Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Interactivity: Where do we go from here?

The difference between video games and other forms of media, particularly film (which is also extremely visual), has been interactivity. In a video game, the player is part of the experience from the beginning to the end. A movie in which the viewer could choose different paths for the main character would not be the same, because the interactivity which video games offer is a constant one. The player's ability to choose if they'll maneuver down the left side of the hall or the right side of the hall seems insignificant, but it is important in that it makes the player a constant agent, not some otherworldly force that occasionally reaches down from on high to change the course of events.

There are limits, however, to what can be done, and also to what should be done. Ten years ago, the dream of many video game players had something to do with massive worlds, constructed realities where players could go to escape from normal life and instead be a hero in an entirely different realm of existence. If the difference between video games and all other media was its interactivity, than it made sense that massive, highly interact game worlds (now created, and given the title MMORPGs) would be the holy grail of gaming. Creating a world in which the player could do anything would mean a mastery of the craft of game creation, and it would lead to games (we assumed) that were deeper, more realistic, and more emotionally engaging than any before. Hell, it wouldn't just be the ultimate form of gaming – it'd be the ultimate form of art. If a work of art is something that can create emotion and activity just by having a person view it or read it, then a massive game world, in which players could both view and create at he same time, would make players masters of their escapism. Fun. Creation. Emotion. It would have it all.

It seems that things haven't gone quite as planned. MMORPGs are here, and a few of them are wildly successful. But far from offering an ultimate form of escapism, their popularity seems to stem from the ways in which the bind the player into an alternate reality. Fun, emotion, intellectual stimulation; these are not always high points of an MMORPG, although they do often exist, and in rare cases they can all exist at once. This existence, however, seems to be more an exception than a rule. The lesson that has been learned from the creation of MMORPGs is that offering players the world may not be the best idea. It was often assumed that the only thing keeping game developers from creating games in which players could do anything was technology. Now, it seems that may not be the case. Some of the constructed worlds offered are surprisingly small, and more telling, there doesn't seem to be any correlation between the technological requirements and the interactivity available in the game world.

I never expected this result. When I first started becoming interested in 'art' – films, literature, and games being my main areas of interest – the first of these worlds were beginning to form, and I was excited to see what they had to offer. I played many of them. Everquest, Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, Anarchy Online; just to name a few. What I found, however, was that they were some of the most boring, most un-engaging, least artistically stimulating gaming experiences I had ever been a part of. What was stranger, however, was that I often had a hard time keeping away from them. What I began to conclude was that the interactivity available in these games is to intense. They provide to much to do, and they blur certain useful video-game conventions to achieve their gameplay. By becoming too interactive, the games began to run into the same problems that we have to overcome in 'real' life. Money. Travel. Promotion. Meaning. Anything that I would call art, or which I would call fun, would need to provide me a reflection on these sorts of problems, not heap more difficulties onto the pile. I'm not talking about idealogical difficulties, but rather real, physical difficulties, such as “How do I get from here to where my friend is?” and “How do I accomplish this, given that I don't have the skills I really need?” and “How do I gain the acceptance of my peers?” The highly interactive worlds of MMORPGS do not comment or reflect on these problems. They merely provide more of them.

The root of the problem, I believe, is that these constructed worlds try to emulate the real world. But in any case, its clear the MMORPGs are not the end-all that some gamers might have thought. Very linear games exist to this day, and some of them are wildly successful. Whereever we're going from here, complete interactivity is not the destination.

But if not interactivity, where? Isn't the interactive nature of a video game the thing that sets it apart from any other form of entertainment and any other form of art? Well, the answer to that is still yes; however, games so far seem to have assumed that adding more things for the player to be interactive with means a better game. There are many games that give at least some nod of this which are not MMORPGs, including older ones like Deus Ex, by providing players with a game world in which they can interact with a number of trivial items. JC Denton, the nano-augmented hero from Deus Ex, can not only fight terrorists and conspiracies; he can also pick up pots and throw them on the floor. Another example would be the Elder Scrolls series, which tends to throw in countless objects that are useless to the player's main goal of adventuring and saving the world, like vases, random bones, worthless hides, and other junk that has no use either than to be throw on the ground in piles. Both of these games are very good, but the addition of this 'interactivity' adds little to them (except the comedic value of throwing pots and pans on the heads of civilians), particularly in the case of the Elder Scrolls games, which are loaded with enough swords, armors, and potions that throwing in random objects does not help the player connect to the constructed world at all.

