Meet the new hotness, same as the old hotness

Remember when pretty much everyone in the games press and a good chunk of the industry said PC gaming was dead? Man, that seems like it happened so recently. That’s probably because it did. Only a year or two ago, you couldn’t look at a non-PC enthusiast site without seeing almost everyone condemning the platform as corpsified and one that would always play second fiddle to consoles in the home, saddled with half-assed ports of games that were designed for controllers and 720p first. Even with the huge rise of mobile and indie development, everyone said there just wasn’t a case for gaming on computers anymore. The usual bevy of nonsense excuses was offered: Piracy’s out of control! A computer than can run games is too expensive! PC gaming’s too complicated!

Then some time in 2011, the sentiment almost universally shifted and in the last couple of months, this seems to be the increasingly common viewpoint.

As a life-long PC gamer first and someone who also supports computers for a living, I’ve always thought similarly to Jim Sterling. I’ve owned every console since the PS2 and have a huge library of console games. I don’t dislike consoles at all, far from it. However, especially in recent years, the continued excuses I hear about why PC gaming can never be mainstream I always believed to be crap. Piracy is a huge problem on every platform from Xbox 360 to iOS, it’s just whined about more on PC. Virtually any computer you buy now can run games to some degree and even something as low as $500 can run AAA stuff decently if you don’t care about having all the settings maxed. Most reasonably equipped PCs can easily be plugged into a TV if you want to game on the couch and almost every new game has native controller support. And with the lessening frequency of driver updates and well as drivers, games and operating systems that keep themselves current automatically, it’s never been easier to be a PC gamer. I could sit my girlfriend or my Mom down with a new PC with Steam on it, say “Buy, install and play something.” and neither of them would have any harder a time doing that than they would putting a game into a console. Sterling also touches on how digital distribution means the actual games are almost always cheaper now as well. The standby excuses no longer apply and are just that, excuses.

Meanwhile, consoles have paid online services that are free on PC. Patching also became possible this generation which has given rise to the “release now, patch later” mentality that the absence of used to be their greatest strength. This is backed up with manufacturer “certification processes” that are supposed to ensure you get quality in the box. However, especially of late, we’ve heard many developers (especially smaller indies) complaining about how bureaucratic and slow they are and how more and more are finding the process not worth it. Even with this, we still get numerous games like say, every Bethesda release that are often barely playable at launch or the strange and continuing problem of most Xbox Live Arcade titles shipping broken online play. When you combine this with both Microsoft and Sony making games more and more secondary and trying to turn their machines into all-in-one living room devices, I think Sterling’s bang on when he says that consoles are simply becoming closed, less powerful and increasingly less friendly PCs.

Most indie developers have said that they both endured fewer headaches and made more money by releasing to Steam on PC or even the App Store than on any console service. Services like that allow you to create and release a game entirely on your own whereas Xbox Live Arcade requires that you have a publisher who cuts into your profits. Then there’s retail games where self-publishing hasn’t been a realistic option for over a decade. You can patch and update your game with ease and as often as you want on PC without penalty and contrary to the console certification philosophy, PC games that are broken at launch are no more or less common. In other words, PC not only has by far the largest number of potential players in the world, it’s the easiest platform to develop and maintain your game for.

Here’s the thing though: That’s been the case on PC for the better part of a decade now and it was the case throughout most of this time when people declared PC gaming dead. What amazes me is not only that the pendulum has swung back but that it’s done so with such speed that the pendulum’s practically warped by the G-force. The PC always does get a bit of a resurgence as a console cycle ends and given that this cycle has gone on way too long, a certain amount of that is expected. This time seems different though, with many developers big and small now speaking out against how frustrating the consoles are to work with and how many who have previously released on them aren’t going to bother anymore. Many say that between PC and mobile platforms, consoles are increasingly becoming irrelevant and that the next generation may be the last of them, at least in their current form. I don’t know if that’s true but I do know that PC and mobile are raising the bar of value expectations both from developers and consumers and if the consoles want to continue to have the great success they’ve attained, the large companies in charge of them need to stop slogging through the mud and learn to be agile and less controlling.

