Thursday, February 18, 2010

Byte: NERD RAGE!

You hear that? That's the death knell of PC gaming being sounded. Well, if you listen to the doomsayers of the Ubipocalypse, at any rate. I've not delved too deeply into the nine page comments thread (for reasons that must be fairly self-evident), but clearly there's rather a lot of nerd rage and strong feeling rumbling around about this at the moment.

I can certainly understand why. I've been PC gaming since, oooh... 1995. I consider myself to be primarily a PC gamer (indeed, I still subscribe to PCG UK) but despite all the talk about PC gaming "dying" that has floated around the internet ever since the release of the Xbox and PS2 a decade ago, I never really believed any of it, until now.

Certainly, PC games retailing on the High Street is pretty much dead and buried. You only need to look into your local GAME store. Ten years ago, half the store would be devoted to PC. Now you're lucky to get more than three or four racks. These days I tend to buy my PC games via Play or Steam - I rarely venture into GAME these days, and even more rarely actually buy stuff in there. If I get anything from there at all, it's usually for my consoles, and even then only if it's on sale and I can get it cheaper than I can from Play. But the overall trend in recent years for PC gaming is worrying. Multiformat titles generally come out first on the consoles, and the PC ports are generally pretty shoddy. There are a few exceptions to this (Dragon Age would be a recent example), but even here, PC game publishers seem to manage to take aim squarely at their foot and pull the trigger.

To use Dragon Age as an example again, the Downloadable Content system on the PC version is totally, totally borked. 99% of the time I can't get it to recognise my internet connection is active, meaning I can't log into the DLC servers, so despite having the "BioWare Points" (seriously, don't get me started on that) available to buy the Return to Ostagar DLC, I can't log in to spend my "points" (money, I would note, that already sits in BioWare's pockets, yet I can do nothing with). Compare this to Xbox Live, and suddenly the 360 version looks a whole lot more attractive. This was one of the reasons that I decided to get Mass Effect 2 for 360, rather than PC - because at least I can be sure that the DLC system is going to work and I will get a decent frame rate (something that can't be guaranteed on the PC) and there's no ridiculously draconian DRM to worry about. (I don't think having to have the DVD in the drive is a draconian restriction - though I'm sure some would be prepared to argue the toss on that)

It's just as well that there's bugger all on Ubisoft's confirmed PC release schedule for this year that I was interested in, because this DRM is beyond a joke - and my internet connection is generally pretty solid. It's bad enough that you make your customers wait 6 months for something that's fairly inevitably going to be a fairly shonky port, and then bundle in a DRM system that kicks you out of the game if you have a wobble in the stability of your internet connection. You don't get this kind of bullshit with console games, which almost inevitably means for mainstream, multiplatform games I will generally be buying them on 360 in the future, because at least then I can be sure they're going to WORK. It'll only then really be MMOs, indie, strategy games and PC-exclusive RPGs that I'll buy on PC.

I don't think it's going to be that long until we see the PC games market disappear from the High Street entirely (I give it 5-10 years, max), with what's left being exclusively distributed through digital download services like Steam, Impulse and GOG. I can also see a lot of the big publishers abandoning the PC as a gaming platform for anything other than MMOs over the next decade, too. Personally, I don't think that's such a bad thing - if it means that we'll get back to the real roots of PC gaming through the indie scene. It makes more sense for the big budget publishers to go for the console mass market and leave the PC to cater for niche markets that don't have to worry about Hollywood-grade shiny production values.

Frankly, I can live without the Assassins Creeds and Splinter Cells of this world if it means we can atill get things released on PC like DEFCON, Mount and Blade or Sins of a Solar Empire. Ubisoft are just trying to defend their bottom line in the PC market, and while I can appreciate that, I do think they're going about it in entirely the wrong way - a way that's alienating the very market they're trying to encourage to buy their game and not go stampeding for the nearest torrent site. I'm not convinced by the argument that 'better DRM = less piracy = better sales', given that we PC users like to be able to use our software the way we like - not have unreasonable methods of use imposed upon us. You only need to look at the SecuROM scandals surrounding Bioshock and Spore to understand the depth of feeling surrounding the topic - feelings that no doubt contributed to Spore being one of the most rapidly and voraciously pirated games ever.

If the big publishers (barring the ever redoubtable Valve) do decide to abandon the PC as a gaming platform, to be honest, I'm not that worried. After all, I've still got my 360 and most of the games I get on PC these days are indie PC exclusives anyway. So no great loss, really. Still, it will be interesting to see how Ubisoft's sales figures for their PC games hold up over the next few months.