Things were different back when the PC was young. Video games were barely an industry and the PC itself was a mess of devices with bad driver support, incompatibilities, arcane configuration files and very little in the way of help. Yet despite these crippling limitations some of the most unforgettable games were made that endure to this day.
The games were simple at first, abstract. Pixels and beeps somehow built entire worlds for us to play in. But while the visual and aural presentation was primitive, mastery of the game required much higher levels of skill, intelligence and perseverance than today’s average AAA title. I believe this is where I fell in love.
These games were almost always from small independent companies. They had to be, there was no industry to speak of. From this primordial soup emerged companies like Microprose, Sierra On-line, Bullfrog Productions, Westwood Studios, Origin Systems, Brøderbund Software, Codemasters, The Bitmap Brothers and Maxis. Every single one of these was established in the ’80s. Entire genres were born overnight. Strategy games, puzzle games, platform games, side-scrolling shooters, vertical-scrolling shooters, racing games, sports games, adventure games, RTS games, flight sims, space sims, 4X games, sandbox games, the list goes on forever. The sheer creativity and innovation shown during these years is astounding.
And the best was yet to come. We witnessed the golden age of PC gaming in the mid-’90s. Every game seemed to push the limits of what our primitive equipment could do, every title a triumph of engineering, innovation and art.
Slowly though the industry became a business and the indie developer was edged out. The corporate monoliths bought up the talent and the small studios. They started using words like ‘deadline’, ‘console port’, ‘target demographic’, ‘paid review’, ‘franchise’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘holiday season’ with alarming regularity. It was the end of the golden age.
Focus shifted to the consoles in the intervening years, budgets swelled to eclipse even big Hollywood movies and innovation slowed to a couch potato crawl. The industry became a slave to the game reviewer’s 10 point scale. A crude attempt at quantifying the value of a work of art.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, indie developers got a new lease of life. In the span of three short years XBox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, Steam and the App Store were all launched. In the case of the app store, the limitations of the medium once again became a source of innovation. All that creativity and innovation came storming back onto our desks, living rooms and pockets. New companies we’d never heard of and solo developers were once again building new things. Minecraft, Journey, Frozen Synapse, World of Goo and yes even Angry Birds are proof of the return of the indie.
But building games is an expensive business. Gamers are fickle and the need for big explosions, photo-realism and celebrity cameos runs deep. For an indie developer to compete with a big name studio they need big money too. And that’s where crowd-funding comes in. Kickstarter and other independent versions of it are allowing fans to pre-pay developers to build the games they’ve always wanted to play.
It feels like a perfect storm. A conducive environment for the sort of games we know are possible but haven’t been made for lack of corporate sponsorship.
I have a soft spot for science fiction and space-based games. This year has seen such an enormous variety of games in that vein that it is difficult for me to see it as anything but a resurgence in quality PC gaming. From FTL to X-COM Enemy Unknown. From Endless Space to Star Citizen. Even the venerable David Braben has thrown his hat into the ring with Elite Dangerous.
I have been playing games on the PC for 25 years. Nostalgia paints those early years in vivid colors of excitement and wonder. I am once again filled with the same emotions when thinking about the future. We are once again, at the cusp of a golden age.
I can’t wait to see what’s next.