[Is the PC 'ground zero' of the current creative revolution in games? In this column, writer Phill Cameron discusses why the sometimes maligned gaming format is vital to today's indie boom and tomorrow's rising innovators.]
It all started here. Decades ago, games were made on the first computers, on the Amigas and Commodores that took only a few people to develop, putting in long hours to come up with innovative ways to make pixels move on the screen.
Then the big money came in, buying up the talent and churning out Triple A titles like there's no tomorrow. Games and game development stayed insular for the longest time, just because it took so long to learn how to make the games. By the time you knew how, you were already part of the system. And then things got a little easier, and that's when things got really interesting.
Over the past few years, there's been a crescendo. Independently made games have gone from novelties to an entire subgenre, capable of earning the makers a living, if they so choose.
No longer are indie games enjoyed by just the few who pay attention to the scene. Now, all you have to be is an enthusiast tuned into the right channels to know about the latest brilliant step. It's happened so quickly that it's hard to recognize a tipping point.
One day you were just playing the big titles, perhaps indulging in the odd Flash game if the moment took you, the next, you're laying down £10 for something like World of Goo
, and declaring it the best game of your year.
The PC is the birthplace of all of this. It's the front lines of the independent renaissance, the next step in the evolution of games. The obsession on graphical realism has moved away from the focus, with novel and paradigm-shifting concepts gaining the majority of the limelight.
Mechanics and what you do with them are the focus, with subtext and commentary becoming far more deeply appreciated. It may be hasty to declare ourselves in a period of interactive enlightenment, but we're certainly progressing.
Harnessing the Keyboard Community
So why does the PC make a difference? It's here on the PC that the independent developers are able to cut their teeth, and get the honest opinion of the thousands of anonymous voices that the internet provides.
The services of websites like TIGSource
, where hundreds of developers meet thousands of fans, all of whom share ideas, concepts and play through each others games may seem a little incestuous, but it's brought about the likes of Spelunky
and the upcoming Indie Brawl
, which is just about as incestuous as you can get. The benefit of such a community cannot be overstated.
On the PC, digital distribution is freely available, so there's no publishers to worry about, little licensing issues and the ability to give something you've made to people for however much or little you wish.
It's something that a fixed state console just cannot provide, and it's not something they are trying to provide. It'd be ludicrous to try and take on the PC in this way, without bastardizing the console and giving it a keyboard and mouse. And then, well, you may as well call it a PC.
That's not to insult consoles, which are providing an increasingly important platform for indie developers to earn their deserved money, but they remain the next move, one more step up the ladder towards financial success.
Without the facilities offered by the PC, the Internet and the active communities, they would have no awareness, no back catalogue, and nothing to sound their ideas off. Developers need this kind of experience to refine their games, and build up their reputation. It's hard to believe Flower
, the recent PSN game, would have been made at all (at least on the PS3), without first the success of Fl0w
There's little threat to the big companies. The success of independent games has forged its own niche separate from the big titles, meaning that the only impact on the AAA titles is critical, and, if anything, it's providing a set of brilliant new developers that the big companies can employ to improve their own games.
Indie games have fought the way into the consciousness of the games press, and anything beyond that has been mostly superfluous. It's growing, but in way that's keeping the genre away from the larger titles, whether out of self interest or merely because of the way these games work. There is no real threat to the big franchises, which is never something the indie scene has even aspired to.
A Rich Garden For Growing Games?
The majority of consumers today will still buy the multi-million dollar projects, and ignore, for the most part, the burgeoning indie scene.
What little does filter down to them will be through the consoles, with the online services providing an important springboard to the independent developers. Again, though, the audience requirements for these games are so wonderfully small that usually they've got most of the way there before the game is even released.
The majority of consumers aren't PC gamers, though. While the platform is far from being the dying beast it is so commonly dismissed as, at the same time it's not at the same level as the current generation of consoles. It's seen as too fiddly, too unfathomable, to bother with, and so those that do put in the effort number lower than those who sit on the sofa with a controller in hand.
It's no small number though. Steam alone has registered 20 million accounts, and the success of World of Warcraft
is enough to tell you just how many people play on their PCs, even if those players are atypical. Audiosurf
, an indie game that allows you to harness your music library and turn it into a series of psychadelic racetracks, managed to make good use of Steam's users. While the exact number of sales hasn't been released, it topped the Steam sales charts for the month it was released, which means Dylan Fitterer, the developer, made good money from it.
If you look at the 34 finalists at this year's Independent Games Festival, by my calculations, only five are available on the consoles, and of those, only three aren't also available on the PC in some form. This is where it's all going down.
Ground zero, the eye of the storm, whatever hyperbolic metaphor you'd like to use, it applies. We're the future, right now. Whatever trickles down to the standardized systems is theirs for the taking; we'll stick with what we've got.
Bringing It On Home
Let's face it. On the PC, there are no hoops to jump through, no 'i's to dot and 't's to cross, and no one else to give your money to. The PC is where the revolution has started, and it's going to continue to be where it happens. They say PC gaming is dying, but really, it's just evolving into something that can't be tracked or controlled.
We're the academics in the coffee houses discussing symbolism in The Path
, sharing stories of our countless lives and deaths in Spelunky
, and laughing at the nuances in You Have To Burn The Rope
The key sector of innovative independent gaming is going to stay here, and while it may branch out into different platforms, its roots are always going to be... on the PC.