In my earlier rant against the current-gen Frankenstein graphics cards, a couple of people were quick to point out that while modern-day system-specs are indeed impenetrable to most people, the good old days of PC gaming weren’t much better. In the early 90’s, we had to fiddle around with config.sys and autoexec.bat to get games to work, make special boot disks, and know what freaking port and IRQ thingjigger our soundcard was hooked into. It was appalling.
Those were the rough and tumble years before the new technology settled into place and was packaged and distilled for the average consumer. PC Gaming was a niche back then. And as much as I hate to say it, I think Windows was good for PC Gaming. It handled that stupid memory management / soundcard nonsense and gave developers a “stable” platform on which to build. Once you’ve paid the overhead in memory and performance, having an operating system there is actually pretty nice. It eventually made it possible for non-technical people to play some PC games.
About the time TV commercials for videogames start showing up you can say the hobby has come into its own and it’s time to start acting like responsible producers. If you’re advertising to the Average Joe, then Joe had darn well better be able to use the thing when he gets it home.
And there was a period of time where that was (mostly) true. PC Games peaked somewhere between 1997 and 2002. That was our golden age. It was after the stone age of DOS, but before the four horsemen of bugs, DRM, graphics fixation, and console-itis came in and made a mess of things. We had graphics cards that opened up a new age of 3d, but they were simple to buy and would last for years. (They could arguably outlast your PC. Mine did.)
Check out the games of 1998:
StarCraft, Unreal, Fallout 2, Grim Fandango, Half-Life, Thief: The Dark Project
Four franchises saw their beginning in 1998. The only sequel of note was Fallout 2. (It was, sadly, pretty buggy. But ONE buggy sequel and FIVE incredible new games is a complete inversion of what we’re getting these days.) I played four of those games again this year.
System Shock 2, Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament, Planescape: Torment, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Homeworld, Outcast, Kingpin: Life of Crime, Rollercoaster Tycoon
I own every single one of those. I’d call most of them classics. I could fire up any one of them right now and have a blast. (Okay, maybe not Kingpin, but still.. that was a really good year.)
The Sims, Deus Ex, Diablo II, Escape from Monkey Island, The Operative: No One Lives Forever, The Longest Journey
Another banner year. Again, this is ignoring the lesser games, and expansion packs.
I think what makes the Golden Age of PC Gaming so special is that we were in a sweet spot, visually. Graphics were at the point where games could be immersive and atmospheric, but they didn’t cost a fortune to produce. As development became more complex and costs rose, other aspects of the game had to be cut to pay for the bling-mapping. I can’t imagine ever getting another game as immense as the original Unreal. I can’t imagine getting another game as deep as System Shock 2 or Deus Ex. (Both BioShock and Deus Ex 2 were greatly simplified when compared to their predecessors.) We have less room for risky new ideas like Thief.
Sure, graphics are better now, but we have sacrificed almost every other aspect of gameplay to get those graphics. A few games manage to get good graphics, and gameplay, and stability, and half-decent backwards compatibility (Half-Life 2 comes to mind) but most fail to deliver on at least two of those.
Sometime around 2002 backwards compatibility began to shrink, so that you needed to stay a little more up-to-date to be able to shop in the “New Releases” section. Graphics cards started to get harder to understand. Release & patch became the common solution to dealing with the expense of playtesting. Games got shorter & shallower.
Every time I bring this up I get people posting helpful suggestions like, “Yeah it sucks buy a console and stop whining.” Which misses the whole point of these posts. I’m not complaining because I can’t figure out where in this great big world I have to go to get more games. I’m talking about this stuff because it needs to be said. Look at titles like Haze, Crysis, and Quake 4. Think of the millions and millions of dollars being wasted on these short, dull tech demos. Think of the games we could be playing with that kind of cash being thrown around.
I played Quake 4 a while back. It was shallow, but amusing. But I’ll bet for the budget of Quake 4 you could (if you dialed back the graphics to 2002 levels) build a breakthrough along the lines of Thief or System Shock 2, with the added bonus that just about every PC out there would be able to run the thing. Imagine, you could spend the same money and make more money and give customers more value.
As always, I’m watching what the indie developers are doing. They don’t have the luxury of making these kinds of mistakes once, much less year after year. Indies don’t quite have access to cheap tools that can give us Golden-Age graphics without a lot of additional work, but the tools are getting better every year, and the gap left by big-name publishers is getting ever-wider.
It’s also worth noting here that Good Old Games is a new site that will be selling DRM-free versions of the classics for cheap. The public beta starts soon. I already own most of those games, but once the place opens up I’m going to go fishing and see if there’s anything I missed. For $5 – $10 USD, you probably can’t go wrong.
Just for fun: Name a few of your favorite games. I’m willing to bet if we collected a list of favorite PC games from people old enough to remember all three ages of PC Gaming, we would see that the games form a Gaussian distribution somewhere around 1997-2002.
Here’s to the Golden Age. May our emulators never fail us.
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