the PC audience is less homogenous than the console audience. Combine that with the consistent hardware platform that you find on the consoles, and it only makes sense for a publisher to want a particular console title to appeal to every single person who owns that console. I think publishers who understand the PC market are less inclined to make that assumption, but when push comes to shove, the trend of cross-platform development tends to minimize the idiosyncrasies of most PC games. Just look at the evolution of IPs from big publishers like Ubisoft, Microsoft and EA that began on the PC and found new life on the consoles.
Yes, there are mainstream successes exclusive to the PC –Half-Life (and Counter-Strike), Battlefield 1942, Starcraft, World of Warcraft and, the king of them all, The Sims all come to mind. I would argue that those titles (and others like them) succeeded on the PC not solely because they were good games, but also because they were built specifically to take advantages of the PC platform’s strengths — open formats for sharing content and information, and ready and reliable network access. Even the previous generation’s mainstream success, Myst, reveals an approach to content that embraces the types of narrative immersion that were at that time only possible on the PC. If you’d ported Streets of Rage II or Secret of Mana to the PC, they’d have felt out of place.
Again, this isn’t to say that Myst is a better game than Secret of Mana. (In my opinion, it’s not.) It’s just that Myst is a game that fully embraces the peculiar needs and assets of the platform and market it was designed for. We don’t see that much on the PC anymore, and the gaming industry in general is weaker for it. Now we see a single project that is designed primarily for the current generation of the consoles and then ported to the PC with the assumption that what works for one market works for another. Is it possible in this environment for us to expect genre-busting titles like Ultima Online or Grand Theft Auto or Thief?
There’s not even room for the third-party contributions like VOIP, client-servers, mods, or content-sharing networks that have made so much of an impact on our industry. Instead, we’re treated to publisher-run servers for our shooters, an endless succession of $5 content packs for our RPGs, and the death grip of persistent online profiles that, in Ubisoft’s case at least, are required for games that don’t even have a multiplayer component. Pardon me for saying it, but if the console market has anything worthwhile to offer the PC market, this sure isn’t it.
To be fair, there’s a considerable downside to the PC as a gaming environment and it’s based almost entirely on the same qualities that make the PC so vital. The open development environment means that the PC catalog is so full of mediocre titles that it’s sometimes impossible to separate the good from the bad. With no overarching structure, we occasionally run into problems where the good (or at least interesting) titles wind up competing with each other for shelf space and sales on the same day. The open hardware environment means driver and compatibility issues, which can be very frustrating at the end of a long day when you just want to sit down and unwind with your favorite game.
For some of us, that’s a small price that we’re willing to pay in order to play games that aren’t necessarily intended to be enjoyed by everyone. Some of my most favorite games are the most marginal in terms of appeal. But that’s what makes them special to me. It’s risky, particularly with the current costs of development, to build a business plan around the smaller audiences that tend to be associated with certain PC gaming genres, but if we only ever make games based on their potential to appeal to everyone, eventually we’re all going to be playing exactly the same game.
Steve Butts is a dying genre.