If you’ve been even remotely connected to PC gaming over the last year or two, you’d have felt some heat radiating off the community. A rising sense of frustration, that things are bad and just keep getting worse. Many PC gamers feel like they’re reaching a breaking point, and it’s hard not to sympathise.
The PC gaming market has been hit by a number of perfect storms lately, and they all seem to have coalesced in 2023 to create a huge cloud of Bad Vibes, the effects of which are being felt especially at the pricier, AAA end of the market.
First, the pandemic did an absolute number on graphics cards, sending Nvidia mad and leading to three years of releases and prices that are way beyond the pale for most reasonable folks. Then some blockbuster games dropped that didn’t run very well. Then some more. Then more. Once-beloved studios have been gutted by years of mismanagement and turnover (those two things are related). All the while prices for games have crept up, and DRM continues to haunt — and adversely affect the performance of — so many games.
Everything is bad. And gamers want someone to blame. So they take it out on supposedly lazy developers, they take it out on QA who should have caught those bugs, they crucify company executives who are only in the business to make a gamer’s life worse. They even blame each other, pointing fingers at those who keep buying broken and bad games at launch (or, even worse, before launch), which is only encouraging all this.
There’s an incoherence to the anger, though. Punches being swung in the dark. There’s a general tension, a sensation that the walls are closing in, that each day will bring a fresh new horror. Compounding this is an air of hopelessness, that people have been complaining about these issues for months, years, decades, to no avail. Parties and people are blamed, but nothing ever seems to stick, or make a difference. But the need to punch something is there, so the punches keep flying regardless.
It can feel like every major PC release is bad, but complicating matters is the fact no two bad releases are bad for quite the same reasons. The Last Of Us is a bad port, not a bad game. Cyberpunk’s woes stemmed as much from unfocused game direction as bugs. Battlefield 2042 was pushed out in the middle of a global pandemic. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor seems to run just fine for loads of people, but not for those with the best hardware, who are also the most likely to complain about it online. Redfall feels like a game made to fulfil a contractual obligation, not because anyone at Arkane actually thought it was any good.
The problem is games being rushed out before they’re finished, before they’re properly tested on a wide range of hardware. The problem is that a new console generation — the PS5’s architecture especially — has presented a fresh set of challenges to multiplatform developers and port studios alike. The problem is that game development is getting more and more expensive. The problem is that management at major publishers and graphics card manufacturers are beholden to shareholders, who demand constant growth, and the only way to ensure that is to increase profits while slashing costs.
The problem is that video games are really hard to make.
Like I said, a perfect storm. That’s a lot of things to be trending downwards at the same time, making it easy to sympathise with a disgruntled PC gamer at the moment, or at least those interested in the blockbuster side of the market (smaller games from smaller teams using less resources aren’t anywhere near as impacted by all this). I say this because I am also primarily a PC gamer, and also very upset about all this — the graphics card bullshit especially — but also because I empathise with the frustration that there doesn’t seem to be any way out of this.
Some of these problems can be resolved in due time. The console porting stuff especially; I feel like a lot of people feeling angry at bad PC versions of console games right now weren’t around 10-15 years ago, when multiplatform releases on PC were just as bad, if not worse. Console generations don’t always sync up neatly with advances in PC horsepower, which leads to messy ports. We’ve been here before. We’ll get through this, as Twitch streamer Casey Explosion sums up here:
Folks, PC ports weren’t fine back in the day, buggy and broken PC release aren’t a new phenomenon, and to claim otherwise is pure revisionism. That’s if you even got a port in the first place, a lot of Japanese studios simply wouldn’t release their games on PC at all.
— Casey Explosion (@CaseyExplosion) May 2, 2023
The rest, though, they’re all just a part of wider trends, which have been sliding this way for decades but are seemingly only now at the point where gamers have moved from being upset to being truly angry. EA and Activision shareholders aren’t ever going to collectively decide “OK, that’s enough growth, we’re good now”. The bigger and more expensive video game budgets get — a natural consequence of gaming’s own insatiable need for expansion (in graphical fidelity and world size) — the more those publishers chasing growth are going to squeeze us on things like retail prices, season passes, DRM and downloadable content. And so long as Nvidia controls so much of the graphics card market, they’ll be free to do — and charge — what they want.
Trying to blame developers, platforms, companies or even individual executives is like yelling at clouds. You think Andrew Wilson is doing terrible things as EA’s CEO? I guarantee you the next person taking his place will do exactly the same shit. He, and every other person in a leadership position at a major video game company, are simply doing their jobs to the letter.
The only thing every factor listed above has in common is that they’re all issues produced by and indebted to a system designed to bleed you dry in the name of ever-expanding growth. Every major company is getting squeezed by shareholders, and so that company’s management will continue in turn to squeeze its own workers and then squeeze you, harder and harder, because that’s how this all works. Endless growth doesn’t appear in a vacuum, it comes from increased gains and reduced expenditure. Or, in video games — an industry as defined by layoffs as it is record profits — both at the same time.
There’s no escape from this. The machine is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Hoping for some kind of AAA miracle, that every executive at every major publisher and hardware manufacturer is going to have a collective epiphany and take things back to whatever way you think they were, is the definition of insanity. There’s no way to get around blockbuster PC gaming’s downward trend other than bailing on it altogether, and taking solace in the fact that, unlike most other platforms, the PC is actually capable of supporting a diverse and thriving independent development scene (largely thanks to Steam, whose business model is a whole other story). Because the only message a games company hears when its broken games sell are that its broken games will sell.
I get that people are angry, but it might be time to stop getting angry at the trees and try getting angry at the forest instead. And if that doesn’t make you feel better, you can always just walk away from the woods.