Monday, August 8, 2011

Clouds of Convergence, Fogs of Divergence

Over the past few months I've been paying attention to PC gaming again, after years away, and have written a little bit about the apparent convergence afoot.  More PC games are featuring native support for the XBox 360 controller for Windows, for example, which means that the mouse-and-keyboard standard is starting to give way, at least for games that work better with a gamepad.  The availability of a standardized controller solution, along with ease of porting thanks to similar hardware, means more games are appearing on both platforms, pulling the historically separate XBox 360 console and Windows computer platforms together.

Something broader and potentially more significant is also happening, with several practical implementations of the "cloud computing" concept in the world of video/computer games.  I was surprised when I recently purchased and downloaded Batman: Arkham Asylum via Steam (thanks to an attractive sale price), because at startup the game requested I sign in with my Games for Windows LIVE ID.  I would not even have such an ID, if not for the fact that Microsoft merged the Games for Windows infrastructure with Xbox LIVE a few years ago, for reasons that were not at the time completely clear.

Now this technical decision's practical upshot is apparent -- my gamerscore on the XBox 360 is being augmented by achievements I'm earning on the PC, which is nice, because as much as I've been enjoying playing some fine/cheap games on the PC, I feel like my XBox history is being neglected.  The merged LIVE game list is now platform-agnostic, so it doesn't matter whether I unlock achievement points on the XBox 360 or the PC, or on a Windows 7 phone, or, presumably, on any future Microsoft gaming platform.  So my gamertag is no longer just a persistent gamer profile on one platform -- now it is portable, it resides in the "cloud," and any changes to it will be reflected by all compatible clients.

Beyond the gamer profile, Microsoft also announced at E3 that XBox 360 profiles and game saves will be moving to the "cloud," allowing much greater portability and removing the need to re-acquire a user's profile when moving from one machine to another.  We won't see game save integration across platforms, I don't imagine, but it's still a big step in abstracting the important content from the individual, physical machine, which is really just a delivery device.

This is all very cool, but here's the rub: On consoles, a single, official achievement/save/distribution system generally exists.  By comparison, PC gamers have an unlimited choice of channels for obtaining, downloading and launching game content, but as these Internet-integrated features mature, there's greater potential for competing solutions to become inconvenient and confusing.

See, Steam has a similar Web-based solution for profiles and achievements, and now has the Steam Cloud (a serendipitous coincidence of nomenclature) for portability of game saves -- but, of course, it's a completely separate system from Microsoft's.  Steam's services and development tools are great for small teams, and Mac publishers, who want to support an achievement system without having to build it from scratch, like, say, Ubisoft's Uplay.  Uplay is yet another online system, with more limited scope but an interesting points-based reward system that allows players to earn items of actual value, like downloadable content and themes.

Electronic Arts is also jumping into the fray -- they announced plans a few months back, and recently implemented a big change.  EA's own online store will now be known as Origin (no relation to Richard Garriott's old Origin Systems brand), and EA will not be distributing its expected next big hit Battlefield 3 via Steam after all, but only through Origin.  EA will have its own Origin client software, and the company has also talked about supporting cloud saves and achievements down the road, building on its own online profile system that's been used for matchmaking, tournaments and leaderboards for a few years now.

From the gamer's perspective, any new system of this sort is inconsistent and therefore inconvenient and of less value than a more established system, and developers aren't immune to these headaches either.  Competition and diversity are usually good in the long term -- the best solution will eventually win out, or more likely developers will figure out how to integrate multiple popular save/achievement systems and everyone will move on to other concerns.

But for the player, we're dealing with convergence, divergence, offline, online, game saves and patches and achievements and profiles... Maybe (well, definitely) I'm just getting old, but sometimes I just want to sit down in front of the TV, grab a one-button joystick and plug in a cartridge.

No comments:

Post a Comment