The personal computer is no stranger to the videogame; they’ve grown up together over the decades and have always pushed each other to their limits. In fact without videogames it’s highly likely that the average PC would be nowhere near as powerful as they are today, who needs a quad-core for their pain-in-the-rear English literature assignment?
The Hype of Doom
The golden age of PC gaming is dead, casual titles roam the once verdant fields of action, strategy and role-playing franchises. The market is working itself toward a financial iron lung with falling interest in the retail chains, and with developers and publishers chucking their arms up in total despair as the PC platform withers into a slow extinction. Well I and plenty of other non-hysterical types like me say “shut your yap blasphemer!”
The media seems to be slowing waking itself up from what could only be described as a total end of the world scenario for the PC gamer. While the PC might not be living at the height of its golden age any more as the consoles are strutting their stuff and singing the next-gen theme tune, the personal computer is far from some dead-end job as a glorified type-writer. Yes it’s true that retail sales have taken a decline in recent years but that’s only because the current models used to track the market haven’t evolved along with the market itself.
Many more gamers have taken up faith in online distribution services than ever before like Valve’s Steam service, which has managed to club together confidence in a delivery method that would have been laughed at in the days of the 56K modem. With broadband suppliers becoming ever more common and with speeds getting wrenched up every once in a while it’s no longer just a crazy idea. Massively Multiplayer Online games are another evolution of the PC market with monthly subscriptions also not being taken into account, even though it’s a constant stream of capital being injected into the games industry and subscribers can number in the millions.
‘Casual’, a term some have come to loathe and probably many more have come to love. There’s something about them you want to at some point yell at someone for churning out such a ludicrous idea but then horror strikes and you find yourself oddly addicted to its eccentricities. BigFishGames which despite its name doesn’t have a pre-disposition to videogames about fish, is one of the new wave of casual-hubs born as a result of these evolutions in PC gaming. Their very motto is “A New Game Every Day!” The games catalogue they have ranges all genres, probably some you’ve never even heard of before, and lets you trial or purchase an unlimited play license for each – that’s even more revenue not equated into the future of the PC games market yet now it’s a major player (no pun intended).
The Jolly Roger and his busty wench The Internet
Piracy, not the action packed Johnny Depp brand of hijinx but the work of software swashbucklers who’ll skin a videogame alive of its copy protection, continue to plunder the booty of the industry. One of the main stigmas for any studio to develop for the PC platform at the moment is the rampant activity of ‘the scene’ which works to reverse engineer specific parts of the games in order to bypass systems designed to stop illegal mass distribution of their works. Consoles, particularly the Xbox360 and PS3, have benefitted from this weakness of the PC. It’s far harder to get downloaded copies to work on the consoles as they require gamers to actively risk their physical hardware by “chipping” them.
Many proponents of piracy claim they do what they do because of the price tags that come with the games and feel some vindication of exposing development studios if the game is widely accepted as rubbish. The action-RPG Titan Quest presented in a similar fashion to Blizzard’s cult classic Diablo II was one such victim of mass-piracy and suffered greatly from the freeloading community. It was criticized for huge game stopping bugs which later were actually found to be the copy protection detecting an illegal game copy. On February 19th this year the studio Iron Lore Entertainment announced it had closed its door for lack of funding on its next project, while not directly responsible the piracy of Titan Quest was certainly a contributing factor.
Publishers have tried to wage their war on piracy, much in the same way the United States issued its war on drugs – unfortunately both have met with poor results to this day. Controversial systems like Starforce were taken up by some but eventually were ditched because of the many complaints from PC users on its tactics, similarly DRM protection elements coming with some games now are falling under fire too. BioShock can only be installed three times and must be activated online, a while later that number was bumped up to five and a tool to rescind an installation was released. BioWare’s Mass Effect for PC would have required the game be reactivated online every ten days, this was later dropped as their community -- to which BioWare owes its tremendous success -- became very concerned and justifiably angry at the measure – it was later dropped.
It’s these trappings that have led many developers to produce games either exclusively to consoles or at least to release on them first before launching a PC version. The next-gen consoles guarantee far less risk of losing money to software piracy and given the increasingly growing budget of games now you can’t blame the companies. They need to fund the project and buy themselves a sandwich at the end of the day after all; you can’t condemn them for playing it safe. Perhaps though there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, in a manner of speaking, and perhaps that light is ‘TPM’.