As a counter-point, the Half-Life series has never presented itself as particularly interested in providing a world that is 'real' via the use of excessive amounts of mundane and useless items. Despite the fact that Half-Life 2 games make heavy use of a 'gravity gun' that can be used to manipulate the world, the developers do not seem to believe that making the player interact with pots and pans increases the realism, the fun, or the impact of the game. Most of what you'll find are boxes of various sorts (a long-time gaming standboys) or drawer units, or desks. The intro sequence to Half-Life two is particularly notable in this aspect. Though the player is taken through an apartment complex full of people, the only items of note are televisions. The kitchens are barren, the cup-boards bare; surely they must eat something, cook something, have at least a bowl somewhere, but the player doesn't see them and doesn't interact with them. Thats because the developers wisely know that this sort of interactivity is irrelevant. What they show you should be there for a reason, just like the words in a novel, or the scenes of a movie.

The question developers and players need to ask is what it means for a game to be interactive, and if being interactive is what games should hold as their unique trait. Is interactivity merely the act of physical acting on or being acted on by an object? Does it mean the act of interfacing with controls you use to move your character? Or is interactivity instead a state of mental engagement between the player and the game?

I believe that the later is the more useful definition. It is entirely possible to physically interact with an object and not 'interact' with it a meaningful way. We can type on keyboards without consciously acknowledging the each letter typed, we can stop at stop at red lights without staring at them, and so on. If I move a cup from one end of a table to another, is that a meaningful or interesting interaction? I would say no; the cup has only moved a short distance, and because the agent did not undertake any significant mental process, very little has changed. Certainly, the agent in the interaction will not remember the interaction for more than few seconds. However, if that person picked up a well-written article and read it, moving nothing but their eyes in the patterns necessary to pick up the words, then a memorable interaction may take place.

Essentially, I believe games should view their interactivity on a more abstract level. That they should find ways to play with the idea of interactivity itself. That they should make their first goal the stimulation of the mind, through action, through intellect; in either case, through making players use their brain to figure out a problem.

The player picking up a pan is not a useful interaction; the player saving a character they've come to care about is.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bad Economy, Bad for Games

The collapse of Bear Sterns was unexpected. A year ago, the firm appeared one of the strongest in its industry; now a deal is under way that will result in it being either bought out for two dollar a share or, if for some reason shareholders reject the offer, result in the bank collapsing. Bear Sterns is just another in a long line of events that have been occurring since late last year, when an invisible pin-pricked popped the housing bubble and everything about the American economy began to lose its luster.

It is not clear if we are currently in a recession. A recession, technically speaking, requires negative growth of the nation's economy. However, many people seem to feel we are in one, as indicated by the polls splattered randomly across the gloom-and-doom of major news networks. The Fed appears to be freaking just a little, and it seems clear that we're going to experience a period of very, very low growth at the best. This isn't doomsday, but there will be consequences.

How the gaming industry weathers those consequences should be interesting. Gaming is an entertainment industry filled entirely with products that no one needs to live, and so it will be one of the first things cut from the budgets of people who want to save a little extra cash just in case. However, the games industry in its modern incarnation has never been through a serious economic downturn (the gaming industry of the 80s was a MUCH different business), so the results could be unpredictable.

For PC Gaming, the threat of recession couldn't come at a worse time. The major consoles have been out for some time now, which means we're starting to again see PCs competing with consoles for the wow-power of advanced graphics. More importantly, prices on very good graphic cards are now reasonable enough that more people can afford them, and I would expect that the lowering of these prices would also result in a lowering in the prices of PC gaming systems. As the consoles age, and the prices drop further, PC gaming could begin to become a viable platform again, with major games being seen in 2009. A recession at this point would steal the PC's thunder, threatening to undermine the benefits of cheaper hardware and better performance. A recession could essentially end big budget titles for the PC, if they arn't already dead.

But budget games, such as various Sims titles, and MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, would probably remain successful.

