Developer Diaries// Cliff Harris on Valve and Google and Freedom

Positech's Cliff Harris on Valve and Google

Posted 22 Sep 2008 10:59 by
Cliff Harris of Positech.
Cliff Harris of Positech.
Cliff Harris is a one-man, totally independent game developer for PC gaming. Recently Cliff took on game pirates and caused quite a stir. Today he's writing for SPOnG about the trials and of tribulations of his trade.

Recently there was a vicious rumour circulated about Google buying Valve. At the time of writing it seems this was complete nonsense and it's not going to happen. Like many people, I breathed a sigh of relief on hearing that, but not because I love Steam or hate Google or vice versa but because I think it would be a nightmare for the PC games industry.

I do business with Google every day; promoting my games through their adwords network, one of the best (and sadly most complex and arcane) advertising systems on the web. The bulk of my day to day business expenses gets paid direct to Google. I have no reason to hate them.

I have no reason to hate Valve; Steam has done a great job to popularize downloadable games, and get people used to the idea of buying a game without a box, and feel safe whilst doing so. Granted, it's backfired a bit, because a lot of people for some reason will only buy games through Steam.

The reason I strongly hoped a takeover wasn't happening was because I passionately believe that one of the best things about PC gaming is its open, free, nature.

The PC market is chaos, but it's chaos in a good way, in the way that a busy fruit and vegetable market is chaos, but ensures the buyers get a fair price and plenty of choice. There is no 'gatekeeper' for the PC market.

When I set up my games company I didn't need approval from Sony, Microsoft or Dell. Nobody told me what games I had to make or how to make them (thank god!). There is a published coding standard for Windows (the Win32 API), and you can basically do what the hell you like, within the law.

Granted, some idiots bring the whole thing into disrepute by knocking up offensive racist Flash games now and then, but that's the price you pay for such freedom.

It can be a pain that there is no agreed-upon Top Ten charts or sales stats for downloadable PC games (nobody has any idea how much Valve earn, BigFishGames earn, or I earn, for that matter). There is no central location to see when new games are released, or a unified system for buying (or indeed pricing) them, In short, it's complete anarchy out there.

And yet, out of the anarchy comes Mount N Blade, Defcon, Armadillo Run, Galactic Civilizations, Portal; a huge number of really geeky, obscure and serious hex-based historical war games and much much more. If you happen to like an obscure games genre, you will find at least one example of it on the PC.

How many flight sims are there for the Wii? How many hex-based strategy games on the Xbox 360? The diversity on the PC makes the claims of modern console publishers to have a wide variety of games look laughable. And, despite the odd bug, backwards compatibility is pretty solid too, with relatively few games from ten years ago having serious trouble running on a new PC.

Anyone who has worked on a console game and read the paperwork you get from the console owners will tell you that they have very firm views on what sort of game will be 'allowed' to be sold on their system. Not only what sort of game, but at what price too, with devs often told their game must be sold at a certain price, regardless of their wishes.

Multi-player support is often shoe-horned awkwardly into games that don't benefit from it to meet a platform owners checklist, alongside 'achievements' and in-game chat. If a focus group at the platform owner's HQ has decreed all games must be brightly coloured, then all games will be brightly coloured. Do not argue, or your game will not green-lit!

Google buying Valve would be a step towards the kind of bland, fenced-in, monopolistic platform that we see on the consoles, and the mobile phones. If Steam got much bigger and became the de-facto games purchase platform, suddenly there would be a single company determining success or failure on the PC. No more quirky indie games with any serious chance of breaking even, no more true innovation, goodbye to variety.

We really don't need this on the PC. Microsoft's lame 'Games for Windows' effort was more of a push to do this than it was to actually promote PC gaming, with an irrational insistence on supporting the Xbox 360 controller among other demands.

PC games have endless variety in design, price, and the way you buy them. However tempting it seems in the short-term to trade variety for convenience and simplicity, we change this at our peril. Long live the chaos of PC games.

Find out more about Cliff and his PC games over at Positech Games.

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