Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Next Great Desktop Gaming Platform?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 15, 2012

It’s no secret to regular readers that I am a desktop gaming junkie. Computer games have always held a higher place in my heart than console games, even when I was a full-time professional making the latter.  That’s not to say I disliked the latter — I was jealous of my friends’ Ataris and Colecovisions, played plenty of NES, and really loved my Playstation. Still do. I still have quite the collection of old consoles (and emulators) that I still actively play.

One of the reasons I preferred desktop gaming was that even though they had their share of arcade game ports – and in the early days, these ports were often much closer to the arcade experience than the consoles – you did get much deeper games intended for audiences with a longer attention span. In the 8-bit world, computer RPGs were far superior (IMO) to their console cousins, for example. Later, as Nintendo and Sega still emphasized “twitch” gaming and level repetition in most of their games (but with some fabulous exceptions), I was happily playing games that just did not translate well to the consoles, like Civilization, X-Com, Ultima 7, Wizardry 7,  and early RTS titles (not that these didn’t borrow from console inspiration…). And nowadays, the boundaries are getting about as smudged as they ever were. Consoles are as much for grown-ups as for kids, high-definition TV makes text readable (even though games tend to use as little text as possible), and aside from input devices are today just as capable as their desktop counterparts for gaming. But I still prefer the mouse to the thumbstick (especially for making headshots…)  If given the choice, I’ll usually* take the PC version of a game over its XBox 360 counterpart.

So while many consoles have come and gone, I still consider my “primary” gaming platforms to be three desktop environments: The Commodore 64, DOS, and Windows.

Commodore was awesome, and this was where I spent my formative years gaming. I’d have spent more time in the arcades if I could have afforded it, and I spent plenty of time gaming on friend’s consoles and computers, but the good ol’ C-64 was my gaming “home” for much the the 1980s. But I left it behind when I left for college, and it was plenty obsolete when I went shopping for a new computer again.  While I was enticed by the Amiga, most of the games I wanted to play were on DOS. I went where the games were.

Microsoft was already beginning to deprecate DOS by this time, and was in their third major revision of Windows.  But Windows sucked for gaming. It wasn’t until Chris Hecker and the “skunkworks” of Microsoft produced the WinG API, with a port of Doom, that the gaming world began to believe that Windows could be a viable gaming platform for high-performance gaming. Then, with Windows 95, everything shifted. There were still a few legacy games in development that still released DOS-only. Windows 95, which was no longer built on DOS, still supported them – but their days were extremely numbered by then. Windows 95 not only allowed high-performance gaming, but they made a real effort to improve upon it, getting rid of (most of) the configuration woes and massive hardware support needs that DOS games had been saddled with. It was still not quite “plug & play” the way console gaming is, but it was a massive improvement for both gamers and game developers.

Once again, I went where the games were. Now I was a Windows gamer. And that’s been where I’ve been ever since. Again, I go where the games (and other software I want to use) are, and I prefer the desktop. Windows has been the clear choice.  It’s generally been a pretty comfortable transition from upgrade to upgrade – at least every-other upgrade – as a developer and as a gamer. It’s gotten tough on the compatibility front from time to time. My main desktop system is still running Windows XP, simply because it’s easier to get some older software & drivers to run on XP than on Windows 7.  But overall, as a desktop gamer, Windows is where I’ve wanted to be.

At least until now.

In a couple of weeks, Windows 8 is hitting the market.  And it looks like it is trying to be as big a change as Windows 95. Or Windows 3.0. While the desktop experience will still be there, much like DOS was still there in Windows in the 1990s, it’s clearly getting deprecated. And unlike Windows 95 (but a lot like Windows 3.0 and 3.1), I really can’t see much that will be of benefit to gamers.

Gabe Newell, head of Valve,  stated, “I think that Windows 8 is kind of a catastrophe for everybody in the PC space.”

Rob Pardo, chief creative officer at Blizzard, has publicly admitted that its “not awesome for Blizzard either.” Many other developers have expressed similar concerns, publicly and in private.

Many older games are incompatible with Windows 8 with the final release version. As a complete non-surprise, games protected by certain kinds of copy protection schemes (like Starforce) are frequently broken under Windows 8, with no available fixes. Except getting a “crack,” I guess. Which is all kinds of dangerous.

Gaming under the new interface – in fact all software, period – is restricted to the Microsoft Store. They want a piece of Apple’s “App Store” action. And this is the default interface. This is where Microsoft believes the non-power-users should live. The desktop is still there, but it seems to me it’s really there as a “legacy” platform. Like DOS. Oh, and it’s got even more invasive warnings if you try to install anything that’s not digitally signed and recognized by Microsoft – which will delete unapproved software by default.