For the 360 an the PS3, sales would likely go down, but the biggest impact would probably be on micro-transactions. To play new games on the 360 or the PS3, you essentially have to pay the 60 dollars, and the option to choose a Wii or a PC isn't more efficient. Players looking to save cash will probably cut out the optional stuff, instead, choosing not to drop five dollars for a Forza car pack or 10 dollars on a new Gears of War map pack. Even this, though, would likely only occur if he recession was very obvious, so for the most part the 360 and PS3 will see their biggest pain come in the form of console sales. This could be particularly bad for the PS3, which is only now starting to get a foot-hold in the market.

The Wii will likely do well, as it will remain the cheapest option for gaming entertainment on the market. But as a Japanese company with games and hardware developed and produced almost entirely in Asian countries, a following dollar is bad news. This is also true for the PS3, but less so for the 360.

For all platforms, it will be hardware sales that are most severely hurt, then games. Budget games will be the winners, and MMORPGs will also do very well. Game companies will probably want to engage in less risk, and some projects may end up cancelled. Unfortunately for hardcore gamers, a recession will likely mean a rise in the number of cheap, for-the-family products, and a further reduction in games with intense and difficult gameplay.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Graphics? Who cares.

As long as video games have been around, their graphics have proven to be an important point of attention. Which is to be fucking boring about it; graphics, as a word, is one of the most mundane words in the entire English language, and does not accurately describe exactly the zeal that many game critics have put into describing and parading the visual achievements of game after game. Take a quick peak at nearly any preview, even of those games that are not particularly interesting visually and which are not even trying to accomplish that goal, and you'll find that talk about the game's visuals are often a centerpiece of at least a large part of the article.

Part of this may be a journalistic reality. Lets face it. Pictures look AWESOME, and obviously video games are a very graphical media, perhaps even more so then video itself. It is, after all, the visual sense which creates an interface between the player and the game. You cannot touch or feel a video game, and while you can hear it, the idea of navigating a virtual environment from sound is not one which has much – or any – popularity or possibility, since the realistic replication of sound is difficult to achieve without very expensive headphones or a similarly expensive surround-sound system. When hearing about a game that will soon be released, we want to know what it looks like because it is what we'll be looking at throughout most of the game. This is particularly true of fast paced action games like World in Conflict or Halo 3, which focus (despite their pretensions) very little on creating a compelling story and mostly on visually driven gameplay.

We're being fooled. For games, the phrase “graphics sell” is as common as the the phrase “sex sells” in relation virtually all other forms of media. It is held as a common-sense assumption, true as the sky being blue. But it is an assumption that is completely and entirely false.

Graphics have never sold well and have never been seen by consumers as a good reason to buy a game or console, a phenomena that is actually becoming more obvious as graphics in games improve. And there is no need for a complex explanation; all one needs to do is check out the top sellers for various video games and various consoles. You'll find quickly that there is no correlation at all between top-selling games and graphics; in addition, the most consistently successful developers, like Valve and Blizzard, are successful not because of their graphical prowess but because their lack of commitment to hardware killing graphics; Starcraft, Warcraft 3, World of Warcraft, Half-Life, and Half-Life 2 are not graphically intensive titles, yet they are synonymous with success. Even more telling is the sales charts for consoles; the Wii continues to dominate, as does the Playstation 2, a fact that many want to sweep under the rug.

There are, of course, some games that do sell partly because of their graphics. The Elder Scrolls series comes to mind; Morrow-wind and Oblivion were both famously taxing games at time of their release, as was Daggerfall, though you wouldn't think of it now. Crysis is another example, and Gears of War (maybe). But while these games certainly look(ed) good, you'd be hard pressed to say they sold because they were pretty. There has never been another series of mainstream games that created the same gameplay experience you can find in the Elder Scrolls series, Gears of War popularized a cover system that will now probably become a model for many other shooters, and Crysis, like the not un-beautiful Far Cry before it, sells because of its free-form large-environment game that is not found in most action games (outside of shitty vehicle segments), a trend I wish would become more accepted, but may still be ignored due to its demands on hardware.

