The split has been coming for a while, but it looks like it’s almost here. I’m not talking about RPG vs FPS or casual vs hardcore gaming. This isn’t a gameplay split, this is a design philosophy and business plan split.
One is polished and heavily locked down. A game that’s practically on rails in its gameplay, high end graphics and little user agency, and plans to monetize players outside of the purchase price with DLC and in game purchases. Its designers like consoles and apps better than the PC, and if they do publish it on a PC, they include crippling DRM and always on connections. They’re pushed into the social with user accounts and co-op and multiplayer.
The other is troubled, but ambitious. It has big ideas, big bugs and room for users to explore, expand and transform the game world. The flaws get fixed by mods, the mods expand the game beyond what it is. This type of game is PC oriented. Sometimes marketplace realities mean it’s a port, but it’s the type of game that only really makes sense and fulfills its promise on a PC.
There are plenty of examples of the first type of game. Diablo III, which is really Diablo as reimagined by Zynga, or the latest AAA FPS shooter, practically on rails, with amazing graphics, and a game where you don’t do much except push a button to make something cool happen, and then dive for cover, while your real or AI teammates yell things at you. Or something really silly like Assassin’s Creed.
On the other side, there’s Skyrim, a shambling grand mess of snowy peaks, bugs and mods that make the game something else. There’s Minecraft, which is ridiculous and ridiculously appealing. And the newest Game of Thrones game. And there’s a hundred obscurer and smaller games coming in through the cracks.
The marketplace, wedged into a handful of big companies, is aiming for the first type of game. Spend a fortune on marketing it, roll it out the door, brag that you sold more copies this hour than the entire GDP of Thailand, bribe and wow the game jornos, and pick up that bonus from the board.
The PC is being abandoned, not because it isn’t a huge profitable marketplace, but because it doesn’t fit into this business model. It’s not secure, its hardware is unpredictable, its players want more, its hardware is capable of more, it has too much piracy and too much chaos. Easier to just plan for the day when everyone who matters has an XBOX 720 or a Playstation 4 or a Nintendo DooWop or an iPad or something equally gated and shut in.
Microsoft doesn’t know what to do with PC gaming because it’s not in the business model. Neither do most companies. All they can do is tell us that the future is consoles, apps, cloud gaming, always on connections, crippled games with lots of user accounts that are always going down, no used games, lots of fees and no fun. And we better get used to it.
They have a point. If Microsoft, Activision, EA and Ubisoft want it this way, what choice do we have? What are we going to do, make our own marketplace? Invest in games that we like? Nuts. Go buy Diablo III and learn to enjoy it. Go play Frontierville and Angry Birds and Medal of Battlefields and all the rest.
But users have voted with their dollars at Kickstarter, funding the games they want to play. Forget the lame player boycotts of Mass Effect 3 or Diablo 3 that can never quantified and never get taken seriously. Boycotts don’t accomplish anything. Supporting an alternative marketplace does.
Kickstarter isn’t the solution, but it’s part of the solution, along with Skyrim mods, the whole indie game scene and an entire user created and often user managed marketplace. There’s no point in berating Activision for turning Diablo III into a Zynga game or complaining that Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2 are crap that were rushed out to cash in on the goodwill from earlier games.
The marketplace is splitting into two types of games. The AAA title that costs a ton to make and needs to hit the broadest and lowest common denominator target. And a range of games from big to small that are creative and unpredictable, that need work, but that open up worlds. Some are released by the big boys, but quite a few are coming in from the margins.
PC gaming isn’t dead, but it’s going to be defined by the second kind of game, more than the rest. The big boys will still dump Diablo XXXVI’s and Battlefield 61’s on the PC, while making it as miserable an experience as possible, but PC gaming will be a different place that will be defined by a different kind of game that values user agency, that is built for user modification from the ground up and that taps into the culture of PC gaming and its past.
It’s not hard to believe because it’s already here.