PC: 2009

The PC games industry as you know it is dead. Boxed PC games? Dead. Interminable waits for long awaited titles? Dead. Monolithic single-player experiences that require five years of development? If not dead, then pretty unsteady on their feet. Still the PC, long since thought dormant, is thriving, and the long-heralded rise of digital distribution is here.

PC gaming on demand

Buying games in your favourite brick-and-concrete shop is already falling out of fashion. Now even buying and downloading games online is under pressure. Why should we have to wait a day or more for our favourite games to be released? As broadband speeds and the capabilities of internal graphics chips slowly increase, we’re reaching a point where high-quality 3D games can be started from within a browser window. You don’t need a monstrous machine to join in the fun. Just click a site’s nice big ‘Play Here’ button and your game will begin.

There are three major projects to look out for. Quake Live is a reboot of Quake III, funded by in-game advertising, launched from a web-browser window, and entirely free to play. So too is Battlefield Heroes. Then there’sInstantAction, a web-game portal in open beta from the same developers who produced the Tribes games. Their site will host 3D multiplayer games, including a re-imagining of Tribes called Fallen Empire: Legions. It’s already up and running with Marble Blast Ultra - a super-fun ball-rolling combat game. The best part of InstantAction? It’s absurdly easy to find and play with your friends: Marble Blast is fast becoming a lunchtime obsession within our offices.

Playing for free

The pirates won. The cost of PC games is being forced down to zero to compete with the warez kiddies who are happy to distribute every game created for nothing. Publishers are realising that it’s no use trying to compete with the torrent sites. Instead, why not turn the traditional model upside down: give the game away and then make money from the time gamers spend playing it?

Don’t assume this means your gaming is going to be interrupted by ads every five minutes, as on TV. Instead, some publishers are experimenting with micropayments - where you can buy cosmetic changes to your central characters, and more in-game items. The big poster child for the freeware movement is EA’s Battlefield Heroes, a cartoon shooter that looks as good and (hopefully) plays as well as Team Fortress 2. Others think the way to make money is with real-world item purchases. Club Penguin is an MMO for young children that’s funded through toys; kids buy cuddly penguins, which come with unique serial codes that unlock bonus items on the Club Penguin site.