What we forget about is the game that are visually impressive but still sales flops. We forget about them because, more likely then not, we've never played them, or if we did, we found them to be forgettable. That is why they're flops. Any Quake game after Quake 2 can be filed in this category, as can the Unreal series (at this point, the games feel more like tech-demos for potential buyers of the latest Unreal game engine). Or what about Call of Juarez, a beautiful game, often used as a graphical benchmark, that no one will remember in two years?

So why do we still focus on graphics?

Its all about journalistic reality – as I talked about earlier.

You would be well advised to put on your tin-foils hats for this theory, but my belief is that the continued concern about visuals in games is largely the result of a journalistic 'conspiracy' that has been on-going since video games began. Conspiracy is, of course, to strong a word, because it implies that those participating came together and made plans to create a specific result. That isn't what I'm saying. What I am saying is that, planning or no, it is beneficial for corporate game journalism to insist on the importance of visuals, because their business is largely a visual one, based as much on having the latest screen-shots and exclusive game-play videos as anything else. And hell – we, as consumers of game journalism, are on on it too, because those screen shots and videos are what we respond to. It is a cycle; gaming journalism provides us with visuals because that is what we want, and its what we want because its some of the most compelling content gaming journalism provides.

I see no evidence that this cycle will be broken. So the phrase will likely exist. But here, in summary, his my suggestion; the next time the tired phrase comes up, stop and think about it. Stop and think about what it actually means. More likely then not, you'll realize that the visuals of whatever game you're excited to play are far less important than your gut may want you to believe.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Multiplayer Gaming: A Problem of Time

Multi-player gaming is a highly diverse activity in terms of the age, economic class, and ability. But most of this diversity is hidden from sight; at best, the tone of a person's voice, or the pattern of their language, may give an indication of the player's background; but this is only applicable in games with voice-chat enabled, and is not particularly accurate. In-game, players are often represented by clones of various 3D-models, or don't have any visual representation at all (as is the case of RTS games). This makes easy to forget that the soldier to the left of you could be a twelve year old boy on his parents computer, while the medic to the right is a forty-year old with two kids, a divorce, and a six-figure yearly income.

But it isn't economic differences or maturity differences that I'm interested in in this article. Its the differences in the time these players have to devote to a game. It is a fair assumption that the tween or teen who has no responsibilities will have more time to devote to gaming then even a college graduate with a low-paying job and a girl/boyfriend. It is also likely, though not absolutely true, that the college graduate with a low-paying job and girl/boyfriend will have less desire to spend time playing the game. This does not mean they enjoy it less, it just means that, to college-grad, there are other options open, possibility that take time to explore. Long-term relationships, concerts, road trips, artistic hobbies, over-time at work – all of these take time that otherwise might be left open for a game.

Becoming skilled at a game is like becoming skilled at most anything else. If you want to become good, you have to practice, and the more you practice, the more skilled you become. Obviously, practice takes time. All practice may not be created equal, but generally speaking, spending eighty hours on an activity will make you more skilled at it then the person who spent twenty hours. This implies an inherit disadvantage, and thus the problem of time in multi-player games. Those who spend more time playing a game will become better than those who spend less time.

Games are almost exclusively a goal-oriented form of entertainment. If you didn't lose a game of Tetris when the screen filled with blocks, what would be the point? The game would be nothing but a simulation of block-twirling, or in other words, boring. The objective is tied to enjoyment. It is the reason behind the game. Completion of the objective may not be necessary for the player to find the game enjoyable. A hard-fought loss can be a great deal of fun, but only because it was fought for a reasonable objective that could have been won.

But if one group of players has spent so much time 'training' for the game that the other side has no chance of victory, then the objective no longer seems concrete. It becomes a carrot on a stick, ostensibly providing reward; but most people will not follow a carrot if they see they never have a chance of acquiring it. The status of the objective as objective becomes lost, perhaps seen as a lie, perhaps seen as purposeless and arbitrary, no more meaningful then spinning blocks. And once the status of the objective is lost, and it becomes not something to strive for but something that is impossible to reach, the game loses a great deal of its fun. Some players may lose hope, while others may 'rebel' against the game by suiciding their characters or trying to exploit the game's rules. But eventually, most players will quit.

