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Friday, June 14, 2024

God of War PC means the platform wars are over, boy

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I still remember the first time I saw the original 2005 God of War: not on a screen, but a bunch of postcard-sized screenshots in a PlayStation 2 magazine. One showed the hydra, the game’s opening boss, and I simply couldn’t believe that this thing was on a PlayStation 2: the sheer size of it! And there’s a small angry man in the jaws! I devoured the words on the page but the screenshots had already done their job: A few months down the line, I was snapping that thing’s jaw in half with a big smile.

God of War has always been a showpiece game for Sony hardware. God of War 2 is one of the most spectacular-looking games PlayStation 2 ever had (hell it still looks great), Chains of Olympus made the PSP sing, and God of War 3 upped the ante even further on PlayStation 3: it begins with a close-up view of Kratos battling through a shifting, craggy landscape before the camera zooms out and you realise you’re fighting up the back of a freaking titan. Also: I absolutely loved killing Hermes in that game. 

By the time of the third entry, however, the gaming landscape had changed. The hack-and-slash genre of action game was beginning to wane in popularity, while Naughty Dog had created the template for big Sony exclusives with Uncharted and later The Last of Us. In the footsteps of these titans, the decision was made to reboot God of War as a slightly more grounded, story-driven action game, which had a mixed reception when the game was first shown at E3 2016.

It turned out to be a genius move. Despite the best efforts of the PSP titles in particular, Kratos was a character who had never had much, well, character. He was an angry man with muscles who was going to kill all the gods and that is what you did. The shift in setting and the shift in tone came with an equally huge shift in the game direction: These had always been linear slash-em-ups with light puzzle elements. Now God of War was an open-ish world with corridors shooting off in various directions, built around a completely new style of combat system that owed as much to Resident Evil 4 as its predecessors.

On release it blew people away. I don’t know if I’d quite agree with the recent poll that crowned it the best game of all time, but it’s undoubtedly the most iconic mainstream exclusive that the PlayStation 4 ever had: the kind of game so good that people would joke about the hardware being a God of War machine (even though we all know it’s a Bloodborne machine). God of War looked stunning, pulled off a new style of combat system with aplomb (thanks mainly to that stunning axe) and, most astonishing of all, managed to weave a good story around the bereaved and sullen figure at its core—and his son, hunted by the Norse gods. 

 Why this Sony port is different

There are PlayStation exclusives and then there are PlayStation exclusives. For me, Kratos is Sony’s Mario, the most recognisable PlayStation mascot out there and emblematic of the platform’s capabilities. God of War is one of those games you want to show off to people, something that devours entire evenings by mistake and inspires you into making countless small combat clips. The kind of game where Sony started selling PlayStation 4s with it as the pack-in game.

PC always felt like a more natural home for Xbox, inasmuch as Xbox is part of the wider Microsoft lineage (the name comes from DirectX) and thus always had that PC origin. The intention with that console was always to build a PC in a box anyway (as the creator of the original Xbox, Seamus Blackley, will tell you). For a while, Xbox tried to ‘keep’ certain exclusives to the console before realising, for the most part, there wasn’t much point. No-one who’s going to buy an Xbox is going to change that decision because Halo’s also on PC.

PlayStation not so much. It’s such a part of the landscape now that it’s easy to forget how completely Sony upended the games industry in the late ’90s, coming out of nowhere to obliterate both of the then-kings of the console space, Sega and Nintendo. Sega never really recovered from it, while Nintendo had to frantically (and successfully) reinvent itself over the decades to come. PlayStation 2 built on that success to become the best-selling console ever. PS3 was a wobble but PS4 saw Sony once again absolutely smashing Xbox One’s face off, and building its strategy on tentpole exclusives like never before.

“Only on PlayStation” was the promise, and games like Bloodborne, God of War, Spider-Man and The Last of Us Part 2 delivered. You had to have a PlayStation to play some of the best games being made in the world.

And that’s a business model that still makes sense. It just makes less sense than ever before. One of the ways in which the games industry and PC gaming specifically has changed is that consoles are no longer the best bang-for-your-buck when it comes to gaming performance: Something like the Xbox Series S is sold on low price and high performance, and while the PlayStation 5 is a beast it has a price tag to match. The wider issue, however, is that PC gaming is bigger than it’s ever been, and even a mid-range rig can comfortably run PlayStation 4 games.

The landscape has shifted. The old concept of consoles was very much the razor blade model: You sold great hardware at a loss, and you made money over the years to come from a cut on every title sold. But now there are countless millions of other machines in the world capable of playing those games.

Exclusivity isn’t dead: It’s just timed now. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X still need to have something you can’t get elsewhere but, after a while, the perception of bringing something like Demon’s Souls to PC won’t matter so much. Look at something like God of War from Sony’s perspective: You can bet when this was first discussed, the question of whether it would dull the lustre of the PlayStation brand was raised. But you know why it happened anyway?

Of course you do: cold hard cash. God of War has sold all it’s going to sell on PlayStation 4 (just under 20 million, according to Sony) but a PC version is going to sell again, and to a much wider audience that already knows the game is going to be good. For Sony to keep God of War exclusive to PlayStation would have simply meant leaving money on the table, and companies like Sony just don’t do that.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment Jim Ryan in February this year: “A few things changed. We find ourselves now in early 2021 with our development studios and the games that they make in better shape than they’ve ever been before. Particularly from the latter half of the PS4 cycle our studios made some wonderful, great games. There’s an opportunity to expose those great games to a wider audience and recognise the economics of game development, which are not always straightforward. The cost of making games goes up with each cycle, as the calibre of the IP has improved. Also, our ease of making it available to non-console owners has grown. So it’s a fairly straightforward decision for us to make.”

The direction of travel was clear, but Kratos on PC is a watershed moment. The God of War is no longer bound to PlayStation, and of course this means that down the line we’ll almost certainly see God of War: Ragnarok too (the sequel, due in 2022). Consoles are not irrelevant and they’re not going away: They offer a different gaming experience and some people (myself included) will always want the couch option. But they’re no longer the walled gardens they once were because, frankly, it makes no financial sense. It’s not that PC has won the battle to eventually have all the best games, but that PC gaming just got so big that battling against it no longer makes sense—even for a God of War.

Heck, I guess we really did win the console war.

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