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Epic Games' decision to focus on console platforms rather than the PC, as revealed this week by Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski, will come as a blow to hardcore PC gamers - but it's not exactly a surprising move.
Rather, it's merely confirmation of a shift in priorities at the developer that has been evident for several years, and as such it's important not to overstate the importance of the news when considering the future of the PC gaming market. Epic's transition to console development has been a lengthy process, fuelled in no small part by copious assistance and incentives from Microsoft and Sony - for whom having the firm's best-of-breed engine technology available to developers on their platforms is a vital step.
While Bleszinski's description of PC gaming as being in "disarray" no doubt hints at some part of the firm's decision to focus on consoles, this move is as much about business partnerships as it is about creative decisions. The PC's benefits as an anarchic, free access platform are balanced by the lack of a real champion for PC gaming.
Microsoft is the closest thing the market has, and its loyalties are sorely divided between PC and Xbox 360. Even when it does pay attention to the PC, the results aren't always positive; attempts to launch a Live Gold subscription gaming model on the PC platform have been met with what might charitably be called contempt from customers. Compared with consoles, which have a large, powerful company solely devoted to evangelising the platform - and willing to reach into deep pockets in order to keep games and technologies on that platform - the PC is an utterly un-incentivised market.
However, Bleszinski's outburst also reveals a little of the soul-searching which is going on at many developers about the future of the PC gaming market. For once, this isn't the cyclical question of whether consoles will kill the PC market - a question asked so often, and answered with such an emphatic negative, that it finally seems to have fallen out of the industry's discourse, and good riddance. Rather, it is a genuine desire, both on the creative and financial sides of the business, to understand just what shape PC gaming is going to take in the coming years.
For a long time, it was simple to categorise PC games as "hardcore", with console titles seen as more casual. It wasn't a division that was entirely accurate, but it was close enough to the mark to be useful - for a while, at least.
That's simply no longer the case. While the PC still plays host to some of the most hardcore gaming genres, such as massively multiplayer games, realistic flight simulators and real-time strategy titles, a huge new market of ultra-casual games has also opened up on the platform. Meanwhile, consoles have come to occupy the middle ground almost in its entirety - largely thanks to stealing many of the PC's best tricks, from online multiplayer and high definition graphics through to the most recent feature to cross the lines, user created content.
As a result, some genres have switched allegiances almost entirely. First-person shooters especially are no longer likely to lead development on PC and add console ports on as an afterthought. Franchises like Call of Duty treat both platforms equally; those like Halo and Gears of War have opted outright for the opposite approach. Long seen as a bastion of PC gaming due to the finely honed keyboard and mouse control system, first-person shooters - even online multiplayer first-person shooters - are now a console genre for what is almost certainly a majority of players.
It will not be the last genre to cross over. Real-time strategy gaming has proved very resistant, as it's very closely tied to mouse controls - but some developers are already experimenting with the potential for using motion sensitive controls to compensate for the lack of a mouse. Before that happens, though, we'll probably see some MMOs crossing the lines successfully. Mass storage devices, reliable voice chat and solid online services make this possible - and it's interesting to note an industry-wide move towards designing MMOs that could be amenable to joypad control, both among those which do have stated console plans (Funcom's Age of Conan) and among those which don't (NCsoft's Tabula Rasa).
Which leaves the PC...where, exactly? In disarray, as Bleszinski suggests?
On the contrary - it leaves the PC absolutely thriving, but perhaps not in a form that will please its more hardcore adherents down the years.
PCs, after all, have the biggest installed base, widest demographic of users and highest proportion of Internet-connected devices of any platform on earth - with the possible potential exception of mobile phones. The result is a vast and thriving casual gaming market, ranging from small, ad- or brand-supported browser-based games, right through to giant franchises like The Sims.
In addition, PCs are further down the line with digital distribution than any other platform, and the relatively low cost of entry (thanks to the ability to self-publish, and the fact that any PC has the innate ability to be a development tool) means that innovative ideas - both in game design and in business models - still find fertile soil on the PC platform.
The benefits of this can range from wonderful independent games, produced by teams for whom console development is simply prohibitively expensive, to experiments with business models and delivery systems that ultimately benefit the whole market. From Introversion's cult hits Darwinia and Defcon at one end of the spectrum, to Valve's high-budget episodic Half-Life 2 follow-ups and commendable policy of buying up the best mod-makers, the unique structure of the PC market has enabled companies and individuals to do things with gaming that simply couldn't happen elsewhere.
That's not about to change. Despite their newfound love for casual games, digital distribution and even user-created content - the main thrust of Sony's maligned, but actually perfectly reasonable, Game 3.0 patter - consoles remain a walled garden. Without a publisher, significant financial backing and thousands of pounds worth of development tools, you're not coming in. Even if you do get in, your audience is naturally restricted; the segment of the populace willing to spend hundreds of pounds on a gaming device is, after all, fairly specific.
I can't agree with Bleszinski, then, when he describes the market as being in "disarray". In transition, certainly - and the types of game which he has always worked on, the Unreal Tournaments and Gears of Wars of this world are definitely finding their homes on consoles rather than PCs now. However, if anything, it's our concept of what a "hardcore" game is that's in disarray right now, not the PC market - which continues to cater to a wide variety of different tastes, just not necessarily the same ones it catered to a few years ago.
Is Gears of War a hardcore game? Is Halo 3? What about World of Warcraft? Call of Duty 4? Surely their very popularity, and the breadth of their reach, disqualifies them from the "hardcore" tag - or are we now to describe every game whose primary audience is "Male 16-30", and whose primary topic isn't sports, as being hardcore? It's high time that we stopped lazily using the "hardcore" and "casual" labels, which ignore the true richness and diversity of the modern games market, and which are in part responsible for the negative perception of the PC's position.
The PC's appeal may be shifting, but it still extends from deep, involving massively multiplayer titles and intricate, complex simulations at one end of the market, via RTS titles and many RPGs in the middle ground, through to The Sims and a whole spectrum of casual titles at the far end. It's still a vital, creative and powerful platform on which to create entertainment experiences - and even if sales of boxed games aren't all that publishers would like, we have barely scratched the surface of other potential revenue streams, even when World of Warcraft's astonishing subscription income is considered.
Epic's shift away from the platform may not be what PC gamers want to hear, then - but it is part of a natural transition, rather than a nail in the coffin. Soul-searching over the future of the PC market will continue for a long time, but it doesn't have to be pessimistic - the shape of that future may be unclear, but its brightness seems assured.
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