The problem of time is one that is crucial to the success of many games. Franchises are becoming more and more powerful. Once upon a time, a game was a one-off commercial venture. If the game was successful, it sold well and perhaps several years later a sequel is introduced. But now game companies are looking for steady flows of income; not just MMORPGs, which obviously have an interest in keeping their players, but also other genres. Take Dawn of War, for example; the constant introduction of expansion packs had provided a steady flow of revenue for a game now several years old, and its success as provided a model for others to follow. Or consider the many instances of episodic content, the most popular of which are probably the Half Life II Episodes or the Sam and Max series.

The goal of the franchise, with its expansions or episodes, is to keep the player hooked for as long as possible. Game companies need to keep the players interested enough in game that they continue playing over the course of many years. The problem of time is a critical obstacle to overcome for any company that wishes to accomplish this goal, because the problem of time becomes larger over time. The core group of hardcore players, who have played the game constantly since release, have a massive edge over new-comers and casual players. Not only do they become more skilled, as discussed above, but they also form more social connections. And both of these – the skills, and the connections – become more powerful over time. The hardcore players eventually become so entrenched that the more casual players feel constantly inferior, dissuading those players from paying for new expansions or another month of online play. Why bother, after all, if there is no hope of catching up to the more active players? Why not just wait for a brand-new game, where the casual player can at least hope to find a relatively level field for a few months?

Game companies have not been silent on the issue. The most notable response has been the match-making system debuted in Halo 2 and refined in Halo 3. This system automatically ranks players according to various statistics and then pits them against other players with similar skills. This provides players with a more level playing field. This response, however, has so far been surprisingly isolated. Few other on-line games have taken so drastic of an approach, but it is needed. Perhaps the biggest problem is simply convincing developers and players that these new ranked systems are better than more traditional, open-ended matchmaking systems.

Up until the last couple years, with the introduction of Xbox Live, the online landscape was ruled by the PC. If you wanted to play online, you played the PC, and that was it. The PC, with its keyboard and mouse interface, naturally lent itself to fairly complex and open ended matchmaking systems. Most interfaces allowed players to search games by their name, the game type, the number of players, and etc. Or, players could simply select the server with which they had the best connection, as represented by the definitive gage known as 'ping'. For some, the idea of a match-making system that lumps you with other players based on skill is a step backward. This is particularly true because even in the case of Halo 3, there is no way to search for servers based on map or specific game type. You get what you get.

But the ideas are not incompatible. If the Halo 3 system was adjusted to allow the creation of 'games' by the player, as in Gears of War, then the headache of playing a map or game type you hate like could be easily avoided.

Ultimately, the problem of time with necessitate these solutions. The lifespans of games are becoming longer, and at some points companies will have to deal with the fact that even the best game cannot last forever if the community which plays it falls into elitism. Conquering the problem of time is the first step in the engineering of game communities by the companies making the games, and it is one that ultimately will leave us better off, the fear of 'big-brother' corporate dictatorships aside.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire review

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you combined RTS, 4x, and Supreme-Commander style scalability into one game?

Yea, neither have I. Not because the idea isn't interesting, but because it is kind of unfathomable. Like the old Battlezone games that combined fast-paced tank combat with RTS gameplay, Sins of a Solar Empire answers a question that isn't often asked; at least not seriously. While RTS games are often about fast-based tactical combat, 4x strategy games tend to be slower, more deliberate, and focused on the big picture. Splicing the two together seems like splicing a rabbit and a turtle. You don't expect much to result but a mildly amusing, and mostly grotesque, freak.

Ah, but have no fear - Sins of a Solar Empire is far from an abomination against nature. Strange? Yes, perhaps. Its doubtful you've ever played anything quite like this before, and so the learning curve can be on the steep side. The extremely basic and short tutorials don't help the matter. And perhaps even more alarming to the new player is the lack of any sort of campaign mode. In strategy games, campaigns tend to serve as a means of easing players into the gameplay. Missions typically start easy and slowly become harder, giving players access to new units and strategies as they become more familiar with the game.

Not in Sins. Sins throws you out there, sink or swim.

