Back in September a reader emailed me asking about my 2008 article The Golden Age of PC Gaming. That article can kind of be summed up in one image:
Games started out in the dark ages with simple gameplay and they were were hard to get runningI have to reboot with a special version of config.sys and autoexec.bat just to have enough memory to get this thing running.. Then we entered this wonderful age where games basically worked and we were getting several legendary titles a yearWe got Half-Life, Grim Fandango, Thief, Baldur’s Gate, Starcraft, Unreal, Starcraft Brood War, Descent Freespace, Fallout 2, and Forsaken. And that was just 1998!. Then we entered the stupid age of DRM, day-one DLC, buggy launches, and PC titles being dumbed down in pursuit of the console audience. You can’t really draw a hard line between these eras and the whole thing is pretty subjective, but in my own reckoning I’d say the golden age ran from 1998 to 2004. You could probably convince me to move the endpoints a couple of years in either direction, but you get the idea.
I didn’t ask permission to use the reader’s name, so I’ll call them KC. The email KC sent was too long to quote in its entirety, but it boiled down to the question of “Could we be in another PC golden age?” Certainly things are better now than they were in 2008. But are they good enough to qualify as a golden age?
To answer this question, let’s look at a few industry markers and see how things are now and compare it to how things were back in the supposed good old days.
Digital Rights Management
Back in the golden age, you could buy a game on disk and it was yours for as long as you could keep it running. Even if the developer, publisher, and distributor all perished in an asteroid strike, your copy of the game would remain yours. This is obviously no longer the case. Today the games are distributed digitally. Even if you buy a disk in a store, it’s very likely linked to some sort of online storefront like Steam or Origin, and if that service succumbs to an asteroid then you lose the ability to install and play your game. These days you’re buying a cardboard box that contains nothing more than a pinky promise that you’ll be allowed to play a game.
Buying digitally generally involves paying the same, and you don’t even get the box. “Games as service” means the distributor can stop serving you and your access to the game will end with no recourse.
So it looks like DRM won, right?
On the other hand, we’re better off now than we were a few years ago. For a stretch in 2008 or so, it really did look like PC gaming was set to embrace a world of increasingly intrusive and anti-consumer policies in an attempt to fight “piracy”. We were looking at the possibility that games would only allow you to install them a few times before you lost access to them forever. A world where gaming without the internet was impossible because games needed permission every time they were launched.
I guess we’ve settled on an uneasy truce with publishers where we’re willing to tolerate the risk of digital platforms in exchange for the convenience of same. Denuvo was paradoxically successful enough to prove its own uselessness. We had a couple of years where a few titles were piracy-proof during their critical sales period, and despite industry claims that “piracy steals 90% of our business”, none of those protected titles enjoyed a ten-fold increase in sales. It turns out that anti-DRM whiners were right all along, and all of the trouble and expense was for no real benefit to anyone. Not even the publishers. Not even in the short term.
Most of the publishers have figured it out. The only company still pushing harder DRM is Ubisoft, and they’ve continued to do so well beyond the point of reason. This year Ubisoft layered one DRM system on top of another and then insisted that the stacked DRM wasn’t to blame for the game’s horrible performance. It’s sort of darkly hilarious that they’re essentially throwing their own programmers under the bus and blaming their product for the slowdowns in order to save the reputation of their DRM. I guess the only thing worse than being an Ubisoft customer is being an Ubisoft developer.
Verdict: DRM is nowhere near golden-age status, but we’re better off than we were 10 years ago.
Quality and Availability
GoG now offers an amazing catalog of good old games for low prices and without DRM. The indie revolution has brought us a flood of titles that cater to retro, mainstream, and niche markets. The brown age is over and games have color again. The proliferation of titles has pushed prices downward, which might be bad news for developers but a boon for customers. We have more titles than ever before, in more styles, at lower prices, with effortless availability. While Steam is still a market hegemon, we have more digital storefront competition than ever before.
Verdict: Golden age!
Games for Windows Live is dead. That’s nice. But now Windows is pushing the Windows 10 Store, and I’ll feel better once they give up on itAs a marketplace for games, anyway..
But Microsoft’s griefing storefront isn’t even the worst thing on my radar right now. No, it’s not Uplay, either. And while I don’t know how I’ll maintain sanity in a world where both Uplay and GFWL 2.0 are competing to see which one is the more prolific source of annoyances and hassle, these digital storefrontsNo, Uplay isn’t really a storefront. But like, what IS it, really? aren’t the worst thing about gaming on the PC. Or even just gaming in general. No, my big worry is with microtransactions intruding into game design.
Bad: Key parts of a game are pulled out and put into preorder “bonuses” and day 1 DLC.
Making it worse: You can’t even buy the content directly. Instead you pay for loot boxes for a chance to get the desired content.
