Why the future looks bright for PC gaming
5th Apr 2009 | 09:00
Tough sales and Bittorrent bogeyman not sounding death knell
The state of PC gaming
Is PC gaming dying, changing or growing? Anyone who answered dying, go and stand in the corner. If you answered either changing or growing, have a biscuit and feel proud of yourself. That said, every man and his blogging dog seems to have their own pet theory on the state of PC gaming, and that can make it wildly tricky.
Compounding this is that 'PC gaming' has become an astonishingly broad term. Are MMOs, for instance, a mere part of PC gaming, or do their players' tendency to stick with one game for years now make them a separate industry of their own? Should the independent developers churning out inspired Flash games and mods be lumped in with the mega-budget Need For Speeds and Crysises of this world?
Think beyond the box
So while, yes, retail sales of most PC games in plastic boxes may not be in the rudest of health right now, PC gaming as a whole is expanding. Visit Kongregate or Newgrounds and you'll leave with a justified impression that there's more people currently making PC games than ever before.
Meantime, Google ads on a clutch of gaming sites reveal this unending slew of MMOs you've never heard of. Some are diamonds in the browser-based rough, others are soulless grinds, but they're all out there making money even when the PC games shelves on the high street are increasingly shrunken and dust-covered.
To put some hard numbers on that decline, data compilers NPD recently announced that US retail sales of PC games fell 14 per cent from 2007 to 2008. As a worrying context, total game software retail sales in the US jumped a mighty 26 per cent from 2007 to 2008 – largely driven by the Nintendo Wii.
It's painfully easy to draw the worst conclusions from this: the PC is the Latin of the gaming world. The immediate response to such doomsaying is that, while NPD have been the go-to guys for game sales figures for years now, their numbers don't include digital distribution. So, no Steam, no Gametap, no Metaboli, no Gamersgate, no Impulse, no EA Store, and no ongoing MMO subscriptions either, for that matter.
Any document of the state of PC gaming that doesn't reference the crazy moneypot that is World of Warcraft's 11 million-plus monthly global subscribers is hardly telling the real truth about the ol' IBM Compatible's health.
While paid game downloads are still a relatively new kid on the block, their impact can't be discounted either: that -14 per cent figure is all but meaningless as a portrait of PC gaming in 2008/9.
Stardock – publisher/developer of recent big sleeper hits such as Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations 2 – is a PC-only outfit that sees the merit of both forms of distribution: "On day one, digitally distributed games do better," reveals Stardock's CEO and founder Brad Wardell. "Then for the next six months, the boxed version dominates. Then after six months, the digital versions start to catch up again."
Valve's Doug Lombardi is similarly non-partisan: "Most of the data we've seen from Steam and from others who sell products at retail and online is that retail remains more or less steady and the majority of the growth seen recently, and projected in the years to come, is from digital sales/revenue. So, it's healthy and it's growing. We don't look for retail to go away, but instead see online as a multiplier for sales overall and a vehicle for creating better products and services."
Of course, for as long as retailers are still earning them good money, slump or not, any publisher would be mad to call them extinct just yet. What is clear is the download market isn't some tangential newcomer anymore: it's big business, and a major signpost as to the future of the PC.
A recent poll of gamers' buying habits on RockPaperShotgun revealed that a whopping 47 per cent of them were regularly purchasing downloaded games – while admittedly that's a survey of a fairly passionate group of PC gamers rather than the unwashed masses, it still suggests those fearmongering NPD reports are pretty worthless in their current state. "In just under four years," says Lombardi, "Steam has grown from zero to 15 million accounts. And our installed base is still growing rapidly as more core and casual games are added to the offerings."
When we asked him if the day is coming when Steam might house any game you care to name, he offered this: "This holiday Steam had Call of Duty: World at War, Spore, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Football Manager 2009, World of Goo, Dead Space, Grand Theft Auto IV, and many more. For the most part, I think you can make that statement now."
Meantime, Good Old Games is a thriving new home to cheap retro PC games, emphasising that, unlike the consoles, this is a platform with a vast history. Given its game library is in the millions, it's not going away any time soon.
The effect of piracy
Pirates ate my gold
Unfortunately, there's a looming threat to both types of PC game distribution, and one that's often identified as a smoking gun for those troubled retail sales: piracy.
Numerous developers and publishers have waded into the argument claiming Bittorrent is harming them, while the formerly PC-centric likes of Epic and Crytek have even claimed it's a major factor in their decision to now turn their attentions primarily to consoles.
Research into the scale, and most of all the real-world fiscal effects of piracy, remains fairly limited, and this shortage of empirical proof one way or another has made the unending online debate on the matter peculiarly confusing and often vicious.
On the one hand, you have 2D Boy, the chaps behind indie mega-gem World of Goo claiming that over 80 per cent of the game's players had pirated it, but calmly stating that it hadn't harmed sales.
