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Wasn’t it just four years ago that the pundits and game media gathered in wake, made a few pithy quips about graphics and soundcard drivers, and poured their 40‑ouncers over the grave of PC gaming? Well guess what, baby—PC gaming ain’t dead by a long shot. In fact, there’s a strong argument that PC gaming is not only alive and well, it’s thriving and poised to dominate consoles.
Don’t believe us? Battlefield 3, one of the most anticipated launches of the year, only offers 64-player goodness to those on the PC, and tweaks the frak out of PC-only graphics that make game consoles look like peddlers of VGA output in a 1080p world. Smash a window in Batman: Arkham City on a PC with PhysX support, and you’re rewarded with glass particles flying everywhere—just as if you threw a thug through a plate glass window in real life. Do that on a console, and you’re rewarded with a pathetic tinkle.
Let’s not even talk about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which has enhanced textures and graphics on the PC that its developer, Bethesda, says will “melt your face.” And hell, we haven’t even gotten to the PC-only titles of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Dota 2, and Diablo III, or the free-to-play phenomenon and MMOs.
So are we seeing a resurgence of PC gaming, or are we just fooling ourselves? To find out, read our report on whether “real” gaming has returned. Then read our reviews of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City, two of the latest games to celebrate what PCs uniquely offer; and finally, take a gander at our list of the 10 best free PC games online. If we are fooling ourselves about a PC gaming comeback, we’re having a kick-ass time of it.
If we were litigators arguing the case of PC gaming vs. console gaming in front of the Supreme Court of Gamers, we wouldn’t have to make much of an argument. Better graphics. More advanced physics. Higher resolutions. Superior controllers. Superior gameplay. We rest our case.
Yet none of those arguments were worth a damn just five years ago when it seemed that every game developer was bailing on the PC in favor of consoles. The PC was lucky to get even a crappy port. And special enhancements for that $400 videocard or super-cool soundcard? Are you kidding? Indeed, even the most die-hard PC gamer will have to admit that things looked pretty bleak back then. So why should anyone believe that the complicated and infamously cantankerous PC gaming platform is truly making a comeback?
Dan Stapleton, editor-in-chief at GameSpy.com, says PC gaming is indeed on the upswing, and he thinks there’s even proof in the numbers.
“If we’re talking about raw numbers, how about 30 million active Steam accounts, 15 million League of Legends accounts, more than 10 million World of Warcraft players, and 4 million Minecraft sales?” Stapleton says. “Those are huge numbers, and each is representative of the things that are really driving modern PC gaming: aggressive digital distribution, free-to-play gaming, MMOs, and unfettered indie developers.”
Stapleton says the performance gulf between the PC and console is so big right now that he suspects console players are envious.
“You can’t look at the visual difference between Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, or Battlefield 3 running on a console next to the PC and not be at least a little jealous,” Stapleton says. “We’re also getting amazing deals from Steam sales, and entire genres like real-time strategy that just don’t work well on consoles. I don’t want to paint all console gamers with one brush, but PC gaming is pretty compelling right now.”
That sentiment is certainly echoed by the PC Gaming Alliance. Formed in 2008, when PC gaming’s light was at its dimmest, the PCGA obviously has a bias, as it is chartered with pushing all things PC gaming, but the Alliance has some persuasive points.
“Two gaming platforms have died in the last 10 years: Xbox 1 and Game Cube,” says Matt Ployhar, current president of the PCGA. “PC gaming is alive and well; unfortunately, that message just wasn’t getting reported.”
Ployhar also says much of the problem came from analysts looking only at retail sales of PC gaming and not digital sales. The stats also failed to count microtransactions and MMO subscriptions—two huge growth areas. Another weakness of the numbers game, Ployhar says, is that PC gaming is largely gauged by North America and ignores a huge swath of PC gaming overseas. China alone, he says, now has eight of the top 10 PC gaming companies that are raking in cash. That’s not even counting the massive growth of casual gamers on Farmville, Facebook, or Bejeweled.
Another unfair tactic by analysts and press is to lump all consoles as one.
“That’s like saying Ford, GM, and Chrysler ganged up on Toyota,” he said. “Those games don’t play on each other’s platforms.” But on the PC, a game that will run on an HP will run on a Dell or on your self-built box. Ployhar says his estimates put the install base of PC gamers at roughly 30 million enthusiasts, another 220 million performance and mainstream gamers, and another 350 million casual gamers.
That dwarfs the roughly 185 million console players, Ployhar says.
If anything, he says, it’s console gaming that’s threatened with extinction if the expected shift away from closed, proprietary platforms in favor of more open architectures and streaming games actually occurs.
Case closed? Not quite. Jesse Divnich, vice president of analyst services with Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, doesn’t think it’s quite so cut‑and‑dried that PC gaming is undergoing another golden age. Yes, social and casual gaming, or browser-based gaming, has seen an explosion, but traditional client-based PC gaming is only seeing modest growth.
Even statistics that show the PC is overwhelmingly the gaming platform of choice in developing nations such as China and India are likely to be fleeting, Divnich believes. In the same way that video games started on personal computers in the U.S. but moved to early consoles, Divnich expects that scenario to unfold in the developing world.
Divnich also thinks it’s overly optimistic to count browser-based PC gaming in the same bucket as traditional PC gaming. Someone who plays Farmville, he says, isn’t going to automatically step into Battlefield 3. And the old problem with the PC, that you must know your system requirements just to spool up a game, is still a turn-off for mainstream gamers.
Not that consoles are without glitches. A lag problem with the PS3 version of Skyrim is so bad that gamers were ready to magic missile Bethesda. Yet Divnich says the key difference is that console players know it’s the fault of developers. On a PC, “You instantly think, ‘This must be something on my end.’ Then you have to go to a FAQ and forums. On a console if something doesn’t work, it’s not my fault.”
The PC hasn’t been trouble-free with launches, either. Batman: Arkham City has DX11 issues due to the driver. And driver problems were so bad during the launch of id Software’s game Rage this fall that it threw John Carmack into a nerd rage, in which he declared in an interview with Kotaku.com, “The driver issues at launch have been a real cluster!@#$." He goes on to say that the company does "not see the PC as the leading platform for games. That statement will enrage some people, but it is hard to characterize it otherwise; both console versions will have larger audiences than the PC version.”
Michael Pachter, a high-profile analyst with Wedbush securities, agrees with Carmack that despite the PC’s better specs, it will never be the primary platform for game developers because the massive number of console players and how much they spend is just too big to ignore. Despite that, Pachter says he’s mostly bullish on PC gaming right now and thinks there is indeed somewhat of a resurgence in PC gaming.
“I think the console experience was great in 2005 and 2006. And it’s the same today,” he says. “The PC gaming experience has continued to get better and better. Very few games come out on the console and PC that don’t have better graphics on the PC. Battlefield 3 is a good example.”
Pachter also thinks there is an upside for PC gaming from browser gamers, or casual gamers. “We’re getting new gamers through Facebook, who may or may not be 45-year-old housewives,” he says, “But if they are, they have 10-year-old kids, and little Johnny can probably play games, too.”
Pachter said the latest growth in traditional PC gaming can also be explained by rock-bottom prices for very powerful hardware. “My first PC in the 1980s was $3,500, and I remember spending $2,000 in the last decade on a pretty cool gaming PC,” he says. “The idea that you can build yourself a rig [today] from scratch for $800 is pretty compelling.”