Death of the PC game?

Oh no! Not another one of those topics. Myself? I've always scoffed at people who said that the PC was dying. I've always maintained, and still maintain, that the best games in the industry are PC games. In the past few years we've seen renaissance of sorts for indie games, and the PC is leading the charge. Innovation is at an all time high.

A month or so ago I saw a video on talking about the death PC games, but perhaps more importantly, the death of the PC itself. And that, finally, has me worried. Because, from what I've seen, he's not wrong. He goes on to say that the death of the PC does not necessarily mean the death of PC games, but is that really true? Let me explain my concern.

A Short History

It was back in 1977 that Apple released the Apple II. The Apple II is mostly responsible for moving general purpose PCs out of the hands of hobbyists and into the hands of consumers.
According to The Woz there were some clones, but the important thing here is the Apple II was owned and controlled by Apple Computers. In the late 70s, the PC was a tightly controlled piece of hardware. The only reason we can go out and buy our own hardware today in whatever configuration we want is because of a massive business mistake by IBM. Whatever the anti-windows twerps tell you, the proliferation of the IBM compatible (and eventually the "wintel") brought an unprecedented amount of freedom to everyday consumers like me and you. A freedom that Apple has been trying to stifle ever sense.

On the other hand, phones have never been a technology that encourages freedom. The telcos have been in power a long time, and they aren't about to give any away. Increasingly "smartphones" are becoming the new notebook computer. There will always be a place for the general purpose PC, I think, but the future of PC for everyday consumers may very well lie with Apple and ATT. And that has me very concerned.

The PC and its place in the game industry

People prefer the PC for a variety of reasons, and it's no wonder PC gamers are so often laughed at. Most of them are pretty terrible. It's no wonder people think your an elitist moron when it seems like the only reason you spend $800 more than them for a gaming machine is to play the same games they do with slightly better graphics or somewhat more efficient controls. Now I love a powerful computer, and I'll be the first Mouse/keyboard advocate in any discussion, (you can't beat that level of versatility, not even with motion controls or touch screens. At least, not yet.) but that's not the point. Many months ago I had to get rid of my powerful gaming machine and switched to a budget notebook I bought from wal-mart for less than 300 bucks. More and more I find myself plugging a 360 controller into my PC to play something that doesn't require a keyboard and mouse. But I'm still a PC gamer. Why?

Among the big industry players, there is an atmosphere of fear towards risk. This is not a new problem, and the PC is not excluded. When a generic shooter as bad as Gears of War is considered hugely innovative, you know you've got a problem. Peter Molyneux has recently gone on to say that Minecraft was the most innovative game he's seen in 10 years, and I believe him. It's no secret that big companies don't consider a new idea worth pursuing if they can't find a way to repackage it five or six times. And the best place for innovation is the PC.

It's really got nothing to do with the quality of graphics or the input devices given to the player. It's the software developers. With a PC, you can get up in the morning and decide your going to make a game and you don't have to ask anyone for permission. If you're lucky, you might even go on to sell a couple million copies before development is even finished! Other platforms like Microsoft's Xbox might do their part to encourage smaller developers for their platform, but that one of the best selling indie games for the xbox is "I MADE A GAME WITH ZOMBIES IN IT" speaks for itself. For platforms like the xbox and the iphone, developers are restricted to certain programming languages, certain design practices. You're limited by rules and limitations. You'll never see a game featuring the columbine massacre on your iphone. You wont see a game written in java on your xbox. The atmosphere of "I can do anything!" is what makes the PC so great. It's what makes the PC such a great platform for creating new ideas, and it's why the PC is so important for the evolution of the industry. If we lose that freedom, we may be playing games that are fundamentally unchanged from the likes of Gears of War or Modern Warfare until the end of eternity. What fun. :|

What games are (not).