On the other side of the argument, there's someone like developer, Cliff Harris of one-man studio Positech (best-known for thoughtful indie fare such as life management game, Kudos and the sprawling politicking of Democracy): "Nobody can say with a straight face that having well-known sites where people can get your product for free has zero effect on sales. To pretend anything else is just silly", he reckons. "One of the things nobody ever talks about is the psychological effect piracy has on games developers. If you work 10 hours a day for a year to make something, then find people taking it for free 24 hours after release, you just cannot begin to describe how depressing that feels to them."
Indie, we love you
The crux of piracy debate often hinges on the question of whether someone who Bittorrents a given game would otherwise have been a customer of it. On the one hand, that person is clearly not paying to play your game. On the other, there's every chance that the only reason they're playing it is because they didn't have to pay.
Meantime, the anti-piracy camp calls it theft, while the pro-piracy guys claim that making a digital duplicate of immaterial code is hardly the same thing as physically swiping an item. It's a semantic and ethical war which only further obfuscates an issue that's increasingly dominating all discussion about the PC as a gaming platform.
Recently, id's John Carmack even claimed that PC hardware manufacturers were taking advantage of the current ubiquity and ease of piracy to help flog more of their gear. Still, one glance at the most leeched torrents reveals that it's the big-name games such as Call of Duty that attract the most illegal downloaders.
Indie developers might have more to lose, but not yet being mainstream is to their advantage. That's perhaps one of the reasons why there's a thriving indie scene, both paid and free, despite Big Publishing's doomsaying about the PC. "There is widespread acceptance of indie gaming, and it's easier for indies to be taken seriously as a creative force," says Positech's Cliff Harris, who recently released Kudos 2 to a warm response.
"Also, advances in PCs mean that you no longer have to optimise the hell out of C++ to run a game at 30FPS, so you don't need my phenomenal coding skillz to be an indie developer any more. There are lots of reasons for the big budget games to die out. The graphics arms race is definitely slowing down. In terms of profitability, indie devs like 2DBoy or even me are probably more profitable per employee than Activision."
Valve's Steam has quickly become a major portal for some of the higher-profile indie games – the low-budget likes of World of Goo and Audiosurf have been big hits on the download service. "They're very profitable," agrees Valve's Doug Lombardi. "And that's the beauty of the indie gaming scene: one person to a handful of people can make a game and if it hits at all, it's money hats for everyone."
Rumour even has it that Valve literally made a money hat to congratulate Audiosurf's Dylan Fitterer on the MP3 racing game's huge and profitable success…
Of course, if indie games do become the dominant force on PC, it's bad news for Nvidia and ATI-AMD. We're already at the point where there's little reason for most PC owners to have anything beefier than a mid-range graphics card, and with the Xbox 360 and PS3 now entering the latter years of their life we can't expect many console ports – currently the major source of big-name PC titles – to demand especially high-end PCs.
Meantime, Intel is pushing back with efforts to make the CPU rather than GPU the key component in a gaming PC, as well as readying its hybrid CPU/GPU Larrabee chip. Unless there's an unexpected new glut of PC exclusive graphics-fests, as with that double-whammy of Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 back in the day, there could be dark days ahead for high-end 3D cards.
Times are changing
Stardock's Brad Wardell has a slightly different take. "We experienced a temporary change from the trend that had existed for many years prior. In the 1980s, consoles dominated and PCs were the exception. But then there was a meltdown in the console market that allowed PC games to dominate. What we've been seeing since has been the gradual reassertion of consoles and the PC gradually returning to its core strengths. Action games, sports games and other console-centric games were never the types of games that were the PC's to lose."
Stardock makes what you could call traditional PC games – high-strategy, roleplaying, 4x – to a casual observer, space RTS Sins of A Solar Empire might be living up to every stereotype of PC gaming, but it's paying off – it was the number one PC game at US retail earlier last year. And that's despite a good chance that you've never heard of it.
It's appealing directly to a specific audience, which is in stark constrast to a big FPS's attempts to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, thanks to the relative genericism of shooting men in the face. The latter approach potentially means more sales, but the former means getting the game exactly right for a certain group of people, and without having to rely on costly, time-consuming graphical prowess to lure in an audience.
It's an approach we can expect to see more of – you can even argue that the higher profile, glossier likes of Dawn of War 2 and Left 4 Dead are taking a similar approach. They're games in which the mechanics are far more important than the appearance.
Declining retail sales and the Bittorrent bogeyman aren't, then, a death knell for PC gaming. Whether it's growing into something new, beautiful and impressively independent or returning to the ideals it was founded upon back before Doom brought about the age of graphics and adrenaline, it's in probably the most exciting state it's been in for years. Vive la evolution.
First published in PC Format Issue 225
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