The 10 commandments of PC games


— 11:05 PM on June 13, 2011

Picture this for a second: you just unpacked the latest PlayBox 720-X blockbuster game, Gran Gears of Duty Fantasy XVIII. It's a game so juicy and dreamy that it'll send you flying into all the colors of the rainbow, twitching and jerking with pleasure-induced spasms just from looking at the loading screen. Let's assume for the sake of argument that said game is a first-person shooter, like, oh, about 135% of recent releases. You insert the Megaray disc, go about the installation process, and merrily start to play.

All of a sudden, you notice the left stick is used for switching weapons. The right stick moves the character, and shooting is only accomplished by pressing it. The camera is moved with the directional buttons, and the triangle, square, A, and B buttons are used for your character's smartass quips. You enter the menu to change the controls, but you can only navigate them using the motion sensors. After five minutes of furniture-dusting motions, you finally enter the options menu and find out there are barely any options, and none that matter. Frustrated, you throw the TenAxis controller at your 4D TV screen and take the shiny disc out of the console to find out whether it will blend.

Now you see what us PC gamers have to put up with.

Let's make one thing clear: this is not meant to be any sort of attack on consoles—and yes, trolls, that means you can all go back under the bridge now. What you've just read is merely an analogy for what's been happening in the PC gaming world in recent years. The underlying reasons merit another discussion altogether (and a lot of violence inflicted on dead horses, I might add). This post is a filing of complaints—a request for a redress of grievances. My intention is plain and simple: to tell game studios how they're doing it wrong. 

No comment. 

I. Thou shalt not shun thine player's mouse
See this nifty thing called a "mouse pointer"? It was invented quite a few years ago, and it's positively great for, you know, pointing at menu choices and item lists. Thanks, Captain Obvious, you're my hero! So, pray tell, how come I have to press keys and/or gamepad buttons in your game to select options and choose the color of my character's underwear? Why do you have to add insult to injury by choosing menu navigation keys other than the arrow keys and then not letting me know what they are—or, alternatively (and this is my personal favorite), showing me which Xbox 360 controller buttons to press? Dude, come here for a second and look at this box I have with cables coming out of it. It doesn't have a red ring of death at the front, now does it?

The shop and inventory interfaces in Borderlands are good examples. Pointing at items? Psh, that's too old-school. Mmmm, arrow keys—let's have arrow keys for nearly everything. Hit a button to compare guns! Back in my day, we had to point and click to dress our characters... and it took a tenth of the time.

On that note, Burnout Paradise, son, come here. Now, explain to me whose idea it was to make me press F1 and F2 (of all keys) to go back and forth between menus. You can speak up son; no one's going to hurt you. Yet.

II. Thou shalt not accelerate mouse input
This issue mostly affects shooters, but it's one of the worst and most widespread—and it's actually a show-stopper in a number of so-called "triple-A" titles. Maybe it's the proliferation of Unreal Engine-based games, but it seems like having mouse acceleration enabled has become the default for many titles. Yes, Mass Effect 2, it's your turn on the chopping block. ("Game of the year," my shiny metal bottom.)

Mouse acceleration is a good idea for moving an on-screen pointer, but it's not such a good idea when the mouse is controlling a camera or an aiming reticle. Games that have acceleration enabled can sometimes end up totally unplayable with a high-sensitivity mouse. Usual symptoms include overly fast movements, headaches, nausea...

III. Thou shalt not make a mockery of third-party controllers
You know a game like Gears of War has problems when my most vivid memory involves my character swirling around after the game first started. I actually sat and waited a bit for the cut-scene to end... until I got motion sickness. I finally caught on that it wasn't a cut-scene, and after spending the better part of 10 minutes quitting, restarting, and reconfiguring the game, I finally realized what was happening. One, you had defaulted to use my joystick (yes, my joystick, not my gamepad) as the default control input method. Two, it didn't even work, and I had to disconnect the joystick just to be able to play.

Bad Company 2, I was hoping to use my joystick when playing you. Too bad you're somehow too thick to notice my joystick's throttle function, and the best that you can come up with is half-baked joystick controls with the configuration file editing du jour. Even then, the throttle still won't work.

Street Fighter IV, you bring a real challenge. I'm not talking about Zangief; I'm talking about getting past your thrice-damned gamepad configuration. You first assume that I have an Xbox 360 gamepad, which I don't. Then, you let me map the buttons on my gamepad... to the Xbox 360 buttons. That's right. I can't map a button to "heavy kick". I have to map a button to "X" outside the game and then map "X" to heavy kick in the game. I actually had to draw out a little chart of the mappings so I could play without having the "guess-the-button" minigame thrown in. Hey, maybe they did this on purpose—a new concept, mixing Excel with a fighting game. Yes, this is the game that some people lauded for being such a great conversion. Capcom's marketing spin sure got a victory there.

The puzzle game for the controls in SF4 is quite annoying. They should have left it out. 

IV. Thou shalt not mix thine bindings
Bad Company 2, trust me on this one. I really don't need "reload" and "use" actions bound to the same key. I absolutely love trying to disarm a bomb only to keep switching guns with the dead guy on the floor like I'm some clothes-switching fetishist. And you, Borderlands, sonny: even though I love playing with you, reloading my weapon every time I want to pick up an item (like, say, ammo) makes me want to slap you hard enough to knock your teeth fillings out.

V. Remember thine user-interface conventions and keep them holy
Human beings tend to have short memories for important things, and some game developers seem to take that trait to a whole new level. By that I mean they willfully and blissfully ignore nearly every single UI convention in history. Icons, drop-down menus, combo boxes, modifier keys—they've all gone right out the window and are raining down on the unsuspecting hobo below.