But the game is not entirely unforgiving. The interface is wonderfully easy to understand since the friday patch put in 'weak/strong against' and 'Requires Research of X' descriptions on units and structures. Your resources are listed clearly on at the top of the screen, and putting your mouse over them will bring up a tool-tip breaking down where your income is coming from. Queing ins unlimited and easy - just shift-click. There is also a side-bar available that is categorized by planet, and allows you to quickly view, in icon form, all the structures and ships around the world. It can become a little unwieldy once your empire becomes massive, but in most sitautions it adds an extra level of control - selecting unit in battle in the heat of battle, for example, is much easier.

The game's most impressive feature, however, is the highly scalable engine, which allows players to zoom in on a single squad of fights, or zoom out to view several stars and their surrounding planets. This, along with a relatively slow pace, is what allows the game to effectively combine the macro 4x game and the micro RTS game. One second you can be viewing the star system, planning your next colony - the next you can be commanding individual ships in real-time combat. Its hard to fully appreciate this feature until you actually see it in action, but if you've played Supreme Commander, then you have an idea of what you're in for.

The game's 4x elements are fairly in-depth, and focused primarily on the question of how to allocate relatively limited resources - not the credits, metal, and crystal you use to build ships and structures, but the limited space that is available around planets. Each planet you colonize has 'logistics' and 'tatical' slots, that allow for the placement of improvements and defenses respectively. Deciding what to build where is one of the primary social decisions you'll make. Developments of the planets themselves is less involved, as the improvements are fairly basic, and most of them either effect what you can build in or the survivability of your planet. You'll also have to decide where to place your fleets, because the lanes along which your ships can travel from planet to planet are limited, and even frigates can take five minutes to get from one side of a small 6-planet empire to another.

The research tree is the most impressive 4x feature. Ironclad did not slack here, and provides comprehensive research options that are easily superior to what can be found in the fantastic 4x game Galactic Civilizations II. Each of the games three sides has their own tree tech tree which, while sometimes similar, are also sometimes very different - for example, while everyone receives the same basic structures and similar units, different upgrades can be researched, and these differences are often important. The Advent, who have cultural bonuses, can research and acquire cultural structures easily, and have can research cultural bonuses that allow their culture to spread more quickly and give ships within their cultural influence a slight bonus in damage mitigation. The TEC, on the other hand, can quickly and easily acquire trade structures. These differences have a substantial impact on
both short and long-term strategies.

Once in combat, you'll find that the spice of the game's pew-pew is mostly in the mixture of your fleet in Capital ships, massive, expensive vessel that gain exp and effectively operate like the 'hero' units that have been in many RTS games. Although every side in the game has the same fundamental units, the devil is in the details; the Capital ships for each side have different abilities, and the the more common vessels have their own variations in cost, strength, and shielding vs. hull strength. The reviews comparing combat to Homeworld are full of shit. Those expecting tactical combat based off considerations like turret location and weapons layout will be disappointed - all you need to know about the 'tactics' of combat in Sins is that while it has a Z axis, it isn't mapped for use by default.

Which doesn't mean that any idiot can win a fight. Units have different ranges, armors, weapons, and special abilities. The Capital ship abilities are very powerful, and proper use can mean the difference between defeat and victory. But players who were planning to put their bombers into a claw formation and swoop down on enemy capital ships, a 'la the Homeworld series, will be disappointed.

Also disappointed will be players looking for a quick fix. The pace of Sins of a Solar Empire is ponderous at best. This game lumbers towards its conclusion like a giant - colonization, combat, and research all take much, much longer than in a RTS game, though perhaps not as long as a turn-based 4x game. I don't mind this at all, jumping into Sin after playing Dawn of War would be like jumping into a cold pool after bathing in a hot tub. The pace is perhaps to ponderous at time, as there are occasions in the early game when you more or less have to wait for resources to come in before you can proceed.

But for those who find Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, and similar RTS games to quick for their tastes, Sins of a Solar Empire is sure to hit a sweet spot. It is the kind of game that will make you sit down and think long and hard about your next action, because very movement is critical on a strategic scale. Sins is also sure to be a hit for people who have typically played 4x games, but have become feed up with the combat system such games employee, which tend to be extremely simplified.

RATING: 4 1/2 Stars

The Good:
Epic gameplay
Top-notch interface
Combination of 4x and RTS genres
Great 'Starcraft-style' tactical combat

The Bad:
Pace can be to slow
Steep learning curve

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Transformation of PC Gaming

PC Gaming is dead.

