The PC's biggest asset, for users, is its amazing flexibility. The modern computer is both a tool and a toy, a generalist device customizable to nearly any needs. With the barest amount of prodding, comparatively speaking, it can be, and do, anything the user wants.
The PC's biggest liability, to games publishers, is its unpredictable flexibility. The modern computer, both a tool and a toy, is dangerously customizable to nearly any needs. With barely any prodding, it can unfortunately be, and do, anything the user wants.
The resulting tension between PC owners and PC publishers has created an awkward stalemate, a mad arms race to prevent a piracy problem that every new weapon just raises the stakes of. Publishers are well within their rights to want to protect themselves from theft, but old systems aren't working. And turning the PC into a console that also runs Word isn't the answer.
The PC itself is caught in a strange position just now, awkwardly transforming between the old and the new. Computers are now, of course, completely ubiquitous. Most of us carry one in our purse or pocket at nearly all times. They're just heavily specialized, designed to unify hardware and software in a way that prevents users from creating variation. The Xbox, the PlayStation, the iPhone... all are walled gardens, unifying hardware configurations with software that, on the whole, very few people will try to circumvent or customize. Deterrents (voided warranties, service bans, and so on) further prevent more users from trying to customize their own systems.
With Windows 8 on the horizon, the Xbox-style dashboard is coming to a PC near you. EA has Origin, Ubisoft has uPlay, and every major publisher wants you to connect your right to play your games to a social account. As login systems get less obtrusive, they still become thornier to navigate.
The result is a stare-down between companies and their customers that twists both sides into ever more awkward situations, as Rock, Paper, Shotgun's recent interview with Ubisoft highlights. Representatives from Ubisoft contort themselves to avoid giving any actual data on piracy rates, and they end up with the washed-out:
We've heard you. We've heard customers. We want to find a balanced way to protect our IPs and our games, and at the same time trade off frustrations or issues for PC gamers, and improve the policies of our games and services. But I guess the answer is, we're still discussing it.
Unfortunately, the industry has been "discussing" it since roughly the dawn of modern computing, and no satisfactory solution has yet been reached.
If PC gamers wanted to be using an iPad or a 360 for our gaming, we would be. (Many of us, in fact, use multiple platforms.) But PC gamers have chosen a platform explicitly for its flexibility—the ability to run everything from Assassin's Creed 3 to World of Warcraft to whatever new Flash game is out today—and publishers see that very flexibility as the enemy, guarding against the copies we might make or the systems we might crack before anyone even decides they want to.
Maybe the only winning move really is not to play. GOG's major selling point is that all its games, old and new alike, are sold DRM free. The Android-based Ouya has decided to embrace openness. Ubisoft is finally standing down from the worst of its unpopular policies, and yet the walls around our gaming gardens grow ever tighter.
Big developers are sure the future is free-to-play and multiplayer—not only because those make money, but because they force gamers to stay honest and to cough up cash if they want to participate. As a player, I'm not so sure.
Thieves will always steal, but a pirated game isn't the same as a lost sale. The rest of us just want to be left alone to use our computers as we will. Give us a reason to buy a game, and promise that it will work smoothly and not punish us for the purchase, and the system will more or less tick along.