Have you ever seen the convoluted, unintuitive mess that is the Unreal Tournament 3 menus? The game doesn't even have that much stuff to customize, yet you can easily get lost. Back, forward, oh wait, I want multiplayer... gah! Another example would be the menus in Bad Company 2, which were apparently designed by a sadist with little to no regard for organization.

Another common infraction includes the curse of the Huge Text of Doom. Apparently, developers expect PC gamers to sit half a world away from their 22" displays. Even when playing console games on the TV, the huge text in games like Fallout 3 seems to serve only as some sort of legal protection against lawsuits by near-sighted people. (You can't trust that bunch—I was one of them until I got my eyes lasered.) Now, here's a scary bit of math: a 22" screen viewed from two feet away has roughly the same visual viewing angle as a 100" TV at 8.5 ft. Didn't that just blow your mind?

VI. Keep thine configurations options exposed
PC gamers are used to be able to configure things. That comes from both necessity and whim, and while one doesn't necessarily need to cater to the latter, the former is a must. Games don't have to expose a 1000-line menu for every conceivable detail level on the torches of King Whatever's castle entrance, but we'd like at least some amount of granularity. A pet peeve of mine is the lack of anti-aliasing options in graphics-intensive games. Even recent heavy-hitters like StarCraft II lack proper AA support. There are old technical reasons for this, but come on; we're in 2011.

If your game has VoIP, letting us pick different audio devices would be a nice touch, especially given the proliferation of USB headsets and other assortments. Mr. Developer, just sit with us for a second, play the game, and think about what you would like to see. It's not that difficult.

More often than not, you're pretty much guaranteed to have to dig into some stupid configuration file just to tweak games to your liking. It's a good thing online tutorials are around, too, because most of those config files tend to be so convoluted that you don't know where the spaghetti ends and Cthulhu's barbels begin.

VII. Thou shalt allow players to host dedicated servers
Even though the amount of PC users playing the latest Call of Duty undermines this point somewhat, I'll put it plain and simple: we like dedicated servers in multiplayer games (where applicable, of course). We really love them. First, we can actually have people administering them (and dispensing righteous fury on the hecklers). Second, they often have customizations or improvements we've grown to know and love. Third, we get to pick where we play, which both makes it easier to gather friends around and lets us get optimal ping times. This functionality has existed pretty much forever, and stepping away from it is stepping back.

VIII. Enough with the save points already!
Once again, there are historical reasons for a poor or otherwise lacking feature: back in the early days, console games couldn't count on having much storage space, so they had to be stingy with saved games. But, once again, it's now 2011! Consoles and personal computers have gigabytes of storage at their disposal, so I can't really comprehend why you insist on having very defined places where progress can be saved. Even worse are those titles with auto-save checkpoints. Thanks, saving right as I run out of ammo or walk off a cliff is really helpful.

Granted, there are games where saving the progress at every millisecond might prove tantamount to cheating, but allow us gamers to be the judges of that. If you really must block us from saving in a few spots, at least minimize those. Let us play your game our way.

IX. Thou shalt not worship false gaming services
Ah, Games for Windows Live. Glad to see you've joined us. It just so happens that you're really late to the party and so many dollars short that I wonder how you managed to pay the cab fare. Got ID? Sure, you can get in... just come here for a sec and I'll let you in on a little secret: everyone hates you.

Steam is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the realm of online game services. Other than sheer weight, there are actually pretty good reasons why it's so successful. One of them is that, for the most part, it stays out of our way—unlike you, GFWL. When all I want is to play Street Fighter IV, you insist on making me create a profile. Without that profile, my unlocked characters won't be saved. Just brilliant. Did I mention the GFWL log-in screen also pops up after you purchase the game on Steam? 

GET... OFF... MY... GAME! 

X. Honor thine modders and mod communities
Counter-Strike. Even though I'm not into it myself, that's surely the gift that keeps on giving. I'm also pretty sure every game publisher on Earth would love to have a product that successful. For those who don't know, Counter-Strike started as a mod for Half-Life, and that mod wouldn't exist if Valve hadn't provided gamers with the necessary mod tools.

Not every game benefits from mod support, mind you. When they do and the tools exist, however, the result is almost invariably a much bigger and more pervasive community (especially on the multiplayer front). That, in turn, leads to a constant stream of sales. It truly is a win-win situation.

Of course, making mod tools in the first place is neither simple nor free. I am no stranger to software development, and I realize homegrown software tools tend to be quite quirky and lacking in features. Still, a small investment in polishing and releasing them to the public can pay off big time.

Addendum
Although I've mentioned a few titles by name, I don't hold a grudge against any of them. I love games. However, I've started to feel like I'm being punished for daring to buy, play, and attempt to enjoy games on my platform of choice. I get the distinct feeling that, when targeting the PC market, game studios are a bit passive-aggressive. They seem to be hell-bent on doing everything they can to annoy their customers, and when we complain, then they show us a bewildered face of incomprehension or turn on the waterworks about piracy or whatever the magic eight-ball came up with that morning.

I just don't get it, guys. This is first and foremost a business, so why can't you just sell us what we want? Maybe, just maybe, you'd sell more games if you did. It's that whole tailored-to-the-market thing your marketing folks love to talk about.

A handful of the problems detailed above have been fixed with patches, and you'll notice that many of them can be circumvented by the judicious use of game mods and configuration file changes. I don't want to do that, though. Sure, being able to tailor my experience is part of why I play games on the PC, but that doesn't mean I have some ingrained desire to do it without a really good reason. First and foremost, I want to pick up a game, play it, have fun. In this day and age, that's becoming difficult. Not providing a good out-of-the-box experience is what drives the average gamer away from the PC in the first place.

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