A Terrifying, Dystopian, Communist Future

Yeah, that’s right. That’s what PC gaming is heading for.

Okay, I’m kidding, but let me make it clear where that joke is coming from. The US health reforms that are still slowly being pushed through to American citizens have been widely derided by the far right, Glenn Beck and Tea Party types, as socialism or communism because, according to them, it’s poor people being given stuff for free, which is evil and dirty and NOT THE AMERICAN WAY. That’s ridiculous, of course, the money for those reforms is being taken from other taxes (at which point those same right-wingers cry “TAX AND SPEND! TAX AND SPEND!” until you remind them most taxes are at their lowest for 40 years in America…). And the same thing is happening with a fairly hefty chunk of PC gaming right now: from “free to play” games with optional buy in extras, to the giving away of freebies in order to entice people on to your service. Poor people (you lot) being given stuff! For free! But, uh, if you want to get anywhere, or validate your use of this service for more than one game, you’ll need to buy this, this, this, and this…

At one end of the spectrum, we have Farmville (and, yes, for the sake of this discussion, it IS a PC game – it’s played on a PC, and it’s – just about – a game – that’s good enough for me), which sells shortcuts (bigger farm plots, oil to fuel time-saving tractors and seeders); at the other end we have the upcoming release of the Source-powered Alien Swarm remake for free, which will no doubt result in a noticable upswing in new Steam accounts, and new customers; and somewhere in between sit games like League of Legends (although I don’t actually recall seeing a similar business model anywhere – feel free to correct me on this) where you can either learn to adapt to the new free heroes each week, and grind away on the in-game currency, or drop $10 and pick up any top-price (and not necessarily the best) hero and a skin or an XP boost, with spare change.

Increasingly, I can see PC-exclusive games and distribution platforms leaning towards these kind of money making gimmicks or micropayments – after all, every major Steam sale, or at the start of the Portal giveaway, the servers appeared to fuse into lumps of molten metal, as if Gabe Newell had sat on them after an extra hot vindaloo. Likewise, logging in as League of Legends’ Season One update hit, I was struggling to reach 30kb/s downloading the patch on a line that usually manages 5-600kb/s. A couple of days later, having played for a good couple of weeks, I realised that if I wanted Cho’gath (a bastard ubertank who grows stronger by eating creeps), I was probably going to have to play a lot more LoL than my ADHD-filled head would accept. 2 minutes and $5 from a disposable card I had left from my last holiday later, I had him.

Similarly, when a Mac-owning friend downloaded Steam to try out Portal at my behest, a week later, I looked at his profile to see he had bought the entire Orange Box, both Left 4 Deads, and GTA 4 and the Episodes. “Well, they were there, and it was cheaper than getting them for my 360, so I thought… why not?” he said. And a fair chunk of those who just downloaded Steam for Portal probably thought the exact same thing while perusing the Steam Summer Sales – “oh, Generic Manface Shooter for £3.50… why not?” (They then probably cried when their piddly little Mac couldn’t run it, but that’s another topic…) And those of us who, instead of sneering in hipster-esque self-derived superiority, have Facebook, have probably had to block dozens of Farmville-a-likes, most of which are made by Zynga, all of which aim to make profit by dragging you into that “just one boost to get this next level/crop” mentality.

Now, I don’t for a minute imagine that all PC games will be like this – we’ll still be getting our lovely multi-platform releases (read, for most developers: shitty console ports full of mouse acceleration, intolerably draconian DRM, low-res graphics, or all of the above), and I don’t doubt that indie devs, Stardock, and to a large degree (because it’s where most of their business is, despite going multiplatform) Steam, bless their cotton socks, will continue to knock out old-fashioned games where you, y’know, buy them. For one fee, once. And get the whole game. Maybe some DLC or an expansion pack later. But there’s a big market of people who will take stuff for free, and a sizable chunk of those will, like me, probably jump at the chance to buy the big damn hero or harvest their… THING quicker. So expect to see it get a lot more widespread, and expect to see more choice tidbits “given away” to get people onto digital distribution platforms, soon.

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