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Opinion: The PC As Champion of the Game Revolution
Opinion: The PC As Champion of the Game Revolution Exclusive
May 27, 2009 | By Phill Cameron

May 27, 2009 | By Phill Cameron
More: Console/PC, Indie, Columns, Exclusive

[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, Aquaria 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, ThatGameCompany's previous success.

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.

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Brian Murphy
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PC Gaming > All else. The only people claiming PC gaming is dead are the console fanboys. I play hours and hours of World at War, nightly. (Limited Edition - Purchased at Best Buy, so FU to Piracy). Make a good game, and I'll buy it (Along with Crysis, Crysis Warhead, GTAIV, Farcry 2, Stalker: Clear Skies and Company of Heroes).

Only reason I have a console is because I can't do without Gran Turismo, and the PS3 is the only place that's going to happen on.


Sean Parton
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The largest glaring commission this article makes is of the iPod Touch/iPhone. Many indies have thrived and even dominated the top 100 in the App Store, meaning it's possible to be actually _seen_ by more than a small minority of the public.

Also, saying "PC gaming isn't dying, there's those 20 million people playing WoW!" doesn't help your argument, because the vast majority of those specific MMO players are not likely going anywhere near indie games. If the amount of subscribers to WoW is an indication of the majority of PC users, then that effective audience for indie games is indeed a lot less than you'd like.

Certainly, the PC may have less restrictions to worry about compared to all the other platforms, but to think it's the end-all be-all for indie gaming that this article implies is just ridiculous.

Mike Smith
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Making money off indie games on PC is very VERY hard. Relatively very few have done it successfully and usually in large part with the aid of portals.

Marketing is the key and it's still a tough proposition on PC for indies.

Brian Murphy
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Hey Sean, not to start anything really, but taking a look at the active servers/players in World at War, you'll see yet another example of why statements such as 'PC Gaming is Dying', are ridiculously uneducated. Console use is merely catching up to the PC Gaming Behemoth. 4900+ servers are up daily, and they are quite...quite active.

So, I don't really get it. If you put out a game that's worthy of purchase, then it'll be purchased. I myself can admit, fully and openly, that I've pirated quite a few games, but, the difference is, I'll actually go out and buy the sucker, if it's worth it. If it's not, it's quickly uninstalled and destroyed. End of Story. But, I've got both a PS3 and PC version of GTAIV, I no longer play the PS3 version because the PC version is simply miles and miles beyond how the PS3 version performs. In fact, any multiplatform game that currently gets released, I purchase for my PC. And only 1st/2nd party exclusives, do I buy for PS3.


Brian Murphy
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Heh, Bill - PC Elitists are right to feel elite. The hardware inside my PC, is something Sony and MS could only wish to put in their consoles. Yes, I feel very superior to console gamers when I can play GTAIV at nearly 3 times the resolution of the consoles (And remember, I do have a PS3, that adds to the superiority complex, as I get all of MS' exclusives + multiplatforms for my PC and all the PS3 games as well). No graphical pop-ins/outs, no freezes, no glitches no crashing etc... completely seemless gameplay. It's fantastic!


Brian Murphy
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I stand corrected Sir! You raise a great point, another reason why I have to have my PS3, Tekken and Street Fighter just...won't do on a PC. Using a keyboard for that is terrible.

But really...are there many other genre's that the PC just plain out isn't better suited for?

FPS -> Mouse and Keyboard support > Controller (I know, it's opinion...but c'mon...).

For all gametypes -> mouse+keyboard key-binding functionality > Console (that's just plain fact...console controllers have finite options...whereas, mouse/keyboard...not so much).

But, you are correct that PC users are feeling marginalized by the console market, and rightfully so, for many reasons. Release times of console games vs. their PC counterpart, is a prime example. The PC version gets stuck on the back burner, so that the consoles can suck up the cash, and avoid losses due to piracy. Which is a stinking load of BS...maybe on the PS3 that's a fact, but on the 360, fact is, of the 2 people I know, who own 360's. Both of them are modded, and they've purchased 1-2 games for it, while having a current (and growing) library of about 100 games. Yeah, that's right, so, do the math, and you can tell that the console market isn't exactly the bastion of clean gaming, as some might tout it, dare I mention the PSP?

Point is, there isn't a industry out there that isn't impacted by pirates (yar!), or other such nefarious individuals. And simply ignoring/abandoning the market that originally brought huge companies to power (EA, Infinity Ward, Ubisoft etc...), is quite a bit insulting. Personally, I thank the Gods for companies such as Crytek, who realize that the console market is a vapid wasteland of dumbing down IP, and refused to even bother putting out Crysis on the consoles (Would've been the brunt of a great many jokes by myself, can tell you that). Yes, CryEngine 3.0 is out now, but it still takes PC hardware into consideration and is apparently much better at hardware scaling.


Sean Parton
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@Brian Murphy: My comment didn't imply that PC gaming is diminishing or small, merely that using the population metric for an extremely special case mainstream game (WoW) is not indicative of the amount of PC gamers who would consider (or even know about) a niche title (which is basically what the indie genre of games is). It would be like me saying "Wow, Smash Bros Brawl sold X million copies, so clearly my niche title will do well on the Wii".

Basically, the author was trying to make a point that the PC gamer audience is huge, and as such the potential audience for indie games should similarly large. It's not.

Bart Stewart
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My perception is that rumors of the death of the PC have been exaggerated simply because, unlike consoles, there's no single entity making PCs.

Each of the console-manufacturing behemoths can afford to put out marketing that touts the advantages of their platforms, which their buyers dutifully repeat in order to justify their purchasing decision. But there's no such single source for PCs that would similarly manufacture a party line of superiority for PC-based gaming. (And based on what I haven't seen so far, the Alliance for PC Gaming either hasn't tried to fill that role or has been strikingly unsuccessful at it.)

Wearing my gamer hat, I find this depressing, since the huge, open, world-y games I particularly enjoy are more often found on the PC. Sadly, I see that entire genre of game ceasing to be made as a direct result of the "PC is dying" propaganda peddled by console makers and accepted by the money-lenders who determine which games can afford to get made and which can't.

More happily, I think the author has a point that indie games, while not the big, sprawling games I like best, are at least innovative, which I also enjoy, and that the PC supports innovative grassroots game design better than the more controlled environments of the consoles.

Less shovelware is released for the consoles; that's the advantage of controlling what goes on the platform. (The iPhone is in the same boat here; Apple is dictatorial in what it permits to be sold on the App Store.) But at what cost does such control come in the exploration of novel gameplay ideas, which the free-for-all PC game development world permits?

James Hofmann
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I think the PC was always the innovative one. The biggest problems were distribution and fragmentation, but a lot has happened to alleviate that.

Re Mike: I don't think marketing on the PC is any more or less difficult than it is if you're a AAA publisher. The difference is in the extreme cases of payoff: As a developer earning a salary, you get your regular pay or you lose the job. As an indie there is no upper bound of earnings, at worst you'll have only resume fodder. Therefore, what I would expect to happen in the long run is for the best talents to go indie, and the below-average performers to continue working on console games. Exceptions, of course. But that's where I feel things are going.