I’ve been in countless arguments with friends and coworkers over the future of PC gaming and the latest trends of the gaming industry. A lot of people seem to think that gaming on your Computer is dying and the coming generations of consoles will take over the entire market. As an avid PC gamer this is the last thing I’d want to see happen, but is it really on the verge of extinction? Will the future of PC gaming consist only of World of Warcraft, Farmville and online Poker? The short answer is no. The PC branch of the gaming industry has never been doing as well as it is now. With plenty of exclusive releases every year, the great market opportunities for indie developers, and the immense MMO and free to play game markets available, the pc gaming industry is not dying – it’s actually thriving.
PC gaming deserves a lot of credit for enduring it’s greatest hindrance, piracy. Piracy is hurting the PC gaming industry more than it’s affecting all of the gaming platforms combined. Due to the open source and uncontrolled nature of PCs, there is no perfect way to prevent piracy and this problem only seems to get worse every day. Piracy is so rampant that developers such as Epic Games are, according to Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, ‘reluctantly’ starting to pull out of the PC gaming market and focus solely on the consoles just to make a fair income. Capps told the Escapist, “the ratio was 20:1 on Crysis, for pirated to non-pirated use. So guess what? That’s why there’s no Gears of War 2 on PC, because there’s no market, because copying killed it – and that’s gruesome to a company like ours that’s been in the PC market for so long.” In an attempt to fight piracy, some developers end up holding back the PC versions of games a few months after their console releases in order to encourage PC gamers to purchase the game on a console before it has a chance to be pirated. A more drastic but commonly used solution to counter piracy is to introduce DRM (digital rights management) in an effort to limit when and how games can be played. The biggest example of this would be Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed 2 which launched for PC in early 2010 – a couple of months after its console counterparts. In order to play Assassins Creed 2 you are required to have an active connection to the Ubisoft servers at all times. If you get disconnected from the network the game will not let you continue playing until the connection is re-established. This did not go over well with PC gamers as the community was outraged at the absurd restrictions placed on software that they had legitimately purchased. Determined to prove a point about DRM, pirates found a way to bypass it a few days after the game was released. If a drastic solution like Ubisoft’s fails, why should companies even bother continuing to develop games on PC? Companies have to think differently about their approach to counter piracy if they want to make a profit without looking like greedy tyrants. When a game is easier for gamers to pirate than it is for them to play legitimately who wouldn’t steal it?
One of the core reasons developers are continuing to support PC gaming is Valve’s Steam – the number one digital distribution method on PC (albeit criticized as having a monopolistic hold on the PC gaming industry and hated by retailers). Steam isn’t just a digital distributer but also the PC’s answer to Xbox Live and PSN. Steam’s ability to chat with friends in any game and launch any application (not just purchased steam games) from the library makes it an effective social gaming hub.
Steam, and digital distribution in general, is great for developers because they can charge less for a game and turn out more profit by eliminating distribution fees; Without physical copies and the related costs of packaging, shipping, stocking, and eye-catching retail displays, Steam is capable of amazing sales every week. Steam games are sometimes on sale for 50% to 90% off the regular price which increases sales figures and popularity of the Steam client. Another great thing about Steam is how it deals with content updates. Unlike Microsoft, developers do not have to pay royalties for updates on Steam, which allows tons of free or cheap DLC for games sold on the platform; Look at hugely popular games such as Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead (2) which are updated almost monthly since they have been released. Even non-Valve games like Tripwire Interactive’s Killing Floor get regular updates with tons of new content every few months.
Valve and other like-minded companies stand to profit as digital distribution becomes more popular with consumers. In 2009 Steam sales have increased by 205% over 2008s figures and the amount of users continues to rise.
The next topic I wanted to bring up is the enormous market for MMOs and free-to-play games. In a survey done by gamesindustry.com the entire MMO industry in the US generated over $3.8 billion in 2009 and had about 46 million active users. PC gamers also get the option of many free to play games such as Lord of the Rings Online, Vindictus and Dungeons and Dragons Online; Games like these provide an alternative to paying for games and still generate a fair profit for developers with cash shops (selling in-game items for real world money) and micro transactions. The idea is that if someone likes a game enough they will pay for additional content and can still enjoy the game if they choose not to pay for the content. With tons of popular MMOs and a great Free to Play market the PC gaming industry is great for casual gamers and younger audiences who can’t always afford the latest AAA games.
Let’s take a moment to look at the great potential for indie game developers on PC. On PC, developers aren’t forced to pay royalties to hardware manufacturers as they would if they were developing for consoles. All they need is a website and some form of file hosting. Look at the popularity of the games like Minecraft which started as a free (and still partially free) Java game which managed to sell more than 500,000 copies without any structured distribution methods or over-the-top advertising.
PC gaming is often considered expensive – involving lots of tweaking and technical expertise. Therefore, PC gaming is believed to not be as user friendly as consoles and exists only for elitists or enthusiasts whose pants moisten over having the latest and greatest hardware to push those extra few frames using the sharpest textures and polygons; This statement is very untrue. PC gaming is not as expensive as people think it is, if you know where to shop, and even cheaper if you can build one yourself. A decent computer that is capable of everything the 360 or PS3 can do will only run you about $500 – $700 and, when you think of all the other things you use your PC for, the price doesn’t seems so daunting. Sure, if you are an enthusiast you can end up paying over $2000 for a PC, but the average gamer doesn’t need a fancy pimped machine that even Xibit would be envious of. Another argument is that PC owners need to upgrade hardware frequently in order to keep up. However, many people are still using older video cards such as Nvidia 8800s and Intel Core 2 duos which have been around for over 4 years and are still able to play the latest games smoothly. This is because of a recent trend in the gaming industry where developers design games around the consoles first in order to maximize profits. This developer focus on console gaming means that games aren’t pushing PC hardware as much as they were in the past.
Growing up, I remember playing games like Doom, Duke Nukem, Commander Keen, and Quake. I also have fond memories of early online multiplayer games like Starcraft, Counterstrike, and Unreal Tournament. While consoles were great in their own way they lacked much of the capabilities of PCs. Though PCs have traditionally held the technological edge, consoles are catching up and pushing ahead in the gaming market with new innovations like the motion control – changing the way we play games while encouraging casual gamers, who may have felt overwhelmed by a controller, to join the gaming community. But PC gaming still brings many advantages over consoles such as lag-reducing dedicated online servers, as well as user-created mods and developer tools that allow gamers’ creativity and talents to manifest and develop; In this way, gamers are not tied down to a single disk and are able to freely explore, customize, and share their gaming experiences with other players. Keyboards and mice also allow an extra level of control that consoles can’t replicate – Anyone have fond memories of Starcraft 64? This isn’t to say that consoles can’t support a mouse and keyboard in the future, but doing so may divide the community and create an uneven playing field for gamers. Some gamers may overlook PC gaming in favour of consoles, but PC gaming will never disappear.