Ugly. Particularly for indies. Making software as a small, independent developer just became a little more complicated and expensive. Not that this is a new problem. Just… a little bigger.

It was this article by Casey Muratori that really drove it home. Open, desktop gaming under Windows, as we’ve known it, is dead. Or at least, Microsoft wants it dead right now. Dead like DOS. Microsoft is positioning itself to be all-powerful gatekeeping middleman for the new, online world. And it sees the future in mobile devices, and a shrinking world for desktops.  Windows 8 is not only an expression of belief in that trend, but a way to help fulfill that prophecy to Microsoft’s advantage.

Are the correct? Will they succeed?  Who knows. Will Windows 8 be an immediate game-changer for gamers? No, doomsaying notwithstanding… I suspect it will be closer to a Windows 3.x event than a Windows 95 event in this respect. But the writing may be on the wall. Especially for indies. As TechRadar puts it, the real threat is not in Windows 8, but Windows 9.

And, more interestingly, I believe it may provide an opening for other operating system vendors to exploit that hasn’t really been there for seventeen years. In effect, Microsoft is moving on to fight new battles – something it will have to devote most of its attention on, if it wants to challenge the imposing lead that iOS and Android currently enjoy. Could this be an opportunity for Mac? For a major Linux vendor? For … hey, for Android?

As a gamer, I go where the games are. For PC gaming, for the future… I can no longer assume that’s going to mean Windows.

As a game developer, I’ve assumed that multiple platforms are “nice to have” but not a priority. I was pissed off that after all this effort working with a game engine that I chose in significant part for its promise of an easy port to Mac that the port was no longer at all easy, and has proved in fact to be incredibly frustrating. But lacking a Mac port hasn’t – until now – caused me to lose any sleep. I’ve been doubtful that the cost of the port would be worth it in sales. Ditto for Linux.

Now that I’ve changed engines to something that is inherently multiplatform (Unity), with a promise of Linux support on the near horizon, this makes my new focus a lot easier to implement. To you, as a gamer, it may be of trivial importance. But as a developer, it feels like a big deal.

In short – I’m with Gabe Newell on this one. As a gamer and game developer, I’m going to have to plan for an alternative. While I won’t call Windows 8 a catastrophe (yet), it’s clearly a fork in the road that I don’t feel I can commit to following. But if I want alternatives to be there, I’m going to have to commit to supporting them. Gamers will go where the games are. So I’m going to try and make sure my games are there.

Windows will no longer be a primary platform for me.  While I doubt I’m going to lose my emphasis on “desktop” gaming anytime soon, that no longer means Windows. Inasmuch as it is possible / reasonable, I’m going to be shooting for simultaneous release on Windows, Mac, and Linux from here on out. I’m exploring web-based, console, and mobile gaming options too. But if somebody is going to be gaming on a desktop environment, I want my games to be there.

I know. In the words of John McCain, “Welcome to the party, pal.” I’m late. All the Mac guys and Linux guys who have been trying to recruit me to their camp – you’ve finally succeeded. I’ve been content in my own little world, making and playing games and assuming a level of persistence that may or may not be valid. But as a child of the 80s, I remember all too clearly when it seemed like there was no way in hell that a tiny upstart company like Microsoft could ever topple giants like IBM and Apple. But it happened. It may happen again. Or it may not. But as a game developer, I can no longer feel safe “banking” on Windows. I expect that for the kinds of games I play and make, Windows may remain a viable platform for many years.

But will it remain the dominant one?  I’m becoming doubtful.


* Unless said PC game has really ugly DRM, in which case I’ll either not get the game at all, or get the console version and further contribute to the marketing belief that gamers “prefer” console gaming.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 17 Comments to Read

  • Surloc said,

    If Microsoft is smart they would go out of their way to make it easy, and cheap for small developers to get their games and programs into MS’s market. They could take a page from Apple, Android and Steam markets. Ask developers, and users of those market places what worked, and what didn’t. It could be amazing, and a real cash cow for MS and developers. Sadly MS as an organization is not smart, they nearly always over reach, and will make joining the market as a developer a nightmare…

  • getter77 said,

    The forthcoming rising tide of users and, rather importantly as a distinct group, technical enthusiasts, should help to bolster the lot of them quite a fair bit indeed. My personal hopeful dark horse candidates, just because, would be Haiku(literally “a desktop project” at the core) and one or more from the land of Amiga be it the actual AmigaOS 4.x or something like Icaros/AROS/AEROS/etc. Such an interesting situation it is then that we can say Linux is the one most favored to win it big—history is one heck of a thing to consciously watch unfold isn’t it?