It is a phrase as old as it is meaningless, and one that has been trotted out time and time again to be beat into a bloody pulp, re-stuffed, and re-cycled.

I have played PC games since I was about twelve years old. My first PC was a 200mhz Sony Viao with God-only-knows what video cards – it cost about three thousand dollars and was absolutely top of the line for the time. One of the first PC games I remember playing was Mechwarrior 2, and I for a time I was intensely into Interstate ‘76, which I played under the moniker Funkyspeed. I haven’t been playing PC games since their invention – I’m not quite old enough to have cut my teeth on DOS games – but I have been playing them for longer than most – about ten years, which is nearly half the time I’ve been alive (I am twenty-three right now).

During all that time, this phrase has been in existence. And before that, too – people were saying it when the SNES came out. Yet it has never come true.

But that does not mean that it could not come true. An aura of pessimism has come over PC gaming recently, and it has refused to lift. Instead, it has only become more potent. PC Gaming Sales for 2007 were down over the year before, continuing a slide (relative to consoles) that began to 2004. Meanwhile, Console gaming sales have soared. This is bad enough, but is made worse – for the ‘hardcore’ PC gamer – when you see exactly where those PC game sales were located. By far the highest seller was Blizzard’s World of Warcraft expansion, the Buring Crusade, which sold 2 and a quarter million. Behind that was World of Warcraft’s base software, which almost broke a million. Five of the top-ten spots are occupied by ‘Sims’ titles.

But the real punch in the teeth are the sales figures of Command and Conquer 3 and Call of Duty 4, both of which sold in the mid-300,000 range. By comparison, the console version of Call of Duty 4 sold over three million copies for console, and Command and Conquer 3’s Xbox debut appears to have sold slightly more than its PC variant.

Those are staggering figures. Equally staggering is the insane debut of Halo, which sold more copies than all but The Burning Crusade in [i] the first day of its release [/i].

This is not to say that PC games are unprofitable as a rule, but then, that hardly matters. It is clear that with those sort of sales figures, the days of PC-exclusive big-budget titles are probably over, at least temporarily. Games are a business, after all, and big companies with the big budgets need to pull off Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, or Mass Effect have stock-holders that expect returns. No, not just returns - they expect the most profit that is possible from their investment. It is clear that consoles are now the most profitable platforms to develop for, and they also take care of nagging issues like piracy.

How this came to pass is obvious enough. PC gaming has always been an industry where software companies lead the pack. The hardware has typically been built to catch up with the requirements of the software, as has been shown by top-of-the-line titles like Morrowwind and Crysis, which at the time of their debut could not be comfortably run on anything but the most expensive equipment available. This is in contrast to the console industry, where hardware has always dictated what games are capable of.

As a result, the console industry has been capable of a coordination that the PC gaming industry has never been able to compete with. The Xbox 360 only came out with the powerful hardware that it did because Microsoft was willing to eat a loss on every single console they sold. Obviously, the software developers for the PC cannot subsidize the hardware in this fashion. PC gamers have to pay full cost for what they purchase.

When faced with the choice of laying down 250 dollars for a decent 8800 GT, or laying down 250 dollars for a Wii, the decision is obvious. But the situation is worse than that, because most people do not feel comfortable installing their own video card, even if the process is relatively simple – therefor, the choice is not between a 250 dollar video card or a 250-500 dollar console, but rather between a 1,200 dollar + gaming PC or a 250-500 dollar console. Even assuming that the consumer does not already own a PC capable of common tasks like word processing or web surfing, the Gaming PC is still a poor choice, since a desktop capable of these basic tasks can easily be purchased for 400 dollars.

It is clear, then, that the PC is no longer the platform of choice for those seeking to play big-budget, graphically intense titles, and that it probably will not be the platform of choice for at least several more years. But does that mean PC gaming is dead?

Not exactly. The calls of “PC Gaming is dead” have always focused on ‘serious’ games – which, as I’ve already implied, are usually big-budget and graphically intense titles. The Sims is doing very well for itself. So is World of Warcraft. But the fact that these games are selling so well is seen as a sort of negative, because these are not the sort of games that serious main-stream game-players play (MMO players are serious, but serious MMO players are not ‘main-stream’ in that they tend to ONLY play their MMO of choice). The Sims is what your mother plays. It isn’t hip. It isn’t cool. Its for an entirely different demographic.

