One Reason Gaming Has a Bright Future (or: why PC gaming will save us all)

Are you afraid of the future? You don’t need to be.

I remember, about a year ago, I spoke with a friend regarding how exciting the future of gaming was. I told him I was excited with where things were going. He was… well, we don’t talk much anymore. See, his perception was that games were getting inherently worse, and he thought I was getting excited at this prospect. This made him extremely angry. That’s not at all what I was (and am) excited about. You see, at the beginning of the present console generation, and even, to an extent, to this very day, we saw an increase in the number of games made multiplatform, and, far more importantly, compromised in order to work properly on consoles and to appeal to larger audiences. In many cases, this meant that the PC versions, and complex games in general, kinda sucked.

Originally, this was mostly because the devs had new hardware to play with and were trying to figure out what to do with them. As any developer can tell you, a limited platform means that what you can do is limited, and when you’re still figuring out how to make a piece of hardware play nice, you tend not to focus on the elements of design as much as you ought. This is a problem that’s endemic to consoles, because with every new console release, there’s going to be a massive change in what you can do. With the constant pace of PC development, you never really go “oh, I have to learn this whole new thing.” It’s an iterative process. Things are easier, which means that design can come first.

Games have been improving recently. In 2011, we saw some pretty smart games, like Skyrim The Witcher 2, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Bioshock Infinite is now coming with the promise of a hardcore ‘1999 mode,’ and I believe other developers have been considering similar options. Far Cry 3, from what little we’ve seen, looks to be a massive improvement on the excellent, but flawed, Far Cry 2. Games seem to be getting smarter, and surely, we can fully welcome this trend. Dark Souls has found great global success–something that a game two or three years ago (hi Demon’s Souls!) could not have done.

But you know what? It gets better than that. Right now, we’re on the cusp of a radical transformation in video gaming, and by that, I mean that PC gaming is about to change everything for the better.

First off, we need to talk about why PCs are great. Above all else, the PC’s advantage is freedom. Want to play at your desk? Bam, PC’s got it. Couch? You betcha. Take your PC to work or school? Sure, why not! I could be playing Skyrim right now if I wanted to, even though I haven’t got a tv nearby and no way to safely carry my discs around. Want to motion game, use a racing wheel, use a mouse and keyboard, play with a controller, or just about any other control interface you could possibly imagine? You can do this on the PC.

Then you’ve got the fact that games are developed on PCs. Due to open source software and ready-to-go game engines like UDK, making games has never been easier. Modding has brought us several highly-acclaimed games–in fact, nearly everything Valve has ever made comes from modding. It was modding that introduced a ton of game mechanics we find in regular games. Even now, with the formatative years of video game development behind us, we can still see mods influencing game design, most obviously in Fallout: New Vegas, where entire game systems were poached directly from popular mods and implemented into the gameplay, greatly benefiting New Vegas’s design. On top of that, you’ve got indie games, which are boldly trying things nobody’s ever tried before, even if a lot of those ideas are evolutionary dead ends.

There is no gaming experience you can’t have on the PC, and there is no gaming experience that can’t be enhanced by the platform.

…but you should know all this already. This is nothing new.

One thing you may not have realized, though, is that the success of Western games on the consoles is due to a large portion of these devs being PC dev who’ve migrated over to consoles before digital distribution became as successful as it has. See, they got to experiment on the PC first and eventually work their way “down” to consoles. Their PC roots meant that they had a bigger, more expanded idea of gaming’s potential. Not having many limits will do that to you.  In fact, you may have noticed recently that major devs like DICE have said things about how it’s best to work from the PCs first and port down to consoles, because it’s easier to cut things than add them, and they’re absolutely right. A console game can benefit tremendously from a game with the PC as the lead platform, but there are no games that have benefited from having the console as a lead platform. It’s the nature of limitation.

If you’re struggling to get at what I mean, think of it like, oh, writing a paper. If someone says “write me five hundred words!” it’s much easier to create more than necessary and cut down. If you try to work under that limit, you often find you don’t have enough words. If  you write too many, it’s significantly easier to cut down while retaining more information overall.  Likewise, it’s harder to adapt a good PC game from a limited console one, while it’s significantly easier to cut or redesign PC features and create a good console experience.

So, by now, you may be wondering what my point is. It’s this: everything has been building up to this moment. I’ve demonstrated that people want more and that games can benefit from PC development. Right now, we are in a situation that is ripe for games to become more varied and rich than they’ve ever been. It’s a perfect storm, and here are the key elements that facilitate it:

1. The internet has gotten faster. This is the foundation from which everything else springs. It means you can access games without worrying whether they’re still in print or not. It means teams can work across the globe. It means, ultimately, that there are no restrictions anymore.

2. Mod tools have trained a lot of people. There are a ton of people out there good enough to make games, but maybe not good enough to work on an AAA game.

3. Digital distributors, like Steam, let devs and gamers A) play with and learn from old, more experimental games (hopefully putting us in the mindset of trying new things), and B) lets devs sell games without as much risk and without the need for a publisher (not that publishers are inherently evil). This means that devs are empowered. They can now release A and B level games, rather than AAA games that must be huge and must make lots of money to guarantee a profit. I have to disagree with this kotaku article, which suggests that in the future, only AAA games will be viable–this belief has been around for pretty much the entirety of this generation, and the recent indie explosion (and increase in indie titles, with games like Killing Floor, Hawken, and Natural Selection 2), not to mention the crazy amount of cash Double Fine just got to make a point and click adventure, proves that AAA games aren’t the only way to go. Sure, maybe on consoles, they are, but if that’s the future of console gaming, then I see no reason to continue my life as a console gamer. Even non-indie games like Dead Rising: Case Zero and Gotham City Imposters have proven that there is a market for smaller, non-retail releases. People can make money here.

