Don't Call it a Comeback
If you haven’t been paying close attention you may have missed it. The PC is making a comeback.
When no one was looking the Death of PC dead horse, still swollen with endless beatings, kick-started its own heart — Motley Crue style! — got up and trotted happily away. As a result, one of the blogosphere's favorite go-to topics, up there with NPD numbers, debates over the relative merits of piracy and cats with poor grammatical skills, has, for months now, seemed curiously ignored. There may be good reason.
As a self-identified PC gamer, I’ve often felt like I was stuck in an increasingly unfunny Monty Python skit. Despite constant protests that I’m not dead yet and that I emphatically do not want to go on the cart, the reports of our death were mildly exaggerated. Developers abandoned the platform as a profitless wasteland and consoles took center stage. Now as the new and shiny has become the tepid and static, there are tremors of renewed if unsurprising interest in a platform with a monstrous user base and a lower barrier to development interest.
But as we consider that PC gaming may be back, I wonder if that means quite what I had once thought?
There are some assumptions that seem to be made by those PC-centered relics that have existed these past handful of years in a digital diaspora, and those assumptions describe some of the fundamental differences between the desktop platform and its living room counterpart. The easiest way to encapsulate those assumptions is to talk about what happens to games when they are ported from a console to a PC.
These disparities of interface, complexity and depth are part of a larger conflict that exists in the way that different gamers seem to think about their pastime. The assumptions of the exiled have always been that a return to PC gaming focused development would at least partially mean a rejection of “consolization” tropes. It’s in the difference between Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance. It’s in the difference between Civilization IV and Civilization Revolutions.
But, even as I proclaim that PC gaming is on the way back, I have to admit that the era of those AAA, big budget blockbusters on the platform are not. What PC gaming offers is a budget solution for publishers to monetize their properties in a way that consoles don’t facilitate. When Electronic Arts’ CFO Eric Brown says that the PC is the largest gaming platform, he’s not indicating that a new era of Ultima and Wing Commander is on the way.
He’s saying that the platform has demonstrated a reach and ability to connect with non-traditional gamers in a way that still eludes the expensive production model of consoles. He’s saying that EA wants to get itself in on some of that juicy World of WarCraft and Peggle action. It’s not that EA, or any other publisher for that matter, will be champing at the bit to create the next Master of Orion 2 or Planescape: Torment. It’s that EA understands one fundamental truth about the platform: if you build the right game then no other medium allows for more potential profitability.
Their investments in Spore, The Sims 3 and the Knights of the Old Republic MMO might as well be a mission statement for the company. Their partnerships with Valve and their core understanding of how Steam has unlocked revenue streams is perhaps not visionary, but at least getting in on the times. While I’m sure that looking back they would have preferred to be a leader in the online distribution space, at least they are partnering with the right people to make up for lost ground.
Were I to pull down my crystal ball, I would guess that EA will at some point begin to prioritize its own casual gaming division to compete with success stories like PopCap. A Steam released casual game, say some kind of Spore/Flow style timewaster seems like the kind of idea that could define a new EA/PC relationship. I would also guess that they won’t be alone in the initiative. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It means that a resurgence of the PC may not mean what I had once thought. As I invest more time and more interest in smaller budget and lower profile games from Plants vs. Zombies to Mount and Blade I see that I don’t necessarily need Bioware to come back and commit itself to some grand Baldur’s Gate 3. I also don’t necessarily need the platform to be the industry leader in technology, an expensive proposition that I’m finally willing to concede over to the cool kids in console land.
Having a platform that allows developers to take chances by keeping costs low is going to, in the long run, probably create far more interesting products than the traditional model. I suppose in many ways they were right when they said that PC gaming, at least in the way I once thought of it is dead. Maybe Duke Nukem 4 was the swan song and a disappointing coda to that way of thinking at the same time that it's a warning to future generations, and again, I suggest that's probably a good thing.
The king is dead. Long live the king, baby.