What I’ve really learned throughout watching this huge and sudden paradigm shift is just how increasingly irrelevant and frankly useless the enthusiast press is becoming. The same people who were declaring the PC dead with certainty only a couple of years ago are now cheering it as the killer of consoles. These are the same people who said the DS and Wii were gimmicky and would never take off and that people would never want to play games on a mobile phone and that PC gaming was always going to be a niche for wealthy nerds. PC gaming never went anywhere and was never close to dead but people believed it because the enthusiast press said so. I’ve come to realise in recent months that the segment is really just an inter-feeding echo chamber based on opinions people pull out of thin air without any real empirical evidence. Time and time again, the enthusiast press proves itself to be pretty useless at understanding trends and what consumers actually want, only at taking wild guesses and stating them as fact. It frustrates me to see their word so often taken as law among gamers, even when it constantly flip-flops and is proven wrong by others who remain ignored. I don’t know how one goes about fixing this problem but I’ve been granularly moving further and further away from this segment of game coverage in the last couple of years and I think if they aren’t careful, a lot of other people are going to as well. If when the next Xbox and PlayStation come out, we start seeing coverage once again swinging back to the PC being irrelevant, I think perhaps it’s their own relevance they should check.

I’ve always been a PC gamer first and will continue to be, even though I will likely be all three new consoles when they arrive. I do wonder what the future is going to hold in this regard but the important thing to remember is that throughout the entire history of gaming (including one major crash), playing games on computers has always endured and grown, no matter what has happened to every other segment. I think consoles are important for growing the gaming audience but if the future is in fact one where open, expandable, decentralised platforms can once again be dominant, I think that’s ultimately good for everyone. Regardless of where you choose to do your gaming, make sure you make your choice because it’s where you prefer to be, not because it’s where the increasingly irrelevant press tells you to be.

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4 Responses to Meet the new hotness, same as the old hotness

  1. Benticore says:

    I agree with many of your points here but I’d like to say that this problem of the enthusiast press basically being one giant echo chamber amplifying noise and drowning signal isn’t so much a gaming specific problem but an issue in a world where page views and click-thru counts are so much more important to the bottom line of many organizations than anything else. Forbes has an intriguing article about Ryan Holliday who lied his way into mainstream press because he knew that if he could get a critical mass of blogs and enthusiasts repeating his story, he could get major news orgs to cover it for fear of missing all those clicks.
    IF no one is willing to do the actual research and is willing to repeat what they’ve heard endlessly without thought or introspection, I’m not sure how you derail that feedback loop. Hell, our politics down here pretty much are NOTHING but echo chambers and feedback loops these days.
    I wonder if the next generation of consoles will be as stupidly xenophobic about indie generated content and consumer modification as the last one has been. So far all signs point to yes.

    • Much as I agree with your sentiments and how disturbing that Forbes story is, Forbes is not exactly a bastion of journalism either. Many of their stories I’ve read lately (especially ones with tech sector predictions) are pretty clearly there to drive clicks by riling people up.
      You’re right though, the only way to stop the echo chamber is to break the cycle and I don’t know how you do that either. It’s why I’ve largely stopped paying attention to the enthusiast press. I get the majority of my gaming news from a couple of podcasts, Giant Bomb and the community at Gamers With Jobs. Other than an occasional feature elsewhere, that’s pretty much it and it’s really all I need. One of the reasons I like Giant Bomb so much is that they think for themselves, they don’t just parrot what the rest of the press is saying. They never jumped on the previous “PC gaming is dead” bandwagon, nor have they jumped on the latest bandwagon of “mobile is taking over all gaming so everyone else might as well pack up and go home.” I like what some smaller, feature focused outlets like Penny Arcade Report are trying to do but they seem to be increasingly getting their head up their own asses about how much better a job they’re apparently doing and they don’t have the mainstream popularity needed to really impact major change.
      Really, these are the same problems that mainstream “news” organisations have as well. People say that want real news and journalism but the sensationalist echo chamber and quotes from Michael Pachter are what they still click on and the outlets need click to survive so that’s where they gravitate. For now, I’m just getting away from places that do this kind of thing and I hope that one day, one of these shifts (which are almost always the opposite of what the press predicts) will be enough to wake people up.

