Hard Case: The State of PC Gaming

Alex Castle

As the annual Game Developer Conference draws to a close, it’s worth taking stock of the state of PC games. Pundits have been proclaiming the death of PC gaming for several years now, while adherents have been staunchly defending the PC as a gaming platform. I thought I’d take a step back and take a more strategic view of the PC gaming landscape.

The PC Gaming Universe is Not Monolithic

Most of the virtual ink on PC gaming has been either from hard core gamers or industry analysts who take a look at retail data. Either of those viewpoints too narrowly defines what gaming is on a complex and diverse platform that is the personal computer. If all you look at are packaged goods, then PC gaming is indeed doomed. Retail, boxed game sales for Windows (MacOS, too, but that’s still a very small share) have been declining for years now.

Today, we can slice it several ways. First, there’s distribution. People still buy boxed games, even if overall sales have been declining. Then there’s online distribution. Today, I get most of my games from Valve ’s Steam , a few from Stardock’s Impulse and a handful from Gamer’s Gate .

I still buy boxed games on occasion, recently indulging in the Collector’s Editions of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. But for the most part, I’ve succumbed to the lure of online distribution. About the only thing I miss are manuals; PDF copies don’t cut it. I’m surprised that none of the distribution companies have offered print versions of the manual for a (small) fee. I’m sure buyers would take them up on it.

Another way to slice the pie is genre. We have classic AAA titles – almost all of which are now multiplatform. Then you’ve got the niche players, like Paradox Interactive, which focuses on PC based, deep strategy games – although it also looks like they’re moving into simulation territory as well. Indie developers have been getting good traction, too. Ironclad Studios did huge (for an indie publisher) sales of its excellent RTS Sins of a Solar Empire. Vic Davis’ Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum have garnered strong reviews and appeal to people looking for a board-game like strategy game.

Then there are the games that most hard core gamers might disdain. They range from social gaming (Farmville, etc.) to lightweight, addictive casual games from Popcap. Most hard core gamers I know, when pressed, have spent a little time on such frothy fare as Plants versus Zombies or Zuma. Let’s also not forget the huge monster that are the Sims series – over 100 million and counting.

Let’s not forget the 9000 beast in the room: massively multiplayer online games. World of Warcraft may be the King, but other games have carved out profitable businesses with loyal followings. Lord of the Rings Online, Champions Online and others have a pretty significant audience in addition to that Blizzard monster. I know quite a few people who are also jumping into Star Trek Online. And let’s not forget that The Old Republic from the masters of RPG addiction, Bioware, isn’t that far off.

The Hardware Conundrum

Whenever you see sales figures for the console game business, those inevitably include hardware sales. On the other hand, PC game sales never include hardware. There is a certain logic to that. After all, PCs are used for a vast array of applications, and many PC users never go near a game.

On the other hand, I’ll maintain that almost no one buys a $200 graphics card and doesn’t use it to play games. I’d be happy if all the analysts would include the sales of GPUs ranging from the Radeon HD 5770 class and upwards in their PC gaming sales. The numbers for the PC gaming biz would look a little more substantial at that point.

The Dark Side

There are elements of PC gaming that conspire to prevent its success, however. Let’s take Ubisoft’s recent DRM debacle. In an effort which Bill Harris at Dubious Quality calls “Suicide by Cop,” Ubisoft has implemented DRM which requires the PC to be connected to the Internet 100% of the time. This is the latest in onerous DRM debacles which only serve to drive away the PC gaming audience. If sales of the PC version of Assassin’s Creed 2 and Silent Hunter V flop, Ubisoft can always blame piracy, not their own shortsightedness.

The PC platform itself is sometimes its own worst enemy. The variation in platform configurations – video cards + motherboards + audio + memory + power supplies – are too vast for any game company to adequately stress test. If a game runs well on 99% of the PC systems, that means it fails on tens of thousands of potential PCs.

PC Gaming Continues to Evolve

What’s clear is that PC gaming isn’t going to disappear. However, it will continue to evolve. There are new business models evolving (“freemium” games, social gaming) and new genres being explored. The PC is also has one of the lowest barriers to entry for newbie developers anxious to bring new ideas and gameplay experiments.

The PC gaming experience of old will only become a small subset of the overall PC experience. But if that’s all you expect from PC gaming, you might as well buy an Xbox 360 or PS3. If you do, though, you’ll miss out on a rich variety of experiences from an increasingly wide array of sources.

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