4. Preexisting, free to use engines such as UDK, Unity, and Cryengine, enable gamers to develop games much more quickly and simply than they could ten years ago. There’s now no longer a need to develop an engine, now people have access to documentation and forums and other things that will ultimately save time. Want to implement cell shading in your game? Cool, someone’s already figured it out and has probably posted a method on a forum somewhere. This saves time and allows developers to focus on making the game, rather than building the tools to run it. In addition, you’ve got easy access to a lot of open source tools, like the Bullet physics engine (Max Payne 3 from Rockstar is using it!)

5. Version control software, like Perforce, while bad news for mods (this is one reason why Alan Wake isn’t shipping with mod tools), is great news for indie devs. It empowers teams to build content, even if they’re not in the same room together. This means that people in areas without game dev teams, or those who can’t afford to rent their own office and build games there, can work together. It also facilitates greater interaction between people. Maybe I don’t know enough programmers where I live to make a game. Cool. The internet can provide them, and version control software can help us share our assets easier.

6. No greater obstacle exists to the creation of video games than finding funding. Fortunately,  Kickstarter solves this problem. Don’t believe me? Double Fine made a million dollars in roughly twenty-four hours, just by asking for money. Obsidian is considering using the same model! Developers, ones people know and trust, can go to Kickstarter and, completely risk free, try to fund a game’s development. Project CARS and Minecraft, made by people who didn’t/don’t have the level of trust and support that guys like Obsidian and Double Fine do, allow people access to their alphas and betas in exchange for a preorder. To get more initial sales, they could consider employing the shareware method (F2P is nice and all, but the sheer number of people who say they’d rather pay full price for an F2P game isn’t one worth ignoring; distributing part of a game for free to hook consumers is what shareware is all about, and it should be resurrected, especially now that digital distribution is so viable).

7. Steam Workshop means that it’s even easier for people to get into modding and distribute their work, which means that people have an easier time getting into game development.

What does all this mean?

Well, some time ago, I read a gamasutra article once talking about, like, flash mobs, but for video games. You’d have a bunch of devs, they’d get together quickly, and they’d develop games. The problem with this idea, as many pointed out, was that there really isn’t a central dev city location, like there is with film. Films have Los Angeles. Games don’t quite have that. It’s harder to have freelance/contract workers when you don’t have all of the expertise concentrated in one area. Sure, there are hotspots, like Seattle, Dallas, and Montreal, but it’s still a risky proposition, especially when games take significantly longer to make than films (you don’t need to support many people in pre- and post-production on a film, so you’ll only need an entire team for maybe twenty or thirty weeks at most, as opposed to two or three years for a game).

The internet fixes that.

I’m working, right now, on making an immersive sim–if you’re familiar with Thief (and if you aren’t, it and its sequel are for sale in working condition on GoG) or Deus Ex, you’ll know what I mean by this. It’s set in the 1960s. It’s a spy game–something that hasn’t generally been commercially successful in the past (but, to be fair, the few spy games that have been made haven’t been very good, so it’s not the genre’s fault). This isn’t something I could have done five or ten years ago, but it is something I can do now. I’ve got a team of people working alongside me, most of whom are in the US, but all over the continent.

Effectively, a bunch of talented people can get together and build a game over the internet, rarely/never meeting in person. With tools like Skype, IRC, gmail, and forums, they can build a game. They can release it at an aggressive, 15-30 price point, and make enough money to keep making games. This leaves corporatism and focus testing at the door, meaning devs are free to make what they want, and innovate/experiment more often. It also means that someone could make a game like, say, Unreal Tournament in a modern climate and not have to worry gimping the game for consoles because of the risk a $50 PC release poses at retail (Gamestop and other stores make most of their income on game trade-ins; PC games don’t have this, so these stores refuse to support PC games).

The main problem I have though is… well, getting team members. Presently, I don’t have enough to do this awesome 60s spy-fi game. I don’t personally know any professional devs, much less devs who would want to help out. My team and I hope to get a demo level up and raise awareness through youtube demonstrations, but that’s really all we can do for now. It’d be cool if there was some place where people could post game pitches (real ones, not just a moddb style “hey u no metrud i lik it can games u make with laser aslo it cud b mmo plz?) and their skills–a networking site, basically, for professionals and amateurs who want to make games.

Imagine a place where a person like me could go looking for, say, animators or AI programmers to help out with his project, while AI programmers or animators could look at a list of pitches that need their skillsets and apply! People could have profile pages that show their skills, past projects, and portfolios. This kind of site could facilitate the birth of small game teams that can make their own games and profit from them. If the people enjoy working together, then hey, they might even go on to make more, or form their own indie companies. Maybe it could also provide hosting and version control software for development, so people wouldn’t even have to build their own.

Right now, the PC is primed for action. You can make anything on it and be successful, so long as your game is good. You can try anything! Even Kinect is available! On the PC, there are no limits. There is no entry barrier. You have everything you need to get started making whatever you want and not having to worry about being profitable. The risk is minimal. Look, I don’t know what the future holds more than anyone else. I can only comment on the trajectories things appear to be taking, and what I see looks good. All the pieces are in place to facilitate a bright, innovative future, not just for PC gaming, but for gaming as a whole. The question now is whether people are willing to do it.

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