A quick visit to a Skyward Sword thread reminded me of an issue that isn't really related to the thread itself, but has been bothering me for a long time. It is, to me, a growing problem within the industry today with roots going back several years. Particularly, it is a problem with the popular perception of games. What they are. What their role is. What they are supposed to do. So let me make this clear.

Games are not movies.

Damn I wish I was that sexy.
Released in 1998, Half-Life was a real revolution for cinematic gameplay. As a guy who started out playing games like Doom II and Quake, Half-Life was amazing. Characters spoke! Story and missions were explained in-game in a logical way! Holy fucking shit! But you know what? Despite valve being the cutting edge of cinematic presentation in games, the protagonist doesn't speak. Even in Half-Life 2, where they pushed the envelope even further, the protagonist doesn't speak. Why doesn't Gorden Freeman say anything? Because Valve knows something many consumers, something even the professional journalists sometimes don't. No matter how many awesome cinematic camera and narrative tricks you use, video games are not movies. They will never be movies. The end goal and the issues that need to be resolved to get there are different for a game designer than for a movie director. Radically so.  
As much as I love Half-Life, I think it is the start of the problem I'm talking about. I think people are getting to caught up in cinematics. The reason I respect games as a medium isn't its ability to mimic film. It's that and so much more. It's everything else. For video games, the sky is the limit. The sheer magnitude of the possibility space (Will Wright is an idol of mine) of the medium is awe-inspiring. That's why it is disappointing to me that developers often get caught up in one or two templates that encompass an insignificant portion of the whole. It was 2d platformers and JRPGs once. Then for PC it was RTS games. Now it's cinematic first person shooters and open world games (usually shooters) that also focus on cinematics. Of course, gamers do realize that cinematics aren't everything. They have little influence on multiplayer, which is popular as ever. But when it comes to single player? If a game isn't cinematic enough, it's considered a flaw in design. Good thing the audience don't design the games. They're idiots.

Wait...What does this have to do with Skyward Sword?

People complain that the series is stagnant. That it hasn't evolved with the times. How would they like Zelda to evolve? They want it to be M-Rated and they want it to be more cinematic. Like I said. The audience are idiots. Now, there is something to be said about the critisism that Zelda games have been very similar since OOT, but that's not the issue I want to bring up. Here is an old quote from GiantBombs own Jeff Gerstmann in his review for Twilight Princess...

The entire game is done in text. At this point, that's practically ancient. Maintaining links silence is one thing, and and sure enough he doesn't have any lines of dialog in the game, but in this day and age, everyone else in this game should speak. Buttoning your way through pages of dialog during cut-scenes is pretty disappointing. 

 Waa wu waa wu wa wa.

And he's not the only one who thinks so. I've heard several times that there is no excuse for games these days to not have spoken dialog. That such a direction would be a stylistic choice seems to be a completely foreign concept, so let assert a concept that I think is pretty common to design throughout a lot of different mediums, including games. The more abstract a presentation, the more room for interpretation from the audience. Adult me would interpret the characters in OOT much differently than I did when I was a kid, and I would be perfectly capable of doing so because the characters and story are left with a certain level of abstraction. 
You can easily see this concept at work by watching anime. Animation is often used to cover material that would be difficult to cover using a live audience. So why is there anime dealing with everyday settings that would just as easily work with live actors? Because abstraction is more than just a work-around. It is a an artistic choice and just as importantly it is a tool. Oftentimes, Americans will comment that anime characters look Caucasian. To the Japanese audience, they look Japanese. Why the difference? Because anime characters are abstractions, and a certain level of character interpretation is left up to the audience.  

Games are not stories.


Another common misinterpretation of the industry is that every game needs a structured, linear story of some kind. Even open world games like GTA or Morrowind are a (set of) pre-defined story(ies) that the player can approach in dynamic ways. I've heard several gamers say story was the thing they looked for most in a game. Personally, I love a great story. And really great stories are painfully rare in the industry. However, there is an expectation that games should have some sort of structured story, even if the implementation is infantile. Deviation from this ideal is unforgivable! 
From GameSpots Mount&Blade review...