That is part the transformation.

Classically, PC gaming has been almost feudalistic, with players pledging allegiance to certain games, operating systems, and video card manufactures. The barrier of entry had always been very high, because playing games required a new player to first buy the appropriate hardware, then install the game, then download any patches (and figure out how the change the gameplay), then work out possible bugs, and then figure out if they want to play the regular version or hook on some mods. The lack of flexibility that many PC gamers consider to be the weakness of Consoles is in fact the Console’s greatest strength. Consoles are simple. They’re easy. You buy it, you put in the game, and you’re good-to-go. If there are patches, they’re added and and installed automatically. Game-crashing bugs and hardware conflicts are nearly non-existent. Everyone has the same game and the same maps.

Blizzard has known that making a game difficult to play is a very bad thing, and its why they’re consistently so successful. Their games, while not exactly low-budget, are made to be run on hardware several years old, and are relatively free of game-ending bugs. Blizzard's games are easy to learn, yet have complexity that more serious players can appreciate. Their patchers don’t require much thought and those games that allow customization (I’m thinking Starcraft custom maps) are structured in such a way that customizations can be shared quickly and easily. They do not promote elitism; Blizzard wants EVERYONE to play.

Blizzard used to be unique in that approach. But I doubt they’ll be alone much longer. The Sims have been successful because it copied the gameplay part of that approach – its a very easy game to get into, and can run on older systems without problem. Valve has been trying a different approach by using Steam, which has been built in such a way that modding and add-ons by players are still common, but are controlled and distributed in one easy format (no more README.txt).

So part of the transformation is a popular one, in which the 9-to-5er with three kids can now sit down and play a PC game without feeling like they’re wasting time.

But that isn’t the only element; the transformation is also an underground one. Beyond the realm of the slick, easy-to-learn main-stream games like Starcraft, World of Warcraft, and The Sims, there are countless underground relics. Many of these are not particularly successful, but some are: take Stardock, for example, which earned fame for creating the Galactic Civilizations series. Jump into their latest version, entitled Galactic Civilizations 2: Dark Avatar, and its clear that there was a budget to be met. The graphics won’t knock your socks off, the interface is useful but particularly pretty, and the sounds are strictly budget-bin. But the gameplay kicks ass. And its very, very complex.

Galactic Civilizations 2 was created on a budget of just over one million dollars, in only 18 months. No one knows exactly how many units it has sold so far, but we do know that Stardock was proudly able to cite as being on the top-seller lists at Walmart and Amazon for several weeks after its release, and that Stardock developers commented several times that sales had well exceed expectations (I would expect so – the only firm figure I could find was 50,000 in the first two weeks, which means it sold better during its debut than the latest Unreal game).

Stardock also offers its own digital download program, where players can download various games, including the newely released Sins of a Solar Empire, which was developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock. Another low-budget title (though this one took quite a bit of time to put togather), Sins of a Solar Empire is currently listed as the third-highest PC game for sales. That puts it above Crysis, Bioshock, and The Orange Box.

So no, PC Gaming isn’t dead. But it is transforming. It is transforming because it the PC gaming industry has to deal with the basic fact that it is not economical to build a PC gaming machine. PC gaming of the next few years will have to forget about the strength of the hardware and instead play up the PC’s other strength – the fact that millions and millions of households have one, just waiting to be loaded up with some fun software.

PC Gaming is no longer the platform of choice for Call of Duty 5 or Unreal Tournament 2009 – but it is also becoming easier for games with mass appeal, and games with low-budget, brilliant gameplay, to take the spotlight. Thats not a bad trade. The only death to be found here is the death of the PC gaming elitist – the kind of player who likes the fact most people cannot or will not spend as much money on a gaming PC, who enjoys restricting gameplay to only a select group, and who believes games are only truly complete with their mod of choice.

And to that player, I say, farewell.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Sin of a Solar Empire first impressions

Playing this game for the first time is like learning how to drive a stick by participating in a rally race across Asia.

This game also has one of the best titles I've ever seen.

And it is a hell of a lot of fun.

I'll post a review in a week.