Friday, January 16, 2009

Constructing a Platform Out of a Series of Tubes

Tubes!As Andrew mentioned Wednesday, PC versions of AAA titles do not share the same success as their counterparts. It’s just a fact of life. Many consumers prefer that their tech devices (gaming included) come with less hassle. Yes, the PS3 costs more than a small island nation, the Wii uses more batteries than Darth Vader, and the 360 tends to well…break. But in general, consoles are simpler creatures. They’re built for the lowest common denominator, even if the controllers do add a button or two every generation. This ease of use makes consoles the prime destination for big name titles.

So what’s the PC for? Everything else.

Scanning the news, you may have noticed an uptick in common use of the word “netbook.” These contraptions, smaller and less powerful than a regular laptop but more of a computer than your iPhone, point to a rise in so-called Cloud Computing. Google Apps is a perfect example of Cloud Computing. Everything’s on the web. Everything’s browser based. Your computer can afford to be a little meeker, since most of the programs you use are online and optimized accordingly. Access to the Internet is so easy, and requires so little, that for the average American the PC is becoming a glorified on-ramp to the information superhighway. We should accept this.

Where does this begin to affect video games? The anything-but-elusive casual market. Flash and JavaScript, among others, have helped make browser gaming (dare I say Cloud Gaming) extremely accessible. Take PopCap Games for example. According to their website, PopCap’s flagship title Bejeweled has sold over 10 million copies since 2001. 65% of their audience is female and 75% is over the age of 29 (Miyamoto would love to get his hands on this Blue Ocean). And the kicker: roughly 600 million hours are logged in online PopCap games each year. Hopefully all those hours weren’t logged in the office, or maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

PopCap may be catering to your mom and your uncles, but where does the gaming enthusiast go for browser entertainment? Places like AddictingGames, Newgrounds, and Armor Games have hundreds if not thousands of offerings. Some are addictive, arcade-style games like PacXon. Others, like Armor Games’ immensely popular Sonny 2, offer a more robust experience with RPG gameplay, save files, etc.

Desktop Tower Defense can easily dominate an afternoon.Paul Preece’s Desktop Tower Defense is a perfect example of Flash game success. The Tower Defense genre has seen many iterations on many platforms, but DTD (in my opinion) just gets it so right. So right, in fact, that Stephen Totilo of MTV Multiplayer made it his Game of the Year in 2007. His main argument for its success, aside from its brains versus reflexes gameplay, is its ubiquity. It’s easily found and quickly played, and its success allowed Preece to start his own online gaming community with multiplayer, forums, and leaderboards.

These online game communities are the next step. Not only do AddictingGames and Armor Games give players immediate access to a wide spectrum of games, they foster a community atmosphere that is at the heart of Xbox Live and Steam’s success. Here is where gamers a tad more serious than the game-sneaking-housewife (disdain for such a stereotype intended) can gather to compete, discuss games as they play them, and (again, here’s the kicker) share their own games. If Jonathan Blow hadn’t spent a purported $180,000 dollars of his own money on Braid, maybe he could have just posted it on one of these sites and I wouldn’t be waiting until the freaking Rapture to play it on PC.


Don’t start thinking that these game communities only want Tetris clones and tilt-bike games. Armor Games offers sponsorship and award money for new games in their Developers Corner. PopCap makes their Games Framework software available via their Developer Program. One of the more powerful beginner-friendly design programs, Mark Overmars’s GameMaker, currently resides at YoYo Games. The software is available in a Battleships Forever was made by one guy.  It's kind of like the "Dragon Wars" of Singapore Game Design, except people liked it. free Lite version or the $20 Pro version. Twenty dollars, that’s it. The genius of this software is that you don’t have to know how to write code. You can skip straight to the design stage. Of course if you can write code, you can probably make the program jump through hoops. Either way, you might just make a game as good as Battleships Forever and get nominated as a finalist in the Independent Games Festival.

Ah yes, the IGF. Now in its eleventh year, this offshoot of the Game Developers Conference provides exposure and prize money for the year’s top indie developers. You may have heard of Audiosurf, World of Goo, or Crayon Physics Deluxe – all were winners in last year’s festival. Even the aforementioned Desktop Tower Defense took home a prize. This is basically the Kentucky Derby of indie game development. Except the winning horses don’t get put to pasture as a stud, they get things like deals with Steam and Wii releases. And these games wouldn’t exist were it not for the lowered barriers to entry provided by the PC and its life-partner the Internet.

The PC should accept that its role as a platform is tied exclusively to the success of the Internet as a platform. The sheer number of developers capitalizing on the opportunities afforded by Web 2.0 makes it an impossible platform to keep up with. If you ever want a headache, check out – The Weblog, where a number of people (bless their hearts) strive valiantly to stay on top of the indie game scene and steer you toward the cream of the crop. They may not all be browser based, but most of the downloads are extremely small compared to, say, anything on Steam. And I say headache because there will always be more games worth your time than time you will have to play them.

Sorry DS, we co-opted your stylus. There are many other things the PC has going for it as a platform, many of which apply to larger games as well as indie games. There’s the variety of input possibilities - tablet gaming à la Crayon Physics, USB 360 controllers, crazy keyboard setups, and the open-ended possibilities of a mouse and QWERTY keyboard. There’s the modding community, which has done everything from create a Dragonball Z Quake Mod to spawn games that deserved their own legit sequels like Team Fortress. Online play is generally free for games that want it, something Sony and Nintendo can’t seem to successfully bring to consoles. Blizzard’s still going strong, getting South Korea all hot and bothered every time they tweak the units in Starcraft. But I think the PC’s greatest contributions to the medium are to be found in casual and indie games. Things Sony won’t take a chance with because they’re too busy recouping costs on their Foreman grill of a platform.

According to urban legend, a monkey with infinite time at a typewriter will almost surely produce Hamlet. He’ll produce a lot of crap, too (pun so intended), but sooner or later you’ll get Hamlet. Amidst all the free platformers with crappy collision detection and awful controls, someone will produce an Iji. Wading through all the half-hearted defense and RTS knock-offs uploaded, you’ll eventually find a Dyson. Don’t give up on the PC just because the AAA titles smack of console development. And don’t wait for Steam to tell you which game is the next indie hit. Go find it yourself. Better yet, go make it yourself. You can do it right on your PC.