PC gaming is primed for a renaissance—or at least a reinvention—like we haven’t seen since the advent of 3D acceleration in the late 1990s. For this, we can thank the mobile revolution and all its attendant technologies. Game developers can now tap into accelerometers, touchscreens, and the cloud to add new features and gameplay scenarios. And even Microsoft’s comprehensive approach to Windows—merging desktops, tablets, and smartphones under a common code base—is changing the ways in which game creators should approach their work.
All of these developments were made patently clear at the recent Microsoft Build conference. Justin Saint Clair, a Microsoft business development manager, stood before an audience of game developers and encouraged them to reset their approach. Don’t just think about graphics, themes, and plot lines, argued Saint Clair. The first question every developer should be asking is, “What is a PC?”
The very definition of the term “personal computer” has been upended over the past few years, and now PC gaming looks to be catching up at last. We’re no longer bound to keyboard and mice. We’re no longer even bound to playing the very same game—or the very same campaign within a single game—on the same device. In this article, I’ll walk you through all the new use cases that game developers are exploring. The fruits of their labor will become manifest in all genres of PC gaming, from the casual titles we play on tablets to the deep, textured 3D extravaganzas we download from Steam.
One game, multiple manifestations
When the iPad launched a couple of years ago, the tablet quickly redefined the rules of video gaming. Thanks to its built-in accelerometers and touch sensitivity, the iPad became both a game screen and a game controller. Not only could we tilt the tablet to, say, control a car’s steering in a driving game, but we could also use our fingers to directly manipulate the gameplay action.
But that was the state of the mobile gaming art in 2010, and simple accelerometer and touch tricks are now considered a given. In 2013, Microsoft will be encouraging developers to imagine tablet gaming experiences that extend beyond the tablet—in essence, single games that manifest themselves in different, creative ways across a variety of devices and platforms.
Microsoft is working on APIs that allow developers to create a single game that plays more or less similarly on PCs and tablets, but with different control schemes and less-demanding graphics for tablet iterations. For example, the Xbox Live multiplayer API will live on both Xbox and Windows, allowing developers to build seamless multiplayer games that span platforms. Another Microsoft development path taps into the “second screen” approach, in which a single game leverages both your big-screen TV and a tablet—a scheme that’s already being realized on Windows 8 tablets running the Xbox SmartGlass app. The Xbox 360 racing game Forza Horizon, for instance, lets you (or a friend) view highway maps on your tablet, while you continue to steer the car with your console's button-oriented driving interface. In effect, the tablet allows you to have a second person in the “passenger seat,” helping you with navigation.
Microsoft is also taking advantage of its Windows runtime platform (the underpinning of all Windows 8 Store apps) along with Xbox Live networking features to iterate a single game franchise in unprecedented ways. Take, for example, the Mass Effect series of sci-fi third-person shooters. Mass Effect 3 is already a big single-player hit on the PC, but now a companion game, Mass Effect: Infiltrator, is available for iOS, and both titles tap into the franchise’s cloud-based “Galaxy at War” system. The upshot? In Infiltrator, when you gather intelligence data, your achievements will improve your “Galactic Readiness Rating,” which is integral to the PC game.
Of course, the cloud offers simpler benefits as well. Imagine firing up a game on your PC, playing a few minutes, and then saving your progress to Microsoft’s servers. Later, you’re in a hotel room in a distant land, where you load an iteration of the same game on your tablet, and continue where you left off. Such a scheme is already available in the desktop PC gaming titles Mass Effect 3 and Dirt Showdown, but you can expect more deployments to follow. It’s also worth noting that even simple Microsoft Store apps keep their status and save games in the cloud, ensuring that the whole lot of them offer seamless starting, stopping, and restarting regardless of your physical location and of which Windows 8 device you’re using.
At the Build conference, Microsoft's Saint Clair also shared a new vision of online multiplayer gaming. He encouraged developers to imagine a single multiplayer game on PCs, Xbox 360 consoles, and Windows 8 tablets—three different platforms, but with players engaged in exactly the same online environment. This model is already available in Hydro Thunder Hurricane.
Then there's the LAN party, which is begging for redefinition. Today’s LAN party typically involves every player lugging a bulky PC or beefy gaming laptop to a common location, plugging in a bunch of cables and switches, and joining a multiplayer server. But Windows 8 running on mobile devices could dramatically reduce a bunch of logistical pain points. As Saint Clair asked, "What happens when everyone in the house has a tablet?"
The tablet changes everything
Tablet gaming isn't just PC gaming with touch control tacked on. A good tablet game will also recognize a suite of behaviors and technologies specific to modern mobile devices: touch gestures, of course, but also accelerometers, GPS, near-field sensors, gyroscopes, and more. Windows Runtime—Microsoft’s new development platform that unifies PCs, tablets, and even Windows Phone 8—incorporates all of those possibilities, enabling game developers to take advantage of new mechanics and models. As a result, any developer who is comfortable with Windows Runtime can tap into gameplay dynamics as rich as anything we see deployed on iOS.
But although tablets are rich with creative development opportunities, they often drop the ball in pure performance. Tablets and hybrid devices don't offer the raw CPU and GPU firepower of a good desktop PC, and this is a limiting factor that all traditional PC gaming developers will have to respect. Making matters worse, the GPUs inside current-generation Windows RT tablets and Windows Phone handsets don't support the full range of DirectX 11 features available to desktop PCs with modern graphics cards. Game programmers will need to ensure that Windows 8 Store games will work in Windows RT using only Direct3D 9 in their 3D content.
That doesn't mean games will look terrible on tablets, however. Low polygon counts and low-resolution textures don’t look nearly as bad on small tablet displays as they do on a large desktop display. Also, many of the games built for sale on the Windows Store will be lighter, casual fare, so performance problems likely won't be a major factor.