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    The Win3/Win95 comparison is certainly worrying if that turns out to be the case. That transitional period from DOS to Windows for gaming wasn’t without several missteps.

    With Windows 7 likely to be supported for the next 5-10 years, most users might not feel like this is a pressing problem. However, I wonder how long it might realistically take for an alternative “gaming friendly” operating system to be produced.

    The basics are certainly there (as many show by playing games on various Linux distros), but the support from major hardware manufacturers and software publishers is lacking.

    The next ten years will certainly be interesting. Hopefully there will be some real innovation with mainstream operating systems.

  • TheBuzzSaw said,

    I’m pretty sure Windows 95 was built on DOS still. It just booted into Windows by default. It wasn’t until Windows 2000 (or Windows NT technically) that there was a truly distinct Windows kernel, and DOS became the guest system.

  • Brian said,

    I will admit I am banking on Ubuntu big time. I think that Microshaft’s heyday was windows XP… since then, while their gross profits have been growing due to more and more users buying computers, I believe (unsure) That the gross user base of the alternatives have been growing at an even faster rate. Even now, Linux installs and sets up easier than just about any version of windows since 3.1, and many users cannot tell the difference anymore between an older version of windows and an Ubuntu box for their primary uses.
    I LIKE the idea of pushing smaller handhelds, but until someone markets an affordable way of giving them a large screen, they are going to be forever viewed as nothing but a toy. One does not buy 70 dollar games for a toy. Until there is some sort of virtual or holographic ‘big screen’, I think windows is making a mistake by moving away from market dominance and pushing out the small developers that make their PV based product attractive.

    I do understand that the pace of development is slowing as we smack up against a threshold, and perhaps that is what is driving MS’s decision, since many people are still using XP boxes nearly a decade out of date with no need to ‘upgrade’ for their needs. No upgrade=no microcash. The thing is, the same linux that can drive (finally) high end games is also quite capable of powering lower end machines with little to no downgrading except perhaps in the raw processing power.

    Frankly, I am hoping that linux becomes the platform of choice for indie developers. I haven’t bought a ‘commercial giant’ game in nearly a decade, and consider the big boys to have basically priced themselves out of the market. Most of them have moved strongly into portable and consoles, and I am happy to ignore them while they languish there while I concentrate on the REAL developers… indie coders.

  • getter77 said,

    The elephant in the room is the Direct X and driver situation indeed versus the likes of OpenGL…and…well…Gallium as pretty much the only things afoot. I know there are people fiddling about with converters and feature parity for years now—but DirectX really was a game changer for a great many aspects.

    Money and talented manpower on bounties and support can result in just about anything happening though in terms of not only parity, but leapfrogging. The great unknown is time though—there’s just no way to do it when what people are needing are a series of Eureka moments quick, fast, and in a hurry.

  • Groboclown said,

    @TheBuzzSaw – yes, Windows 95 was built on DOS. If you set it up right, when you shut down windows, and it gave you the 320×200 VGA screen that read “you can safely shut down your computer now” (or whatever it was), you could type “mode co80” and be looking at a DOS prompt.

    Personally, I am really hoping that Valve’s push towards Linux gaming pays off. I can run many old and current games on it (Even Frayed Knights) through Wine and DOS Box.

  • McFunkypants said,

    We indie gamedevs will be just fine. Here’s my prediction: native gamedev is frought with risks and walled gardens and isn’t future proof. The solution:

    HTML5 running on every OS in the world, from your toaster to your phone to your TV to your desktop. Ultra-mega cross platform.

    I predict that in a couple decades the average gamer won’t even know or care what operating system they’re running.

    Everything will run on everything. Leave native apps to AAA. Indies should target cross platform using OS-agnostic tech.

    I know, this is a bit utopic, but perhaps we are closer to this ideal than we think?

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    This article elegantly puts into words what I’ve thought since I first started playing around with Windows 8 about six months ago. I won’t go over my complaints about the user interface too much as I’m not convinced Metro is the best paradigm to be using on for a desktop GUI.

