The golden age of PC gaming

We are living in the golden age of PC gaming. Thanks to a Great Conjunction of key factors, PC gamers both veteran and casual are surrounded by amazing choices. As the price of new release games continue to rise, buyers are increasingly able to turn to great back catalogs of highly acclaimed titles, or cherry-pick from the best of the current generation of independently developed and casual games. Instead of just a few major new releases of unknown quality every month or so, each week brings great deals on proven classics, and critically acclaimed indie and casual games at prices that make them almost risk-free.

Of course, the bargain bins have always been there, as well as the legally ambiguous used or consignment retail shops. While this is the kind of bargain hunting experience that lends itself reasonably well to the console games crowd, as a PC gamer I’ve always tended to veer away. Concerns over license key revocation and OS compatibility with older titles can make buying used PC games a dicey proposition.

What we have access to now is so much better than the brick and mortar bargain bin that there’s virtually no comparing the two. The elements of our Great Conjunction include:

Digital Distribution
Maturation of digital distribution has been a while coming, but it’s key to enabling access to games at lower cost, especially back catalogs that might have been unavailable on physical media.  Steam launched in 2002, followed by Direct2Drive in 2004.  In January 2010, Steam announced that they had passed the 25 million user mark. This followed a holiday season jammed with incredible deals on both Steam and Direct2Drive.  Back catalogs are being mined for continued sales of solid hits, and creative marketers are putting old titles back into circulation with big discounts just before the big sequels are released.

Independent developers
Depending mainly on digital distribution, independent developers have been releasing hit after innovative hit online. The risks that can be taken on a small project would cause most not to see the light of day in a big production outfit, but are paying big dividends to some developers willing to take the plunge. Games like World of Goo and Plants vs Zombies have proven that there’s a tasty pie to be divided among the small, agile teams.

One of the persistent issues with playing classic games has been backward compatibility.  From Windows 95 to 98 to XP, there were enough changes to make running older games, especially DOS based ones, really troublesome.  The geniuses at GOG (Good Old Games) are performing the necessary magic on the classic titles they release to enable compatibility up to and including Windows Vista.  Presumably a guarantee of Windows 7 compatibility will be included soon – but even without the guarantee, most software should be able to make that transition.  While they were at it, GOG also stripped out all the DRM, if any, included with the original release.

Curse Windows XP’s longevity if you like, but remember that it cuts both ways.  XP compatibility goes back almost a decade.  That’s a lot of software, and a lot of those games are still among the best available.  An added perk is that the resource hogs of 5 years ago run just fine on a current midrange machine.

I’ve done an informal survey of what games were considered the best of their time (thanks, google!) and researched current prices.  Here’s the kind of deals on award winning games you can get today.

2001 – Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon – $9.99
2001 – Max Payne – $9.99 (or get Max Payne 2 bundled for $5 more!)
2003 – Call of Duty – $19.99 (or include Call of Duty 2 AND Call of Duty: United Offensive for $10 more!)
2003 – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – $9.99
2004 – Half Life 2 – $19.99 (or get The Orange Box with too much to list here for $10 more!)
2004 – Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory – $9.99
2005 – Civilization IV – $19.99 (or add all the expansions for $20 more!)
2006 – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – $24.99 (this is the game of the year deluxe edition with tons of expansion content)
2006 – Company of Heroes – $19.99 (or get the Gold edition that includes Opposing Fronts for $10 more!)
2007 – Bioshock – $19.99
2007 – The Orange Box – $29.99 (mentioned earlier, but this is the release year and it’s an amazing value)
2008 – World of Goo – $19.99
2009 – Batman: Arkham Asylum – $24.99 (special this weekend only!)
2009 – Braid – $9.99

In addition to the above digital distributors, I recommend keeping an eye on the PSA column of Shacknews for finding great deals.