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PC Gaming: E3's Dirty Little Secret

E3 2012 Diary

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It’s a bit odd to cover E3 with a PC-focused slant. Initially, I felt horrifically out of place roaming the LA Convention Center’s banner-plastered halls. The Kratoses and Master Chiefs of the world leered at me from their billowing sky perches, and I longed for the warm embrace of, say, a game about embracing people – as Rambo. Xbox controllers and PlayStation pads contorted showgoers’ hands into unnatural, vice-like claws, and I could only grasp feebly for a mouse that failed to materialize.

But, after the initial explosion of senses-overwhelming glitz and glamour, I started taking stock of the show’s inner workings. And you know what? Turns out, this is a PC gaming event – perhaps moreso than anything else.

Did you know that nearly every multiplatform game demoed at E3 – especially during press conferences – is running on PC? I’ve asked, and so far, I’ve yet to get a “no.” Watch Dogs, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Far Cry 3, Metro: Last Light, Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Crysis 3, etc, etc.  Here’s the weird thing, though: no one talks about it. Presenters mainly brandish Xbox pads as their weapons of choice, and viewers – unless gifted with Thundercats-esque sight beyond sight – are none the wiser.

It is, to be perfectly honest, fairly, well, dishonest. Demoing your game on PC is the new CG trailer. Once again, these demos aren’t representative of what console players will be seeing, but oooo, look at the pretty particle effects, perfect frame rate, individually rendered hair follicles, and no aliasing anywhere ever. Is it sketchy? Absolutely. But PC hardware’s so advanced that I almost find it funny when people at these events complain about the lack of a “next generation.” Look in front of you. It’s already here.

And then we get to the game lineups. What do Far Cry 3, Metro: Last Light, Battlefield 3, Crysis 3, The Elder Scrolls, Dust 514, Hitman: Absolution, Max Payne 3, Call of Duty, and a billion or so other heavy hitters have in common? They all got their start on PC. Moreover, many of them – Far Cry, Metro, and The Elder Scrolls, especially – initially fell into the “ambitious to the point of jankiness, yet lovable for that precise reason” category.

It’s interesting, then – if not always encouraging – to watch how these franchises get molded by “wider audiences” and, in turn, shape those players’ tastes. Skyrim, for instance, was (in some cases, unforgivably) glitchy, but many of those lumpy clumps of code ended up endearing Bethesda’s opus to players even more. The notorious basket glitch and giants’ penchant for sending slain foes into geosynchronous orbit spawned countless YouTube videos. One might accuse The Elder Scrolls’ lore of lacking personality, but its world has it in spades – warts and all.

Less encouragingly, Metro’s flawed-yet-fascinating bullet economy is getting polished right out of existence in the name of faster action, and I worry that much of its trademark quirkiness won’t survive the harried tunnel flight to accessibility land. Far Cry 3, meanwhile, remains ambitious, but more from a conceptual standpoint than a structural one. So these things run quite a gamut. To write it all off as “dumbing down” PC games, however, would be a knee-jerk blanket statement that doesn’t even begin to try and really understand the situation. The scenes are mixing, and game design’s evolving in new directions as a result.

Disappointingly, however, newer imports from our multicored shores – for instance, cloud gaming, free-to-play, and wildly inventive indies – are mere whispers next to E3’s figurative cannon that fires guns that fire bows-and-arrows that fire dubstep. Indiecade’s presence is definitely promising, but the bulk of E3 chatter steers clear of the burgeoning booth. From a design and distribution standpoint, E3 remains a worryingly traditional show.

Encouragingly, however, if you ever needed clear proof that PC’s setting the pace, this is it. The hesitance to acknowledge it is mildly insulting at best and majorly dishonest at worst, but it is here. It is, admittedly, an incredible shame that no one’s really pushing this as a reason to grow PC gaming’s mindshare, but then, E3’s a show rooted in the retail scene first and foremost. We dedicated all our bricks, mortar, and cardboard boxes to worthier causes (like fortresses!) years ago. And yet, PC gaming’s still steering this ship. That, I think, is pretty damn cool.

For more E3 diary-ness, go here.

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Nathan Grayson

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