on Jan 22, 2009
My previous post on my home console setup was a sort of intro to this post.
The last PC game I played was Fallout 3. I don’t have another one on my horizon. Diablo 3? Starcraft 2? Half-Life 2, Episode 3? Those are all pretty distant yet. [Insert your own Duke Nukem Forever joke here.] I’ll play a dozen console games between now and then.
For the last 19 years, I’ve needed to keep updating my PC if I wanted to be on the same page as everyone else, software-wise. Migrating computers is an expense and a chore, but there was always something worthwhile ahead to justify the move. New computers opened the door to new browsers that offered access to richer web content, better versions of windows, more powerful photo manipulation programs, and better tools for work or hobbies.
But all of this has stalled since 2003 or so. The system requirements behind web browsers have stopped climbing. The latest version of windows is a step down instead of a step up. I have all the photo manipulation tools that I can use, and more. And the latest and greatest tools are increasingly open source programs with very broad system requirements. My machine is nearly three years old, and there is simply nothing out in front of me that might entice me to spend the time and money to bring it up to date. It doesn’t even feel old yet. I remember in the mid-90’s when I was poor. A two-year-old computer was a relic that would choke and wheeze while performing simple tasks, because applications had become larger and demanded more memory. But this machine runs about as well as the day I unpacked it. And when it eventually slows down, I’ll likely add memory rather than buy a whole new machine. This has never happened before.
It’s been a sad process to see the PC gaming platform self-destruct over the last five or six years, and there is a little blame available for everyone. Graphics card manufacturers salted the field by dividing the market into incomprehensibly small segments that made shopping for a new card prohibitively complex. Game developers shed users by continuing to ride the bleeding edge, even as a majority of their audience was stepping off the upgrade treadmill. Pirates made the platform less profitable (Or at least, made it appear so to would-be investors.) which stemmed the flow of money for the development of PC games. All this, and the rising cost of development (because making graphics-heavy content is expensive) forced developers to make cuts in other areas, giving us prettier, more shallow games.
The good news is that PC games can’t die entirely. The platform dominated for so long because of its ubiquity, and the machines are still far more numerous than all consoles combined. They’re just not turning over as often. Maybe big-name publishers are abandoning the ship, but this will leave a nice opening for indie developers. The days of PC gamers getting extravagant games is over, but strategy games and old-school number-crunchy RPGs will likely still be cultivated by the faithful.
And of course, the PC still rules the MMO market. This is more an interface issue than anything else. I know Sony and Microsoft must be looking at the eleven million WoW players and thinking about how awesome it would be if they could get a cut of that action, which comes in at something like 1.5 billion a year. For one freakin’ game. (Think of the money we’d make in Xbox Gold memberships alone, Bill!) The current complexity of the genre demands a mouse & keyboard, and their text-heavy nature suggests that they might need a little more resolution than the average television can offer from across the room. But with the heaps of money at stake, I do expect there to be some effort to claim some territory in MMO land.
It’s my hope that at the very least, the PC will be the proving grounds where indies can practice making games before they join a thundering publishing house and make “real” games for consoles. Ideally, the platform might reboot itself, with a new batch of developers rising up that understand that they need to approach the PC with an attitude of “gameplay first, gameplay second, gamplay third, and graphics a distant tenth”. A little story and character development thrown in there might be a good idea as well.
The PC platform isn’t dead. It’s sitting in the nursing home, looking out the window and muttering to itself about the good old days.
Thanks for all the fun, gramps.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.