Making it MUCH worse: In order to drive sales, the final act of the game is deliberately designed to be tedious and grindy, with loot boxes promising a way to skip the tedium and gameplay mechanics designed to nudge you into engaging with the loot boxes.
Mr. Btongue had that one really good video on BioWare where he talks about “Making money to make games” versus “making games to make money”. This is the clearest demonstration of the latter that I can think of. If your passion is for the games, then you’re not going to want to damage them to make more money. If you’re just in it for the money, then the game is simply a means to an end and you don’t particularly care about the game as an artistic product.
Worse, I don’t even think this is the good kind of greed. This is clumsy, short-sighted greed. How does this work on multiple playthroughs? Will I need to buy more crates for my subsequent trips through the game? How many people will hit that late-game quagmire and simply lose interest? How many of them will skip the next Shadow of [thing] titles because of their disappointment with this one? For an industry so obsessed with sequels, this is a very dangerous thing to do to a cash cow.
Verdict: We’re beyond the “Stupid Age” now. We’ve entered some sort of dystopian nightmare. It’s true that only a few games are doing this now, but I predict all the major publishers will flirt with this idea sooner or later.
A couple of years ago I might have proclaimed we were in a compatibility golden age. The upgrade treadmill had slowed down to sane levels, and I think graphics cards were a little less confusing to buy. The nice long lifespan of the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii meant that everyone stopped pushing so hard for new graphics. Gone were the days when you needed to shell out the price of a console for a decent graphics card. Instead you could shop for something around $200 and still enjoy games on high graphics settings. It was a win for everyone.
But now the madness is back. The new console generation launched, then staggered a bit and did a soft secondary launch of more powerful machines. This has kept the graphics engines in upheavalI’m assuming this, based on the number of graphical glitches we’re seeing lately.. On top of this, the new Vulkan API is forcing developers to learn to ride a bike all over again. While Vulkan may give us faster and more stable games in the long run, in the short term it’s doing exactly the opposite.
Two years ago Batman: Arkham Knight had a disastrous launch. Assassin’s Creed Unity’s glitches were pretty hilarious, assuming you didn’t personally pay $60 to see them. No Man’s Sky was a deeply flawed game, but on the PC it was deeply flawed and also janky as hell. Mass Effect Andromeda was a mess on all systems, but anecdotes suggest it was more of a mess on the PC. And of course Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a terrible heap of broken technology. Prey wasn’t a disaster, but it did have a handful of slowdowns, glitches, and bugs.
To rub salt in the wound, Bitcoin miners have begun gobbling up graphics cards, which greatly inflated prices right when PC gamers really needed to be upgrading their machines. So once again, buying a good card is going to set you back the price of a console.
Verdict: It depends. If you’re into the new AAA stuff then this is as bad as its ever been. But if you’re into retro and indie fare then everything is peaches. I try to cover a bit of both, so this is a pretty mixed bag for me.
General Industry Dysfunction
EA closed Maxis. I don’t know how incompetent you have to be before you can fail to make money with SimCity, but EA found a way. Also they closed down Visceral. Square Enix sold off Hitman developer IO Interactive. Irrational Games was shuttered. THQ kicked the bucket, and we’re not sure if we’ll see another Saints Row.
And yet somehow people keep giving money to David Cage.
Verdict: In general, this is a lot like 2008. Lots of studios are closed for the lack of vision and leadership on behalf of a publisher, and good titles end up vanishing despite their virtues. I don’t think things have gotten worse so much as they failed to get better. And as long as the major publishers don’t understand their products or customers, I don’t expect them to.
I don’t think we’re in another golden age, but I think there’s a lot to like about how things are going now. I think the things that are good (lots of cheap, innovative titles) are going to stay good, and the things that are terrible are just an industry shakeup away from being fixed. I think the upgrade treadmill should calm down soon and we’re probably about to settle into another long console generation. I think Ubisoft will continue to make dumb tedious bullshit I don’t care about so I don’t have to worry about Uplay. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the loot boxes. I assumed this would be another dumb pointless fad, but apparently it’s making a lot of money. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
I don’t think we’re in a Golden Age, but if the next couple of years are nice to us then we might enjoy like, a Silver Age or something.
 I have to reboot with a special version of config.sys and autoexec.bat just to have enough memory to get this thing running.
 We got Half-Life, Grim Fandango, Thief, Baldur’s Gate, Starcraft, Unreal, Starcraft Brood War, Descent Freespace, Fallout 2, and Forsaken. And that was just 1998!
 As a marketplace for games, anyway.
 No, Uplay isn’t really a storefront. But like, what IS it, really?
 I’m assuming this, based on the number of graphical glitches we’re seeing lately.
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