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E3 2013, Next-Gen, And PC's Bizarre Invisibility Problem

We Can Hear You, Ya Know

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After sitting through nearly all of E3’s press conferences (and catching up on Microsoft’s, which I skipped to marvel at my super cutting-edge next-gen loft sink), I came away with two raucously growling gut reactions: 1) new Mirror’s Edge yes yes yes yay yes mmm-hmm yes good indeed and 2) did I just step into an alternate dimension where PC never emerged from the primordial gaming ooze? I don’t mean that in the sense that PC’s not the focus at E3 either, because frankly it never really has been. But come on: our platform of choice has spent years in the deepest waters of areas where Microsoft and Sony are only just beginning to dip their piggy toes. Free-to-play, DRM, cloud, servers, indies, problematic communities, etc, etc, etc. So why does it seem like nobody’s even tried to learn from PC gaming’s mistakes?

We have fucked up. A lot. Early and often. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with that whole trailblazing thing our open platform does so well. Things go horribly, horribly wrong for a bit, but then we get up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward. From the moment Steam launched as an unmitigated disaster to the slowly receding tide of pay-to-win to the (sort of, not really) final wheezing gasp of Ubisoft’s dreaded DRM, PC’s past decade has been paved by just as many tooth-flinging faceplants as it has glorious success stories. We learned – and continue to learn – by doing. Fact: most PC gamers don’t have functional hands, because we simply can’t resist putting them on stoves to see if they’re actually hot.

So then, let’s check in on all the sensible, business-focused Boxlords over in Consoletopia, shall we? And here, I’ll pick a random topic from my half-meter-tall, patch-soldered stovepipe hat – which, for the sake of this and all other arguments, you should just assume I’m always wearing. First up we’ve got an obvious one: DRM and other forms of copy protection. Sony seems to be handling the issue well enough, but Microsoft’s dropped the ball repeatedly without so much as a single oddly captivating beat poetry session to back it up. Daily online requirements, strict limits on trading and reselling, and egregiously nebulous explanations of many key elements have led the charge on a frighteningly closed-off assault. And what do Xbone owners get in exchange? TV and sports and a lot of the same multimedia services they already have on Xbox 360 anyway. Wooooo.

But wait, Steam’s offline functionality has a history of horrific jankiness, and we can’t resell games at all. Goodness, why haven’t we rioted in the streets yet? Well, largely because Steam provides so much excellent game-centric convenience and functionality that we’re less to prone to care – even if we probably should. Valve gives PC gamers constant updates, cloud saves, absurd sales, one-button mod support, one-stop shops for F2P and early games, and most importantly of all, hats. Oh, and that all comes sans arbitrary monthly fees. Steam is by no means perfect, but it generally does a great job of piling on so much convenience that the more problematic elements of its nature quietly suffocate below.

Worth nothing: when Steam first launched, it most certainly did not do that. Valve rather arrogantly assumed players would tolerate its Trojan horse for Half-Life 2. People despised the service for years. Meanwhile, exceedingly overt DRM sans much added service didn’t work out so well for Ubisoft and EA more recently. The lesson? DON’T DO THAT, EVERYONE ELSE. YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL OR DIFFERENT. Yeah, the aforementioned publishers made money, but not without some utterly excruciating growing pains that left ugly black stains on their most beloved franchises. Why not just, you know, avoid that part? Or at least try to.

But OK, Microsoft’s recent nauseating practices are rooted in cold, calculating business, and I’m no businessman. That said, indies, MOBAs, and eSports – the holy trinity of PC gaming’s latest renaissance – have been quite hard to spot at E3, both during press conferences and on the show floor. If nothing else, the former just makes sense. Many of them are inexpensive, interesting, and proven. The latter two, meanwhile, are spreading throughout PC gaming like wildfire, crisscrossing to decimate all else in their path. Once again, Sony comes out looking much better overall, but the situation is mind-boggling.

Perhaps even more egregious, however, is console-makers’ (and many publishers’) apparent stance on troublesome community matters. It’s one thing, for instance, to quietly ignore abusive or otherwise mean-spirited online behavior, but to openly endorse it is something else entirely. Companies like Microsoft and EA (and Ubisoft, to a lesser extent) revel in the culture their online communities have created. They co-opt it as a marketing tool – essentially shouting, “This is totally cool! It’s an essential part of playing our games” – to enhance their images. It’s especially frightening when very overt “jokes” about rape enter the picture during conferences meant to represent a product and its culture to millions.

I don’t think trash talk is necessarily bad. For some people, it’s a cornerstone of their gaming experience. And as long as the feeling’s mutual, that’s great. But that’s a big if, and services like Xbox Live have become known for their sizzling cesspits of toxic filth. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that people avoid online multiplayer for that reason.

Actually, I know it. Both Riot and Valve have sort of, um, provided data. But even without that, come on: it’s just common sense. Who enjoys being verbally pummeled into smoking oblivion when they’re just trying to relax? That goes double when race, gender, or other issues of identity needlessly enter the picture, even under auspices of just coming part and parcel with online wars of words.

Valve and Riot, especially, have fought to turn things around. They saw people stomping away from their games – parades thoroughly rained upon and smiles extinguished – and they sprang into action. Countless hours, attempts, and honest-to-goodness science experiments later, both developers are starting to see change.  The current solutions are far from perfect, but they have produced some results. More importantly, though, both Valve and Riot weren’t afraid to acknowledge an issue in the first place. At this point, console-oriented companies don’t even seem willing to admit that player behavior’s frequently a problem, and that’s, er, the problem.

It’s really quite a puzzling state of affairs, especially seeing as those things are only the beginning of a contagiously willful ignorance of PC’s triumphs and – more importantly – its ugliest, sludgiest failures. I’m not suggesting that these nuggets of wisdom will Save Console Gaming or convert me into a stalwart living room lover, either. I just want to see gaming grow and succeed in all sizes and shapes of relative box-ness. Plus, we’ve already got a head start on some related issues that will almost certainly define this hobby’s future (server shutdowns that pull the plug on games permanently, preservation of older games in general, free-to-play pricing/balance, MMOs), and it’d be nice to have everyone on the same page, hopefully working for some kind of common good. Otherwise, one side could very well take a turn for some new, even more player-unfriendly road and drag the other down with it.

Gaming’s evolving, the industry’s evolving, the world’s evolving. At the heart of it all is connectedness, and ideas are traveling through society more fluidly than ever. So I can’t help but wonder: why does everyone have such a hard time just listening? The information’s out there. If companies aren’t willing to learn from it, it’s the industry’s loss. And, in all likelihood, ours as well.

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Nathan Grayson

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