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June 13, 2008

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Consolation Prize

Did you hear that PC gaming is dying? You probably have, because nobody seems to be able to shut up about it.

Certainly not the big producers. Crytek blamed poor sales of Crysis on piracy, although the game then apparently sold more than a million copies, beating their expectations. iD's stopped making PC exclusives, as has Epic--they've explicitly blamed piracy and integrated graphics for the problem. And many of the big developers are not making exclusives for PC any more, or they're back-porting their lower-end console versions to the platform, or they're blaming their lower-end console versions for the lack of a PC port (see: Lucasarts and The Force Unleashed). There's a lot of scorn going around for the PC, what with its heterogeneous hardware and its sometimes maddening software stack.

Honestly (and perhaps sadly), I take this a little personally. I grew up with PC gaming--didn't own a console until college. I played Duke3D and Counterstrike in the computer lab during lunch in high school. I remember loading up Strike Commander just to fly around the landscape, and going through a nerve-wracking two weeks as my father and I tried to get the deluxe version of Simcity running in VESA-compatible mode. And writing Joust knockoffs in BASIC was one of the experiences you just can't get anywhere else.

So I've been watching this for a while. And these complaints--it's too unstable! too unpredictable! too expensive!--are kind of funny, because they've been around for years. The PC market has always been dying, it seems. And yet it's still here. It's either dying very slooooooowly... or reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

It certainly seems dire when cast in the most extreme terms. You mean some console games won't also come to the PC? Well, that's indeed a shame. But then, you're not seeing much Stalker love on Xbox, are you? Don't Darwinia or Defcon count as exclusives, too? Sam and Max: not available on consoles. And isn't WoW kind of the big elephant in the room here? Even if the other MMO's aren't making quite those kinds of numbers, I don't hear companies like NCSoft complaining, frankly.

But those don't count, because PC gaming is dying. Only generic, big-budget console releases count when we value a platform--because heaven knows that's where the really exciting design takes place. Halo 3, anyone? Another Final Fantasy, maybe?

And then there's one of my favorite new games, Sins of a Solar Empire. Sins is, to put it bluntly, incredibly addictive. There are actually very few games where I lose track of time, but I have had the experience of looking up and realizing that I've spent two hours buried in the Thinkpad. It's a very "PC" type of game--lots of mousing and menus and keyboard shortcuts. It's hard to imagine doing it on a console. The game also scales well--there's no doubt that it looks sharp at full tilt, but you can also run it on a machine that's several years old.

Sins has so far won just about every gaming award available to it, and it's been within the top ten-selling titles on the retail charts for the PC since its release (downloads have also been strong, they say). There's little doubt that it's been extremely profitable for Stardock (a relative upstart in game development), even though it doesn't use any copy protection at all to prevent piracy.

But PC gaming is dying, right? The guy from Epic said so.

Valve, meanwhile, has been making a killing off Steam, apparently. They're big PC guys. My friend Matt sends me an e-mail every now and then to let me know how neglected his Xbox copy of the Orange Box feels after the Steam patches and updates for Team Fortress 2--and I feel for him, but if he played his shooters on a platform with a mouse like a Real American, that wouldn't happen to him. In any case, Valve's support for the PC through Steam is unmistakeable--they make a point of it at product announcements. And here, again, is a company that's not betting the farm on the bleeding edge, and understands their platform. My laptop is pretty top of the line for a business-class notebook, but it's a relatively weak gaming machine. It still runs Half-Life 2 beautifully.

Still, there's no need to pay attention to the claims of one of the world's most consistently high-quality game development houses. They and Blizzard must be crazy to go through all this effort, right? Everyone knows that PC gaming is dying--just look at the NPD numbers (the ones that don't include digital distribution or MMO subscriptions).

It couldn't possibly be the case that Crysis underperformed at first because of release timing issues, not to mention because you need a small render farm to run it properly. It couldn't possibly be true that the PC really does have games that consoles don't have. Digital distribution couldn't really make up that much of the market, and MMOs couldn't really be that successful, right? Because (say it with me now) PC gaming is dying.

Except obviously it's not. What's happening is really pretty simple: consoles finally caught up (mostly) with the average computer for gaming power (also, with its more annoying "features," like having to install the game before you can play it). As such, people have somehow gotten the idea that the platforms are equivalent, and that the PC should be able to substitute for an Xbox or PS3. Unsurprisingly, the strategy of cramming the same expensive, graphic-heavy games that have sold on consoles into the PC has shown a few flaws.

Look, this is not the end of the world. PC gamers (and I count myself as one, even if I spend a lot of time on consoles these days) may not get to play the latest Metal Gear, or whatever it is that apparently sets the standard on any given day. But there are also experiences that are only going to show up on the PC, including the incredibly thriving casual game market (which both hardcore gamers and gaming publications like to pretend doesn't exist). The truth of the matter is that the computer is an odd beast. It costs more than a console, varies wildly in its capabilities, and plays host to a number of genres that practically don't exist anywhere else. To top it all off, it's incredibly widespread. The PC is a market that's simply huge--just not the same market buying GTA IV.

PC gaming isn't dying. You just have the wrong definition of "alive."

Future - Present - Past