  2. Benticore says:

    Remember the ‘Journalist’ who went on a date with the former Magic Champion, then wrote an article about how much of a big nerd he was and how that got EVERYBODY riled up, even though it was CLEARLY click-bait? I wonder if some places look at how the internet as a sort of quasi-intelligent entity (maybe more of an entity with a rudimentary nervous system) reacts to certain stimuli and think ‘All to easy…” before firing off something that is sure to generate clicks and buzz. We are in a werid place as a species, where we’re producing more data everyday than we can possibly consume so we have to rely on filters to give us the content that is good or important or popular. At this point, is it just a matter of using the right filters or is there another path? AT this point, isn’t all press enthusiast? The other side of that is corporate press isn’t it?
    I feel like there’s something deeper here though. When you look at the patent trolls or the copy-cat devs littering mobile games, I get the sense that the goal is to make as much quick money as possible before people are willing or able to fight back and then move on. Particularly thinking about Notch and this Uniloc lawsuit. In a world of noise, the one with the loudest signal wins, I suppose. I see it all the time on places like Reddit, where non-aligned views and posts are down-voted into oblivion just because. It’s one thing to want accountability of internet users for the things they say, but at the end of the day, there’s just so much noise, how could you possibly ever filter out what’s real and whats fake?
    Then you get into the Baudrillardian idea that maybe the noise in and of itself is a kind of signal, shaping our views in very specific, very intentional ways. Like how climate change deniers will cite a few crack pot sources that were funded by oil and coal companies about how there is doubt in the science about climate change which can then be repeated ad infinitum to bloggers and what not.
    …and we’re back to what we were talking about.
    Sorry for the ramble there, but yeah, I see it everywhere these days, from the news and media jumping on the latest twitter trends to produce headlines, to people communicating in meme-pictures. We live in wonderful, terrible, strange place.that bears very little resemblance to the place our parents grew up in. I wonder what our grandchildren will see (or won’t see, as the case may be.)

    • Was that article actually click bait? I thought what got so many people in a furore about it was the fact that it actually seemed like that idiot believed what she was writing. I seem to recall her giving a non-apology apology about it later saying that she was drunk or something when she wrote it. Maybe I’m remembering it wrong. The thing with the Internet is that it’s the perfect demonstration of the theory that while individuals can be smart, people as a whole are stupid, ignorant, fearful and over-reactionary. I think the echo chamber effect exists as much with fans as with the press. The comments section of most game reviews are proof enough of that.
      I’ve actually found myself having to cut back where I get a lot of my content lately, not just gaming because like you said, there’s more being made than any sane person can consume and with the personality I have, I start to get frustrated when I can’t consume it all so I’ve been making little “walled gardens” for myself to ensure that I only consume what I think I can handle. I try to not restrict that to only stuff I want to hear because one doesn’t get a clear picture of the world otherwise but it’s a lot of work to curate your personal filters to have a wide lens but also try to keep out the echo chamber effect. When you follow tech and gaming as your two primary hobbies and think one of the biggest echo chamber subjects around is Apple, it gets even harder.
      You’re totally right about modern business environments. No one starts up a company to have long, sustained, reasonable growth. It’s all about building up as fast as possible and then cashing out by selling or going public. My employer is a 30 year old company that grew slowly, never intending to be the biggest kid on the block but to create value for its shareholders by playing it reasonable and looking out for the long term. It amazes and scared me how rare a thing that is nowadays. All of these patent troll suits and copycat apps are just people trying to take the path of least resistance and make a bunch of money for as little effort as possible. That seems to be the commonly accepted modern way of doing things and it’s scary because it ultimately does no good for anyone. It’s one of the things that frustrates me about the Apple fashion trend going on right now. That ecosystem is already rife with problems, many of which have materialised very fast and which Apple seems unwilling to do anything about, yet it’s still praised as the “saviour” of gaming, even though many of these problems existed before and in many cases, were solved on other platforms like PC. The tech press and many fabboys are so obsessed with the new shiny that they ignore the existence of other things that have been doing a lot of that and often better for years now. Apple is a very smart company, they know the echo chamber in the press is a big part of what’s driving their unsustainable growth and they know how to play that like a well tuned instrument. They don’t even have to try that hard and yeah, journalism’s not supposed to work that way.
      I guess this went off in a weird side direction but it kind of all ties in really. I guess I’m in the minority when I try to look at an entire landscape and what the big picture is rather than constantly focus on whatever’s the new hotness at a given moment. It’s frustrating because I point out things like I did above and just get labelled a hater because I’m disrupting the perfect echo sound wave rather than contributing to it. Bah, I should just live in a cave.

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