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PC Gaming by Design
posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 09:10 AM Mon May 20th, 2002
last revision: 04:29 AM Fri Sep 23rd, 2005

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By Paul Cockeram

It\'s not unusual for new trends to emerge at each annual Electronics Entertainment Exposition. Video games represent a relatively young but now thriving and dynamic industry that has been steadily gaining market share in the entertainment sector. In 2001, video game sales increased 43% to some $9.4 billion, approaching the music business and surpassing box office revenues. Growing numbers of people are tuning out, preferring to turn on their PlayStation 2s, Nintendo GameCubes, Microsoft Xboxes, and PCs.

Important changes are happening within the industry itself. Consoles continue to grow in popularity. According to a recent study by the IDSA, the percentage of console gamers has officially surpassed PC gamers. How are PC developers keeping their fan base and distinguishing PC games from the console crowd? One answer is that they\'re not; an increasing number of games are ported from PC to console, and in a dramatic shift, games like Grand Theft Auto 3 are actually being ported from console to PC. It\'s now undeniable that PCs are just one more gaming platform, different from but no more capable than consoles, particularly Microsoft\'s powerhouse Xbox. But there are important differences between PCs and consoles, and many game designers are exploiting these differences to revolutionize the PC gaming industry in exciting ways. One of this year\'s biggest revolutions is the trend to encourage a cult of PC gamers known as modders- people who use existing games to create new content-by enclosing a game\'s design tools. This practice certainly isn\'t new-in the simplest sense, gamers have been building maps for Unreal Tournament, Quake 3, and other games for years, and Half Life mods have allowed that game to survive long past its, ahem, half life. But this year shows a new level of user-friendliness in the design tools, allowing even the most casual PC gamers to develop their creative sides while contributing to the scope, strength, and playability of their favorite games.

Neverwinter Nights is at the head of the pack. Their Aurora Toolset promises to have average users creating satisfying dungeon crawls within the hour. BioWare plans to ship some mods with the original release and will immediately begin adding content to its mod download site. Simon and Schuster will publish Soldiers of Anarchy with a toolset that promises to be as user friendly and powerful as the Aurora. Soldiers of Anarchy developers are even working to have their toolset support 3D Studio Max and GTS files. Mod support on this title will be as exceptional as that of Neverwinter Nights, if not more so, with producers also hoping to include mods in the original release and provide immediate content via internet.

Once causal gamers become experienced modders with this season\'s new array of user friendly tools, they may wish to make the jump to building their own games. They will be met with little resistance as the user-friendly trend expands to professional game developing software. An Australian company called Auran has created a graphics engine designed for the small-time developer looking to make it big. Their Jet graphics engine is currently being used by more than 100 commercial developers, yet is available for non-commercial licensing for about US$99.00. That\'s right-for less than a hundred bucks modders can become developers, and if their game hits it big they only pay about thirty thousand dollars for a commercial license. Jet is reportedly so easy to use that three developers and three artists created a whole new game with it in just seven weeks. For modders looking to make a name for themselves in the industry with their first original title, this product seems ideal. More information about the Auran Jet graphics engine can be found at http://www.auranjet.com.

For now, modding is a unique feature of PCs that allows players to interact with their favorite games in a more intimate way. This ability also seems to be unique to the medium of video games. You cannot write another chapter of your favorite book and expect the publisher to distribute it or fans to read it. Nor can you film another hour of your favorite movie. In part because of the wide distribution base of mods, PC games are tearing down the bridge between reader and author in a way that literary critics like Roland Barthes never imagined. Now readers don\'t just create the story they read by constructing the narrative in their minds; they are given the ability to add to the text itself. This doesn\'t just look like a revolution in PC games-it could revolutionize readers\' relationships to the text, affording a whole slew of new theoretical implications.

Don\'t let me overstate things-the mod revolution has been going for some time now, and this reader/writer relationship has already begun to flux. This season serves to highlight the point, to swell the ranks of a revolution that is only being staged on one platform-the PC.