I’ll give you a hint, the answer to the question above is no, no it’s not. And I’m here to tell you why. This week I’m taking a look at some key areas of the PC landscape. Previously I spoke about piracy. You can read about it here. But today, today we’re talking about:
The Generational Gap
No, I’m not talking about the one that separates you from you parents or the 12 year-olds that play Halo or Rainbow Six. I’m talking about the way consoles are thought of versus PCs, particularly the idea of the “platform.”
One reason that PC gaming has the perception that it is dying is how we measure it. The PC isn’t a platform like the Xbox and Playstation. I hesitate to even call the PC a platform partly because most people have an Xbox or a PlayStation. That is not the case with a PC. In 2008, it was reported that there were over 1 billion computers in use on the face of the earth. The PC population is predicted to reach 2 billion by 2015. In contrast, the number of Xbox 360s, PS3, and Wiis combined is somewhere in the vicinity of 220 million. With five times as many PCs in the world as current generation consoles, there is a lot of overlap. Obviously these are not all gaming rigs. In fact, I would wager that very few of them are. But the sheer number of PCs in the world and the range of power that PCs encompass makes the idea of the PC different from that of the console.
The other reason that I hesitate to call the PC a platform is because of its evolutionary and non-static nature. The PC doesn’t have successive versions of itself like the Xbox and PlayStation do. It’s one long-living platform. It is enhanced with newer hardware but the “next-generation PC” doesn’t get launched every other year or even every five years. With the PC, graphical leaps aren’t made by hardware like with consoles. They’re made by games. We get benchmarks like The Witcher 2 and Battlefield 3 that utilize hardware or in some cases demand better hardware. I mean, nothing really ran Crysis the way it should have been run when it came out. It’s the games that tell us what the new graphical standards are, not the hardware. PCs aren’t suddenly better; they become better bit by bit with advances in RAM, CPUs and GPUs.
What we’re seeing now is simply the continuation of that evolution. Thus, we can’t even begin to judge the PC as a “platform” because you don’t go out and buy the PC 2. Thus, it doesn’t move units like a console. Neither are most of its sales physical boxes. A quick look at NDP will tell you that PC games sales are low. Looking at the PC section of a Wal-Mart or a Best Buy will tell you that very few games come out for PC. Even videogame stores like GameStop don’t feature as many PC games as console games. Most PC games you see in stores are also on consoles, many look like they were made ten years ago and the rest seem to be World of Warcraft or The Sims expansions. Likewise, the console sections of those given stores are huge, offering a large number of games for sale.
But NDP doesn’t account for downloaded games. Load up Steam, go to Good Old Games or EA’s Origin and you will see a very different story. No longer is retail the main arena for distribution. Its digital. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the booming success of digital books in recent years or the popularity of Netflix’s and Hulu’s streaming services. We’re in a digital age and games are digital. It only makes sense that they be distributed digitally as well. And obviously it’s working, Steam recently announced 100% sales growth since last year.
While there are purists out there (myself included) that want their games to come in boxes with real manuals to be read and smelled, digital downloads offer many advantages. By downloading a game, you’re able to play it much faster than you would if you went out and bought it at a store or ordered it online. You also don’t have to worry about misplacing or wearing out discs. Your game will always be on the server.
A digital medium for games also gives developers more opportunity to try things out, like differing a game’s pricing structure. We’re seeing more and more games move to a free-to-play (F2P) system; and the developers doing this generally see large increases in activity and revenue. No physical product cost means less overhead. Less overhead means cheaper (i.e. free) games. A year ago, most games that were F2P were WoW knockoffs. Now Global Agenda, Champions Online and even Team Fortress 2 are F2P. Because there is no initial fee to play the games entry becomes a much easier decision. Valve recently said that the Team Fortress 2 player base has grown by a factor of five since it went F2P. With F2P games, you don’t have to worry about wasting your money on a game that you may not enjoy very much. Instead, you pay as you play and, in some cases, not at all.
In addition to a digital market, PC games are also becoming more social, moving in directions that, as of now, consoles can’t. In the last several years, we’ve seen the advent of Facebook games and their ilk. While people have strongly varied opinions about Facebook-like games, they’re becoming more and more prominent and thus more important. Like the F2P games mentioned above, social games virtually remove the high entrance price of PC gaming.
This ease of entry is a big point, as it is something that has long separated PCs from consoles. If you buy a console, you’re guaranteed to be able to play games for around five years. PCs aren’t so simple. For the longest time, if you wanted a good gaming rig, you had to build it yourself. That hurdle has large disappeared with companies specializing in gaming rigs. But even when you did get a gaming PC, you aren’t guaranteed anything close to five years. Sure, you will be able to “play” top of the line games for several years, but you won’t get the most out of them graphically. And buying a mainstream HP or Dell will most certainly not allow you to play graphically intense games.
This short life-expectancy has generally made PC games, especially ones like Crysis, have a particularly high admission fee. And while games like that still do and will always exist, it seems like a lot of games to be found on the PC aren’t system killers. Logically, from the developer’s point of view, if you want people to play your game, you’ll want it to appeal to the least common denominator. This means your game will need be playable on most systems, not just gaming rigs.
Does that mean we’ve seen the end of games with eye-bleedingly gorgeous graphics? No, not at all (have you seen The Witcher or Battlefield 3?). But they’re not the main feature anymore. But then, they never have been. Just like M rated games standout in the news but are swallowed in sales by E games, graphically intensive games have never been the majority; they’re simply the ones that stick out. The difference is that we are and will continue to see an increase in non-graphically demanding games because developers want more people playing their games.
So, based on the sheer breadth of the type of games that exist on the PC, from the hardcore to the social, it’s clear that determining what the PC is as a platform is problematic. It’s fluid. When was the last time you successfully nailed down water? Because of the fact we both cannot track the sales of PC or the sales most games for it, means that even comparing PC to consoles is an exercise in frustration. The PC is simply a different beast, and one that still has a lot of fight left in it.
And so ends Part 2 of “Is PC Gaming Dead?” Please leave comments below and come back for Part 3: The Mainstream Myth (don’t you love alliteration?).