Over the last three weeks we’ve been taking a look at PC gaming and asking the question of whether or not it’s dying. I kind of slipped the spoiler ending in Part 2, but we’ll continue anyway. If you haven’t read the previous articles in this series, you can do so here and here.
PCs get a bad knock. A lot of people think that they’re on the way out because PC sales don’t match consoles. But PCs have never actually led the market in sales. I think they’re more of a fringe market rather than a mainstream market. With that in mind, today we’re checking out:
The Mainstream Myth
Before I begin, let me laydown some groundwork. I believe that there are three major spheres of gaming: hardcore, mainstream and casual. You must understand me fully or no good will come of this article. When I talk about hardcore games, I’m talking about the games that the stereotypical “gamer” plays. Games like Diablo, Deus Ex, WoW, and Crysis. When I mention mainstream games, I’m talking about that sell caboodles and you don’t have to be a “gamer” to play. Example would be Halo, Call of Duty and Madden. Finally, when I say casual games, I mean Wii, iPhone and Facebook games, games that kids and grandparents play.
PCs, I would argue, fall outside what is considered the mainstream gaming market. It does this because of two overwhelmingly large portions of its library: the social game and indie game.
As I already mentioned, digital distribution is a HUGE part of the PC market. One of the many good things about this is that it allows developers to take chances. In 2010, Valve announced that Steam saw a sales increase of over 200% from 2009 and its member base increased by over 175%. Similar growth has been happening for the past 7 years! While Valve doesn’t give out sale particulars, looking at the games offered, it’s easy to see what a major component to this is (obviously their ridiculous sales but more importantly) games by independent developers.
Log onto Steam and you will see hosts of new games released every week. But most of these titles aren’t AAA. Sure, you can find all the new releases there, but you can also find incredibly obscure titles like The Binding of Isaac, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter and Dustforce. You can also find more “big-budget” independent titles like Bastion and Q.U.B.E.These games are all made by small groups of individuals who aren’t bound by the question of “will this sell?” but rather, “is it fun?”
This isn’t happening only on the PC. But the PC, as with most everything else, has led this trend. The Xbox 360 and PS3 both now feature games made by small studios, even tout them. Microsoft hosts its annual “Summer of Arcade” and Sony started a month long promotion called “Only on PSN” last fall. Both of these events allow games like Rochard and Limbo to get the attention they deserve but would not normally get (both games ended up on the PC). If you look at the PAX 10, a top ten list of indie games shown at PAX, you’ll see that eight of the ten games featured are coming out for the PC. Only one is slated for the Xbox 360 and one for iOS devices.
Despite the fact that other platforms are embracing the indie scene, the PC is still the predominant platform that indie games run to. To a large degree, I think a lot of that has to do with cost. The PC is where games are developed. It makes sense that it would be cheaper to develop for the platform you are developing on. It would also seem easier to build and release the game on the same platform.
Now, another oft ignored yet large part of PC gaming library is the casual game. There is no questioning that the Wii pushed video games even more into mainstream American entertainment. But 90 million Wiis only touches the number people playing Famville (nearly 100 million) on Facebook. And Farmville is just one game and Facebook is projected to hit 1 billion users by August of this year.
Casual gaming isn’t limited to just facebook though. It’s clear that tablets, specifically iOS devices, can no longer be ignored by the gaming community. Years ago, people scoffed at the “leaked” images of an iGame device (which is ludicrous since there is no P in iGame). The mere idea that Apple would enter the gaming realm was absurd. But then, the idea of Microsoft entering the gaming world was equally absurd in 1998.
In 2011, John Carmack, creator of id Tech, gave his thoughst on mobile technology in an interview.
“It’s unquestionable that within a very short time, we’re going to have portable cell phones that are more powerful than the current-gen consoles… [A]lmost certainly, 2 years from now, there will be mobile devices more powerful than what we’re doing all these fabulous games on right now.”
Looking at how Rage and Infinity Blade for iOS look, I would say that he’s correct. But that’s really not much of a stretch considering how much more powerful the iPad is than the original Xbox. But no matter how fast tablets become, laptops will always be faster. And no matter how fast laptops become, desktops will always be faster. As technology becomes smaller, lighter, cheaper and faster, there has to be a computer that is bigger, heavier, even cheaper and even faster on which that technology is built. The PC will always be the dominant technology in terms of power.
While some games are leveraging that power, looking at games like Plants vs. Zombies, Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds, power doesn’t seem to be what casual audiences are after. All you have to do is check Facebook and see the kajillion posts from so-and-so wanting you to help them farm some random thing or whack a mobster to see that most people aren’t after the power. But that’s really what makes PCs such has strong “platform.” You can run the gamut of the lowest-end casual game to the craziest hardcore game.
Much like F2P games, casual games have lowered the price of admission to play games. The question is not whether you’re willing to pay $60 for a five-hour campaign and some multiplayer. The question is whether you’re willing to pay a dollar or two for some fun on the go. All of this hopefully leads to more people games. Apparently it’s worked considering that almost 7 million people downloaded Angry Birds this past Christmas.
From my point of view, it’s actually these two extremes that the PC caters to the best. PC gaming never really has been the mainstream. Mainstream gaming has always been about consoles. Always. It wasn’t the PC that revived gaming in the 80s, it was the NES. When people talk about hardware wars, they talk about consoles. The PC really isn’t even a competitor of consoles because of how different they are as platforms.
So if the PC has been the “fringe platform” all along, the PC isn’t dying in any sense. But why does it appear that way? Because the closest thing it has to a competitor is the console. And consoles are both booming and stealing the PC’s thunder.
Why, you ask? Well, I’ve actually partially answered that already. You just didn’t know it. Come back next week for the fourth and final part: The Consolization Conundrum.
As always, fire off in the comments below with questions, concerns, issues or subscriptions and even prescriptions.