The past several years have seen a steady drumbeat of negative prognostications for PC gaming, both as a creative medium and as a viable business. High-profile releases were steered to living room consoles, with perfunctory PC ports at best, and messy DRM and hardware incompatibility made many of the remaining PC games more trouble than they were worth.
Magazines such as Computer Gaming World shut down (after an embarrassing sponsored name change to Games for Windows Magazine) and the only bright spot seemed to be the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft--even if other MMO entries found it hard to bottle that lightning twice.
No one was more at the forefront playing Taps for PC gaming than myself, having gone from a cheerleading booster to sober realist in the space of a few short years.
Yet, for the first time in a long time, I find myself much more interested in what's going on the PC side of the video game industry than the console side. My office and home laptops are suddenly buzzing with new and upcoming games, including StarCraft II, Civilization V, and OnLive's various streaming-game offerings--whereas this year's big list of holiday season console releases elicits a shrug at best, filled by the annual installments of mass-market cash cows. How did this potential reversal of fortune take place?
First, the companies that make PC games and the consumers who play them all seemingly decided it was OK to stretch the boundaries and leave their respective comfort zones. The seeds were planted over the past few years as game publishers opened the door to new ways to distribute their wares, losing the most frustrating parts of the DRM equation with services such as Steam and Battle.net (say what you will about online authentication, it works a lot better than discs, especially for those of us who like to install games on multiple PCs).
The next step was online stores like Good Old Games that offer classic games for less than $10, completely DRM-free. It's amazing how much goodwill one can build up by not treating customers like criminals.
Third, we opened the doors to new kinds of games, most notably Facebook and other social media games. These may not be what classic Quake-playing twitch jockeys were asking for, but games such as FarmVille and FrontierVille have brought tens of millions of new gamers into the PC-gaming fold. To say these aren't "real" games sounds an awful lot like the late Mitch Miller complaining that rock 'n' roll wasn't real music.
Finally, we largely eliminated the PC-gaming hardware arms race. It's no longer a point of pride to brag about how much your customers will need to spend on their computer rigs to even barely run your game.
StarCraft II is a great example of many of these lessons. The long-awaited sequel looks great on a high-end PC, but also will run easily on a wide range of systems, and even Apple's basic integrated graphics 13-inch MacBook. Installation is as easy as downloading a client software package or using a DVD, but once your game is registered, you don't need a disc, and you can reinstall the game anywhere. I'll also add, as someone who never played the original StarCraft (heresy, I know), the game is surprisingly easy to pick up, and a lot of fun for casual multiplayer matches between friends.
Civilization V (releasing September 21) is another example that works under the new PC-gaming paradigm. More than in previous installments, there's a real emphasis on hand-holding new players as needed, while not dumbing down the experience for anyone else. Using the online service Steam as a distribution channel is also key; I can especially see Civ V players wanting to have the game at home, and them maybe installing it on a work laptop when traveling. Like StarCraft II, the game is also very flexible with hardware requirements, and I got a prerelease version to run well on systems as basic as an 11-inch high-end Netbook with integrated graphics and AMD's dual-core Neo processor.
We've written several times about the new online gaming service OnLive. Though still in an extended beta period, the high-concept idea is that A-list PC games are rendered remotely on server farms while you play, and the actual gameplay footage is beamed back to you in real time. It sounds far-fetched, and I was highly skeptical of the entire concept. But in our hands-on tests, it let us play all sorts of current games on nearly any laptop, including Netbooks. The fact that anyone can hypothetically play even the most hardware-intensive PC game is a great equalizer, and shouldn't be underestimated as a potential entry point for new gamers.
However, there's one formerly big part of the PC-gaming universe that won't be making a comeback, and that's the classic first-person shooter. Case in point: the last major PC-only shooter that generated a lot of buzz was Crysis, a game specifically designed to show off your expensive high-end gaming hardware. A few years later, the big-budget sequel is being pitched almost exclusively as a console game. Sure, there will also be a PC version of Crysis 2, but that's not the development focus any more. Doom, Wolfenstein, Quake, and others were the driving force behind PC gaming for many years, but in this new PC-gaming renaissance, they're not getting invited along for the ride.
Update: I'm apparently not alone in my rediscovered appreciation for PC gaming, Kotaku.com says, "Love it or hate it, PC gaming seems to be having a great year."