Right now, the PC gaming environment cannot compete with those--dare I say--heathen console machines and their sack-fulls of fresh, original, and damned-fun content. And I'm not the only one who thinks, and fears, this growing problem.
It's a sad state that the industry is desperately trying to correct. You've surely heard the news about the PC Gaming Alliance--that big consortium of top-notch manufacturers, developers, bigwigs, and Microsoft, who are all trying to jump-start PC Gaming with a heavy pair of electric paddles and a handful of promises and dreams. I find it curious, albeit obvious, that Microsoft's taking part in this grand scheme. You could consider them the Judas of the bunch--perfectly willing to play along whilst, at the same time, destroying the industry from the inside under the guise of Games for Windows.
But I digress. The PC Gaming Alliance is doomed from the get-go. It'll never work, because I think the various talking heads will be too busy trying to squeeze their own initiatives into the picture to realize what's really needed in the modern-day PC gaming industry. And I'm not talking about some epic secret, the gaming industry's Tree of Life that's going to forever raise the PC as the champion platform. The decentralized PC community knows what's up. It's just grasping at the roots of solutions that the consoles have already figured out.
1) Multi-platform releases
Does World of Warcraft's 10-million-strong user base promote PC gaming goodness or pull away players that might invest in different genres and titles?
There's a good reason why I buy awesome games for my Xbox 360: because I can't get them on my computer. I'm not going to wait 8 months to play Gears of War, or God-knows-when to play Assassin's Creed. When I see a game, and it looks sweet, I buy it. The end.
So why don't developers recognize this fact and release all their "A++ would-play-again" titles across both platforms simultaneously? I'm way better at most games on the PC than the console, and I'd like to think that my home rig is superior to my Xbox 360. Give me the option to play killer titles on my PC--like The Orange Box--and it'll be a strong factor when I'm standing around in Best Buy, wondering if I should head to the console or the PC aisle in the ol' video game section.
And for the love of all that is holy, stop releasing ancient games on the PC. I'm talking to you, Microsoft. If it's retro, brand it as such. Stop giving us games that the Xbox has had for years, and worse yet, stop making these up to be awesome representations of the new "Games for Windows" initiative. I laugh at you.
Shadowrun's achievements are perfect: you get the same accolades regardless of what platform you're playing on. Done and done.
I like achievements. I like them a lot. I don't care about putting my gamerscore/Valve name/whatever into six-digit territory, but I do like the ability for my friends to know exactly where I am and what I'm doing with the titles I play. The surest way for PCs to compete with consoles is to promote the notion of achievements--viewable by anyone who connects to a centralized platform--across all titles. Period. None of this "you do it one way, I'll do it another way" crap.
I hate seeing games with built-in achievements/accolades/marketingbuzzwordhere that are all proprietary. Valve has tapped the nail with this one, but I would hope that the PCGA can hammer this one into the ground. Otherwise, I'm going to buy all of my B-list titles (like Overlord) for my console, because even if the games are sub-par, at least my friends will be able to see what I'm up to.
Achievements are a free value proposition that invariably get gamers even more hooked on the games they're playing. At the same time, they give each and every game a level of competition that it might not otherwise exist given the game's format. For example, I like Peggle. But comparing my Peggle progress around Maximum PC's water cooler spurs me to play the game even when I don't really want to. Achievements let me do this on a far grander scale.
3) Cross-Platform Synchronicity
Why can't I play Gears of War PC against Xbox users? Why is this not built into the port of a game that came out a year after the original version hit consoles?
Jumping off #1, if a game comes out for the Xbox or the PS3 at the same time as its PC version, there's no reason the game shouldn't offer some kind of cross-platform experience. What better way to compete with the consoles than to allow gamers to, you know, compete with the consoles. Directly. Mano-a-Mouse. Why did I play Shadowrun so much? Not because it was a terribly immersive game at its core; I played it because I could play it against all my "noob" friends who refuse to acknowledge the PC as a gaming platform. Shadowrun was the whole new world that Games for Windows was alluding to, a welcome relief for those of us who swallowed the hype at the time.
But this idea doesn't have to die. Developers and platform-creators need to standardize (and dare I say, speed up) the method for updating cross-platform content: as I understand it, this is one of the reasons you don't see cross-platform gameplay on Unreal Tournament 3 right now. The game itself was rather feh, but I know I would have jumped on the PC version for quite awhile longer had I the ability to introduce my Xbox friends to a flak cannon. Unite the PC with the consoles and you'll build your audience. You'll build a ton of gamer respect as well. And the day a cross-platform MMO hits? Son, it's over.
4) Make Better Games
Instead of releasing a bevy of patches for The Witcher, its developers are coming out with an "Enhanced" edition. Thanks, but I like my polish with the original game, not as a ~$40 upgrade.