    I was always worried about what future versions of Windows would be like ever since I saw Microsoft pushing their Windows Store and I had a bad feeling it would come to this. If it wasn’t so scary I’d almost suggest that Microsoft only wants people to game on their X-Box platform, compute with their Windows PC and use the Windows Phone for all their cell phone needs. All in one nice little Eco-system.

    Now, on the plus side, I’ve been following Valve’s journey into porting their Source Engine on Linux. They’ve posted really good performance on Linux with OpenGL and have been getting better performance than they did with DirectX on Windows 7. Also, they’ve been working with the Hardware developers (Nvidia, ATI and Intel) on making the drivers more streamlined and such. Linux looks hopeful after all.

    Soon Win8 will come out and I’ll have to decide what I’m going to do. I’ll probably stick with Windows 7 for a while and then, probably, transition to Ubuntu or Mint Linux. I do have a Mac that I absolutely love so I’ll continue down that road too. That should take care of my PC gaming habit while Microsoft continues to “innovate” down whatever road they’ve chosen.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Being platform-agnostic is already a key strategy for most mainstream companies. I suspect the same will be true of indies. I mean, part of my gravitation towards Unity (a big part) was being able to build on all the target platforms it supports. Indies need to be nimble and ubiquitous. 🙂

    But it’s impossible to be truly platform-independent – indeed, I think we shouldn’t. That’s WHY I have always tended to prefer desktop-style games (and I get annoyed when I find one has had a UI poorly adapted from the console). I wouldn’t want to see a bunch of games that achieve platform independence that do so by becoming homogeneous and adapt only features and controls of the lowest common denominator.

  • Albert1 said,

    @getter77: doesn’t haiku support SOFTWARE-ONLY OpenGL? If this is case, very few developers will spend any effort on haiku ports.

  • getter77 said,

    At the moment, yeah that sounds about right for Haiku. However, progress continues to be made, especially as they had a good Google SoC crop this year, and the overarching notion was that Haiku too would stand to get lifted up alongside the other substantial alternative operating systems as people freak out and run around to the various different ones.

    I mean, nobody EVER thought AmigaOS would end up with substantial ATi/AMD driver and such support for quite a number of modern cards in any respect, yet here we are in interesting times.


  • Amir said,

    3.2 Your app must not stop responding, end unexpectedly, or contain programming errors

    this right there would probably kill any particular game from the last 20 years to be certified for the windows store anyway… ahem, Skyrim I’m looking at you!

  • Albert1 said,

    I’m writing this comment from my new Ubuntu system, which I finally installed yesterday evening after reading OttoMoBiehl’s comment, after years of postponing.
    The last time (ten(?) years ago) I played with a Linux system I wasn’t really satisfied, plus my programming experience gravitated around DOS/Win32. Well, I still can’t believe how easy and intuitive is the installer that let you use both Windows and Ubuntu.

  • CdrJameson said,

    I’ve been switching to Javascript/HTML5.

    No installers, no platform issues, no signing, no app stores – as long as it runs fast enough, you’re laughing.

  • Mart said,

    I’ve been on Windows 8 RTM, not preview or RC, ever since it was released on MSDN, about 3 months now. And I have yet to feel the overall “doom-and-gloom” that a lot of the big-wigs of PC gaming (Gabe Newell, Notch, etc) have been saying.

    Sure the Microsoft Store is there. But I rarely use it. I uninstalled a lot of the metro apps (News, Sports, Weather, IE, etc), just a simple right-click on the tile will do, and I live a lot on the desktop. Granted, when booted, you see the Start screen, which is filled with tiles of the games I have installed. If I don’t game, a quick Win+D takes me to the desktop environment.

    Except for games which uses a 16-bit installer, I have yet to install a game I can’t play though, either natively or via Dosbox.

    Windows 8 has a lot of nifty small improvements that I like too. Native ISO and VHD mounting, a more robust Copy dialog and extremely stable means I depend a lot less on 3rd party applications. I should also mention that I installed Windows 8 with an active Internet connection (another feature I miss sorely on Windows after pampered by it for Linux installations), I didn’t have to go on a driver hunt. All the drivers for my Asus H67 board were installed. Surprisingly, so was drivers for my AMD 6950 card. I installed Steam, copied my backed up steamapps folder and was good to go. Even Win 7 wasn’t this awesome.

    I would see where normal users would be a bit confused. But so was my mum the first time she got an iPhone, asking me how to make/answer a call and SMS. After a month, she was using words I never thought i’ll hear from her before, like “app”, “download” and “iOS”.

    There’s a learning curve involved which I suspect is what people actually hate. And it’s always cool to hate on Microsoft.

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