TPM, or Trusted Platform Module, is a secure cryptoprocessor which can store cryptographic keys all in aid of protecting data. These TMP chips could very well pose the same problems that ‘mod-chippers’ have when it comes to consoles, possibly even greater a challenge. As of 2006 laptops are getting these module chips built-in and Intel has already begun to integrate the technology into their Southbridge chipset this year. Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell is already excited at the prospects of dealing a decisive blow against the scourge of the virtual high seas; in fact he believes it will "absolutely stop piracy of [PC] gameplay."
I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours?
Chips, electrons and nerds – the world today couldn’t rotate without them. One advantage that the PC has always held over the videogames market is its ability to adapt with the times, a quick extra RAM stick here, and a jump in processor series there. It’s the flexibility of the platform that lets gamers taste such a wide variety of works from the developers, from the low budget to the triple ‘A’ blockbusters. Not all is well in the land of windows, penguins and apples though – diversity is a double edged weapon.
The consoles are fixed systems and developers are now keener than ever to take advantage of the platforms, the size of the PR budget is enormous. In fact this is why the PC has been down in the dumps from a media standpoint, so much is said and exposed outside of the PC that it seems the videogames market has a new favourite pet. Luckily the Internet is still the number one pillar of support for the PC gamer, while console games may get exclusives and they may break expectations in a genre with high praise, communities are still unyielding in strength when it comes to the PC game.
Analysts, experts, wizards – they’re all in agreement that the web has evolved and the ripple effect is touching all that communes with it. Nowhere else but on the PC is this more evident with the huge surge in social networking sites and massively multiplayer online communities. Recently a study forecast from Strategy Analytics shows their prediction that within a decade one billion of us will be registered up to some online virtual world - that would equate by then to almost one seventh of the total human population. They allege this would generate $8 billion in service opportunities, now if that isn’t a sign that the future of the PC and its games has a bright horizon then what possibly could?
DLC is trumped as the new “hot thing” for the industry but actually downloadable content has been available for years for PC games. Only because it has now become possible that the consoles can get that little extra kick long after the games hit the shelves is it being spun as the new ‘sliced bread’. It helps keeps games alive and lets the studios put some more cash in the coffers – some armour for your trusty steed milord? Even with all this emphasis from the companies on the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Marketplace they are still feeble in proportion to the wide access a PC grants gamers.
The panic, if you will, seems to be that the traditional staples of the PC – FPS, RTS, and RPG etc --- are slipping away and more developers are focusing on the next-gen consoles leaving the PC to slowly starve. Yes they were the core staples of the PC diet but not so anymore, the PC is moving on and it’s embracing this new more connected society, it’s playing around, experimenting and evolving to new heights. The PC Gaming Alliance which is made up of various publishing big-wigs and industry goliaths as well as hardware vendors believe this too, and fortunately have come to their senses over the disproportionate representation of the console to the personal computer.
And the winner is...
The PC isn’t dying, the very stake of the world rests in the nurturing hands of motherboards – Mother Nature too I guess. We all apparently live in a Web 2.0 community now where devices are communicating just as much as we do, in fact some have even filled in for us. PC gaming isn’t going away, it’s not even slowing down – if anything it’s savaging the sound barrier by now and this is an exciting time to be in the industry, especially if your job entails sitting around and playing videogames for “research” purposes.
User input is going to increasingly play a big role in the future of the videogames market and not just for PC, even the consoles are getting bit by the custom content bug. While we may toast all this new freedom and creativity there’s a price to be paid and things like the Trusted Platform Module chip I feel is just the beginning. Software piracy can’t be left at the levels it is today and anyone who’s visited a widely used torrent site -- which ironically is exactly the peer-to-peer philosophy games seem to be embracing now – knows just how quick a game gets online.
Massively Multiplayer Online and casual bite sized games are not the sole saviours PC gamers have only to look forward too, there’s always going to be the triple ‘A’ titles and its unrealistic to think they’ll be gone one day. This is a platform that delivered the videogame to the world and it’s had its share of ups and downs for sure but, and as cliché as it sounds, the futures bright. There’s never going to be a victor, consoles are always going to come out every so many years and that’s an excellent thing. Having the competition helps keep those guys and gals with the pen and paper pushing their imaginations and trying to find new ways to make the games we love.
In this last decade we’ve seen phenomenal technological advances in the computing industry, just imagine where we’ll be in the next ten.