I realize this sounds a lot like a fourth-grader criticizing an Iron Chef because the little tyke doesn't like the taste of lunch, but hear me out. There are not enough high-quality, PC-exclusive titles on the market right now. There's no compelling reason keeping me on my PC, unlike the consoles, which have plenty of exclusive (or exclusive-for-a-number-of-months) titles.
Why is this the case? I fear it's because developers would rather sink $40 million dollars into a crappy game than sit back and understand the current gaming market. Right now, gamers want gameplay. They don't want sequels, nor should they be expected to buy sequels sans gameplay. A fun game will always be king, and you don't need to empty the vault to do it. Look at Sins of a Solar Empire--not a hugely hyped title, and not even the most innovative per se. That said, Stardock made a title that was pure fun, and that's it.
Right now, the PC gaming market suffers from a lack of good original titles. We're seeing too many high-in-promise, crap-in-production products flooding the airwaves right now. And it's a shame, because these titles had just as much hype and excitement going into development as any console game: Hellgate: London, Unreal Tournament 3, SimCity Societies, Tabula Rasa, et cetera. Ironically, the few quality titles I can think of to name (again, absent the "World" and "Warcraft" bits) are all cross-platform to begin with: The Orange Box, BioShock, etc.
Do consoles have crappy games? By the truckload. Do certain PC games make me question life, the universe, and everything? Absolutely. But blow-for-blow, the console is winning the war. Developers need to realize that a game has to be fun, and making a "fun" game isn't an equation that you can just sink a ton of money into and call it a day. They need focus more on what gamers truly want to play. And here's a hint: great gameplay will win out over next-generation graphics or pop-culture gimmicks every single time.
Consider Crysis: typical first-person shooter, right? To an extent, that's correct. Crysis ratchets up the "looks factor" pretty high, which is compelling reason number one for gamers to pick it up: the best graphical experience on a PC to date. But is that enough to make a game? Nope. So enter reason two: customizable gameplay that lets you alternate between any Dungeons and Dragons-style classes on a whim. The Fancysuit (whatever it's called) takes the "play it your way" concepts of more open-ended shooters and kicks it up a notch. Feel like being a sneaky thief? Want to punch tanks? How about absorbing damage like Ahh-nold? With but a cursory mouse movement, you're within the reach of three different playing styles.
I'm not going to belabor the point. But there's a reason Crysis is a blockbuster while Unreal Tournament 3... well... is a fine representation of the fourth anniversary of Unreal Tournament 2004. Gamers want original, fun experiences: while it's certainly possible for a sequel to work, it's not going to be a hit if it's just a reimaged version of the same ol' same ol'. The PC can be a cheaper, better gaming platform. Developers just have to stop thinking with their bank accounts and start thinking with their hearts--the kinds of experiences that made them turn to PC games when they were growing up. Hey, TIE Fighter didn't cost millions to make, but there's a reason it's still the greatest game ever created.*
How many gamers, when faced with the draconian copy protection of 2K Games' BioShock, just stopped trying? How many stopped buying?
For this gaming alliance to have any chance of working, the various companies involved will need to approach the situation like it truly is: a gathering of visions, united on a common front. This can't be just another method for Microsoft injecting its marketing via another platform. Nor can this be any way for AMD to somehow leverage the playing field with Intel and Nvidia. Each company is going to have to take the high road on this one. It's a pill of poison for marketing departments, but it's exactly the kind of level-headed approach that's going to be required for this alliance to have any impact whatsoever.
Just imagine the possibilities! Instead of scrapping over copy protection schemes, perhaps these companies could use Microsoft's experience to leverage some sort of huge, open marketplace-type situation. Each member of the alliance would be free to set their own prices and such, with chunks of "featured content" dolled out according to a common calendar cycle. Obviously, it'd be a Steam knock-off. But the beauty of the service is that it eliminates the need for copy protection outright. Sign up, buy the game, and you can access it across any medium you want.
The PC Gaming Alliance could ensure that this service extends to box copies as well. Buy a copy at retail, and you'd be given the opportunity to register the game into this giant, online collective. It'd be your copy protection, and would also give you the ability to download and play the game in the same manner as before: across any medium you want.
These are all just brief thoughts. The PC Gaming Alliance has a long road ahead of itself, in terms of making the beloved ol' computer as important a platform as the consoles. And it needs more weight as well: where's EA? Where's Take-Two? Where are all the other publishers? Where are the industry heavyweights?
And what are the hardware vendors exactly hoping to accomplish? Graphics cards and fancy processors do not a gamer make; they're the means to an end. Gamers want better games, gamers want innovative games, and gamers want a compelling reason to choose a far-more-expensive, souped-up PC over that little $400 console machine in their living room. Hardware isn't the problem. In the end, it's all about the games.