I had a chat (registration required, and yes I've heard every argument against that) with Markus 'Notch' Persson for my day job recently, and was rather taken with one particular observation he made about the current state of PC gaming. To crudely paraphrase: the big publishers pissing off to console because they thought the PC wasn't as lucrative as platform as they'd like actually turned out to be a good thing.
With all the sound and fury of big, PC-specific, graphically intensive games gone, there was space for something new - something better, I'd argue - to come through. Leading on from that, I'd like to thank the graphics card companies for making such a right royal mess of the PC. I'm not being sarcastic. They did us a favour.
Here's the quote I'm on about:
The games industry started moving away from PC and into console a lot. While there are a few hardcore PC studios around, most of it seems to be focused on the console versions. They only really port the PC versions. The indie market really could blossom because people started realising that we're actually doing interesting ideas in the indie games. Something like in the early 90s, games that were made by id Software or Epic - small developer teams who actually took chances because they didn't have huge projects. So the indie scene could blossom; there are a lot of indie games on console too and they're selling really well as well. But I think it's one result of the sort of abandonment of PC gaming.
The other thing leading on from that, which we touched on very slightlly in the interview, was that perhaps the 'abandonment' was caused by gamers feeling to consoles to escape the tyranny of expensive graphics card upgrades, which is a fascinating idea: the vainglorious pursuit of ever more power and speed led to a perhaps inevitable downfall. I've blogged (in my biz voice) a little more on that here, but I'd like to be a little more emotive with you trusted souls.
Admittedly, my experience of 2001-2007 was coloured by working on PC Format and thus being required to keep up with the pixel-pushing Joneses, but the need for new graphics cards seemed constant. A steady flow of graphically-intensive, milestone titles gave NVIDIA and ATI cue to keep on pumping out ever-faster cards - which in turn led to a weird sort of terror amongst PC gamers both existent and potential. Every year or so, we'd need to splash out again, usually in the form of hundreds of pounds/dollars. It was exhausting. Worse, it was bewildering.
The furiously complicated naming conventions the graphics card companies used/use is, as far as I'm concerned, unforgivable, as was the sheer range of different boards available at any one time. Numbers, letters, 'ultras' and 'pros'. Once I kept up, doggedly. Now I don't care enough to try to. Not only did that overblown marketing vampirism make selecting which was the best card at a given pricepoint incredibly hard work for casual upgraders, it meant sub-par boards were put out with names incredibly similar to decent ones. Just a GS or GT at the end could make all the difference, and you could too easily end up buying an absolute lemon by mistake. What was the purpose? To trap us into endless upgrade cycles from fear and confusion alone? Or was the PC simply such an unregulated Wild West (something that otherwise serves the platform well) that the graphics card companies didn't really know what they were doing either?
Now, it's all change. Gaming-capable PCs are much cheaper, and few new games require a high-end machine - either because they're ports of console titles or they're lo-fi, marvellously interesting indie fare. While I miss being able to decisively say that the PC is the most technologically progressive platform, I wouldn't swap this age for that one. RPS circa 2004 would probably have been wall-to-wall FPSes. Tedious. Now, with the big publishers off pouring everything into their Call of War Honor on console and the graphics tech companies seeing a dramatic decline in card sales because there's not much that demands an expensive upgrade, PC gaming is wall-to-wall wondrous unpredictability, left to free-thinkers unbound by technological and budgetary restrictions - which means I can decisively say that the PC is most creatively interesting platform.
I haven't upgraded my graphics card for going on three years. I don't expect to have to any time soon, unless I'm planning on picking up a ludicrously big, high-res monitor. I don't see another Crysis on the horizon*. And I'm glad.
* By which I mean a technological landmark of a title, which both fuels and is fuelled by a massed rush for system upgrades. So don't give that 'wot about Crysis 2 hurr' claptrap, bucko.