This isn't to say that there isn't anything to do in Calradia. There is, but you have to do a great deal of wandering around to find it. Removing any sort of story hook from Mount & Blade makes it only appropriate for the hardcore role-playing gamer who plays RPGs just to explore a fantasy land, not to accomplish anything or become an epic-level druid or whatever.

And I thought the preview guy for Warband sounded almost offended that the developer didn't change one of its core design ideas that the review industry decided to present as a flaw.

 Even though you can do just about anything you want in this medieval sandbox, from roaming around as a mercenary commanding an army of troops to carting goods around as a dinar-grubbing merchant, the backdrop is so lightly sketched that it can be tough to stay interested. Anyone looking for the drama or color of the usual medieval RPG will be disappointed by the absence of story and motivation here.  

Now. Some of the criticism is well deserved. Is the learning curve high? Yes. Should there be more intuitive tutorials and could it be easier for new players? Yes. Could the dialog be better written? Absolutely. But a big part of the criticism is that there is no story at all. The design philosophy isn't new. It's basically Pirates! with a different setting. The idea is essentially, as Will Wright would put it, that if the player is allowed to create his own story, that story will have significantly more value to the player than anything the developer could come up with, regardless of quality.

So...Wait...What are games?

Well, games are movies. And games are stories. Seems like I'm contradicting myself? Games are everything! I'm certainly not saying we should discount cinema as a valid design direction. And I'm not saying games shouldn't have stories. I'm saying that games are so much more than just movies or books. The skies the limit. We shouldn't be limiting ourselves to FPS, RPG, 4X, etc. We should constantly be experimenting. There is always room for the next Zelda game. We should stick with what works. And we should also ignore it completely! I'm tired of Half-Life. I'm tired of Zelda. I want an intuitive platform where I can make my own game. I want to manipulate 2d environments. I want to explore a dead galaxy! I want to make a galaxy! So what are games? Games are the ability to explore new environments. To do the things you never could in real life. Games are simple mind exercises and they are everything in-between. Games are a medium for art, so stop telling me what games are (not) for fucks sake. Stop telling me there isn't an excuse not to have voice acting and stop telling me the game doesn't have enough story. Tell me. Is this game fun for you? Is it for anybody. That's enough for me.

Wiimote Whiteboard is fucking awesome!

I just set up a wiimote whiteboard. If you don't know what that is, check my bio; you can make your own for about $50-$70. The hardest part was getting the wiimote in a good position to pick up the LED. I had to use my Rockband mic stand. I'm just using my LCD screen with my desktop, and writing on that surface gets tiring to the arms. However, if you've got a notebook, you can fold the screen horozontally so assuming you can get your wiimote pointed correctly, you're at an advantage.

Oh, I made a little something to drive the point home:


Linear games are good, too.

I love sandbox games. It's the ability to make your own story that draws me. The Elder Scrolls, Mount&Blade, Far Cry 2, GTA, all great games.

Now, though, things are getting out of hand. I hear gamers everywhere screaming "non-linear" and "innovation". Sometimes all I want is a good story. I just started playing the original Fallout for the first time. Oddly enough, I'm finding it nearly impossible to go back to Far Cry 2, as fun as I find it. Yeah, I like making my own story, but I like hearing other peoples stories as well. I'm beginning to miss it. Many developers are forgetting how to tell a good story. It feels like spoken dialog and realistic graphics are the new "good stories" and they simply don't hold up. Where are the Planescape Torments, where are the Baldur's Gates, the Freespaces? They still exist, sure, but they are getting more and more rare.

I'm a PC gamer, so this may not reflect the state of the console industry.


Can't really say

I don't really trust the Blizzard of today, a different Blizzard than the Blizzard that made Warcraft II, Starcraft, and Diablo, but I just don't know enough to make an intelligent decision.