Batman: Arkham Knight and why it’s time studios stopped treating PC gamers as second class citizens

The PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight has been pulled from sale within its first week for being virtually unplayable. This is a big deal for PC gaming.

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In my day, when a PC port of a game was rubbish, you modded it, you turned down the settings, you upgraded your PC, and by the end of the week, by heck, it worked. It might have been at five frames a second in a resolution so blocky you could use a Rubik’s Cube as a display output, but it worked and we were happy to have it. That day of course being 2008 with GTA 4, or 2012 with Dark Souls, or 2014 with Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Ports could be terrible, you just got to pay your money and live with it. The idea of a high-profile game being released on PC as a terrible port and the developer then seriously addressing the problems? This was unthinkable.

It used to be that with PC gaming came an understanding that you would get to enjoy everything that the PC had to offer, plus you’d get console ports, usually of dubious quality, which you could then modify, or run in much higher settings than originally planned for, or completely ignore if they were beyond help. It was a given that the PC was never the primary platform for multiplatform games as the money, we were told, was all in the consoles anyway. The PC had a fine tradition of its own games being released in terrible states too, from Vampire: Bloodlines to Rome 2: Total War and all the oddities of Early Access, the PC audience has never demanded the same degree of polish that has gone with the turf in console gaming.

This has now changed. Not in a gradual way, either. A quiet revolution has occurred and some unlucky developer was bound to end up in front of the firing squad sooner or later. In this case Rocksteady, apparently unaware that the rules had changed, or just trusting to luck that nobody would notice the PC version of Arkham Knight was borderline non-functional.

The change to what had been perceived as the natural order of the universe came when Valve, who run the Steam gaming platform (which is now largely ubiquitous for PC gaming) introduced a no questions asked refunds policy within the first two hours of play. So as long as you play less than two hours, you can get a refund on any game and you don’t even have to say why. This is a powerful change to the power dynamic between buyer and seller.

Reactions to this policy were mixed. Many people thought this would brutalise short indie games, others pointed out that this opened up a new avenue to piracy. It is clear now, however, that the threat this policy poses on a larger scale is to the AAA games: the big budget, highly marketed blockbusters, with their pre-order bonus content, their season passes and their much higher prices to match.

So we have seen with Arkham Knight, which is by far the highest profile release since this policy began. Even if the game works on your PC, you can still expect the performance to be erratic, which can be a real dampener on enjoying the game. Some PC owners sneer at console owners for accepting games with frame rates below sixty, meanwhile, console owners will sneer back at PC owners for complaining about something that they consider to be trifling. But in the case of Arkham Knight, where your frame rate can drop so low that you feel like you’re playing a Powerpoint presentation, this makes the game unplayable.

The result is that players have complained in droves, the game now has thousands of negative reviews on its Steam page, and it is safe to assume that many of those complaining will have availed themselves of the refund option. The complaints have been so widespread that Rocksteady have pulled the game off further sale, stating that they will fix it so that it works properly. To withdraw such a high profile game from sale in its first week is nothing short of incredible.

The standard reaction to releasing a game in this sort of a state is to keep taking the money, to keep charging for the DLC and release patches as and when. Maybe you fix it, maybe you don’t, but you keep taking that money, trusting to short memories and an unwavering belief in the essential goodness of capitalism. That Rocksteady have responded so contritely speaks either to an unprecedented and genuinely welcome attempt to mend fences, or such a powerful threat to their sales figures that they have to take dramatic action.

This is a big deal for PC gaming. It shows that it is no longer viable to do a completely half arsed job of a PC port. Developers will have to work harder because PC owners will be easily able to sniff out a bad port within the two hours the Steam returns policy allows. With Steam allowing refunds it is a safe bet that other platforms will follow suit too. The revolution will spread.

However, this doesn’t translate to a situation in which the PC just magically gets better games. What it will mean is that simultaneous launches across all platforms will be less likely, because extra time will have to be spent getting the PC version up to scratch. It may also mean that developers skip a PC release altogether if they lack confidence in their product.

Something we can say for sure is that this newly granted consumer power gives PC gamers an unprecedented defensive measure against the hype of the games industry and the cynicism of its pre-order culture.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture