Why PC gaming is far from dead
18th Dec 2012 | 10:30
New tech can revive gaming on the humble PC, says Nvidia
PC gaming isn't merely clinging onto this mortal coil courtesy of a frayed SATA cable. It's in positively rude health.
It's growing in dilapidated, decadent Europe, it's taking off again in the grand ol' US of A, and it's exploding in Asia.
In fact, as none other than the evil geniuses at mega-developer EA recently opined: "The fastest growing platform for video games today is the PC." So, there you have it.
To be fair, things did look a bit grim in the period between roughly 2006 and early 2010, when the current crop of games consoles seemed to be having their way. But no longer. The question is, therefore, what changed, why did it happen and is it going to stick?
To find out more, who better to ask than the leading maker of performance graphics hardware for the PC, Nvidia?
Through its sales of GPUs, the company is hard wired into the PC gaming community. It feels the ups and downs of fickle gamers' whims as acutely as anyone, so it pores over the data in forensic detail
First, let's have a little look at the numbers. What, exactly, do they show us? Nvidia gave us some insider access to a report produced by DFC Intelligence. Here are some of the highlights.
Back in 2010, the PC as a revenue generator from games was significantly smaller than consoles. Last year it largely closed that gap. This year it's predicted to be slightly bigger, and that's not expected to turn around until 2017. That's right, another five years. Just imagine what the PC will be capable of by then.
Hold that thought - we'll be coming back to it. During that time frame, mobile gaming is also expected to grow, but only until it's about one-third the size of console or PC gaming.
Intriguingly, sales of high-end Nvidia GPUs have also been on the up of late. Nvidia won't go into all the details, but says the GTX 680 is comfortably outselling its GTX 580 progenitor. So much for the death of enthusiast hardware. Another key trend has been a big uptick in the sales of notebook PCs with high-performance GPUs.
Meanwhile, PC game revenues are likely to become almost exclusively earned online, with a mix of subscriptions and digital downloads. Back in 2008, around 70 per cent of revenues were online, with the remainder coming from retail. Last year it was around 85 per cent. That figure will breach the 90 per cent barrier in the next few years and slowly climb to near 100 per cent.
That's interesting, as online gaming in one form or another is a major trend across all platforms but something PC gamers are much more likely to be doing than console gamers. So that's the first explanation for the growth in PC gaming. Due to its flexible and fast changing nature, it was better positioned to cash in on the shift to online.
Free for all
Another major new trend is free-to-play. Measured in hours played, four of the top 10 games are free to play. That's League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, MapleStory and World of Tanks.
According to Nvidia's content development guru, Phil Wright, free-to-play caught a lot of people off guard. "Five years ago, most people in the games industry would have laughed at the prospect of a free-to-play triple-A title with cutting edge graphics. But it's happening right now," he says.
For proof, Wright points to our old friend Crytek - a game developer with a rep for pushing the graphical envelope. "After Crysis 3, Crytek is planning to go free-to-play," says Wright, inferring that's pretty much all you need to know about the subject of whether high-end graphics are compatible with free-to-play.
Again, the flexibility and openness of the PC means the barriers to a rapid transition to free-to-play are few compared to the walled gardens inhabited by console gamers.
However, the issue that most people would point to is the growing hardware gap between consoles and PCs. A mid-range GPU like the new GTX 660 is 4.3 times faster than a GeForce 9800 board from 2008, and a 9800 is miles better than any of the current consoles, which are pegged around GeForce 7800 levels. Put simply, consoles now look pathetic compared to even a mediocre mid-range PC.
All the wow factor is with the PC, to the extent developers are increasingly leaning towards the PC as the target platform. Nvidia reckons the PC clearly 'won' the E3 show this year since nearly all the new games being showcased were running on PCs - often secretly. It's the platform you need to use to achieve something special in the graphics department.
And it's not the only hardware trend that's giving the PC a lift. The recent rise of tablets and smartphones is making consumers much more tech savvy. Wright reckons that gadget owners who've had a great experience with Nvidia Tegra-powered ultramobile devices are more likely to demand good graphics from their PCs - and good Nvidia graphics at that.
Chuck things like Ultra HD (or 4K) screens into the mix, along with the increasing prevalence of CGI cinema blockbusters and you have a buying public who are that little bit more discerning when it comes to graphical fidelity - and some of them will be won over by the PC's obvious technical supremacy.
Hands on: Wii U review
The next round of new consoles is probably only a year away, but there's reason to believe they won't push the technical boundaries as hard as the existing bunch did seven or so years ago.
If there's a joker in the pack here, it's cloud gaming, where games run entirely on servers that stream compressed video to client machines that needn't be PCs or consoles - they can just as easily be smart TVs. It's hard to predict how fast it will take off - and the recent financial complications at OnLive suggest that this idea may be a bit before its time.
Even if cloud gaming does take off, it feels like a more natural match for mainstream console gaming than cutting edge PC games, so we'll go out on a limb and predict that the extent to which it does eat into the games market, it will probably be at the expense of consoles rather than PCs.
Next-gen console threat
The way we see it, there's only one threat to the PC's resurgence as the predominant platform for proper gaming, and that's the arrival of some new consoles with unprecedented levels of graphical prowess. But is that a remotely plausible scenario?
It's been seven-odd years since the Xbox 360 launched and a little less since PlayStation 3 appeared, so the consoles are looking pretty horrible right now. But that could change next year with some new boxes, right?
Actually, we doubt it. For starters, the success of the Nintendo Wii, albeit a little fleeting, did a pretty good job of making the console boys doubt the idea that gaming is all about graphics. What's more, both Sony and Microsoft paid dearly due to teething problems and the general expense of bringing high-end computing and graphics kit to market at a price console gamers would tolerate.
In that context, the rumours of modest hardware specs for the next generation seem plausible. Microsoft in particular is said to be targeting rapid profitability for the next Xbox, and that isn't terribly compatible with producing a console to rival PCs for performance.
In fact, you could argue the arrival of next-gen consoles will only be good for PC gaming. They probably won't be powerful enough to remotely threaten the PC's hardware supremacy. But they will give the industry a bit of a lift by raising the lowest common denominator in terms of graphical fidelity. All is well for PC gaming.
There's life left in it yet
Put it all together, and the next five years really do look like a potential golden age for PC gaming. Predictions any further out than that are a fool's errand. Enjoy it while it lasts, folks