What Games Are: The PC’s Struggle To App-Up Continues

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Oh Sim City 5, you poor thing. Right about now, when the media should be filling up with tall tales of virtual skyscrapers and cooperation between players on a grand scale, your life must be miserable. Between server crashes, Amazon suspending sales and reviews comparing the experience of attempting to activate you to paying “someone to kick you repeatedly in the friggin’ mouth,” it’s been a tough week. And all, largely, because you tried to insist that you be played always-online.

Depending on where a user comes from, these Sim-City-esque situations are either maddening or baffling. There are the PC gamers for whom the whole idea of always-online games has long been egregious. Ever since Half Life 2 required Steam activation (and probably before), something about connected games rankled some players. It made sense for, say, massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. But what if I wanted to play my game on my laptop? What if I was on a plane? What if I just don’t want to be online? Why should my single-player game have to contact the Internet?

On the flip side is the increasing acceptance from mobile and tablet consumers that software comes through central providers, that being online is more common than being off, and that this sort of tension being played out on the PC should have been solved five years ago. Okay you might be on a plane from time to time and maybe the game needs to be smart about that, but the principle of connected games ain’t no thing. It has a lot of advantages, such as easily keeping apps up to date, connections to friends and so on.

Functionally speaking, the app customer is right. Better connected devices are dramatically more convenient in a whole bunch of little ways, and also safer. You don’t, for example, see any malware on iPad. You just don’t have to put up with the stresses of virus checkers, managing files, having uninstallers degrade your operating systems and all the rest of it. And yet the attempts by both Apple and Microsoft to transform the desktop and laptop computer into app platforms have met with muted, or even hostile, responses. It’s less a functional argument and more a philosophical one.

Apple has tried to integrate bits of iOS into the Mac, such as increasingly serving their own applications through the Mac App Store, and it works but has yet to set the world on fire. Then there is Microsoft’s Windows 8, which – for all its faults – tries to make a big hullaballoo about modernising the PC. And yet the overall reaction to it has been apathetic. Even the recent idea floated by Gabe Newell (of Valve) that Steam might become more of an app market by allowing more aggregation and less curation is met more with puzzlement than joy.

In part the resistance of the PC to apping-up is historical. Unlike mobile and tablet, the PC has long appealed to the sort of person who views a computer more as a power tool than a content-consumption device. Programmers like having power at their fingertips, the sensation that – if they really needed to – they could dig deep into the internals of the machine code and rewrite the kernel. They dislike barriers, and new-fangled smart devices are all about barriers. Your average power PC user can see how that sort of thing is all very well for the muggles, but feels that he doesn’t need training wheels.

Moreover there is a political sentiment (as expressed by Cory Doctorow for example) that the general-purpose-if-complicated computer represents an important tool for liberation. It’s important for a slew of reasons, from settling the larger issues of copyright to encouraging revolutionary thinking, that the PC style of computing endure. Without our messy machines, the risk is that the Internet becomes as dumb as television.

Then there’s the problem of existing powers. Part of the reason why Sim City 5 is a debacle, much as Diablo 3’s launch was, is that there are many companies who are already in the PC software landscape who do not want to cede their power. It seems to make more sense for EA to provide its own online servers and services, for example, and turn gamers into EA gamers. That way they can capture more value over the long term. Activision believes the same with its Blizzard games, as do many other publishers who use Steam but wish they had the resources to roll their own.

For the customer, however, this leads to a junky experience. If Android vs. iOS has taught us anything, it’s that persistent connectivity needs a single point of access, that when it becomes necessary for customers to know which app vendor they’re working with (or even that such a concept as different app stores exists) then the result is a sticky and trust-less interaction. It becomes a hassle, and not one that gets solved by yet another store. That’s why there are more Android devices, but iOS is the platform of choice for developers who want to make money.

Finally there’s the technology. To the user app platforms feel unified and smooth, and this breeds a sense of confidence. For example it does not take a long time for an app to start up or to close. Apps don’t generally hang while a hard drive grinds a load of data. Users don’t really have to deal with graphics settings or drivers. Apps handle notifications with consistency. And so on. Despite the veneer of fancy new launchers or dashboards, this is not at all true of the PC.

The Mac is basically still a Mac as it was five years ago, with a couple too-many bolt-ons to the core user-interface and hangovers from yesteryear that have yet to be resolved. Windows 8 may have attempted to make us all rethink what Windows is with panels and widgets and so on, but its core metaphors are weird and mix old and new in uncomfortable ways. How, users ask, the blazes does it actually work?

So the PC muddles on and inches its way into a technical ghetto. As muggles drift over to using app platforms in droves (because life is just too short), the PC increasingly becomes a machine by developers for developers. At the moment there may be a disparity in power between “proper” computers and app platforms, and you can’t yet develop for iPad on iPad, but over time those factors will reduce. Then where will the PC be?

It has always been in the middle of transition in some shape or form, and the argument for the importance of general computing isn’t insignificant. But – to me at least – it feels as though Apple and (especially) Microsoft have to really decide for the long term whether the PC is going to go all the way in on apping-up or go another way. The half-in/half-out model is just not working, and sooner or later will motivate even gamers to find some simpler solution to their needs.

Oh Sim City 5. Don’t you wish you’d been developed as an iPad app?