Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: PC gaming still hot

Courtesy of Electronic Arts/BioWare

If you’ve been plugged into the traditional channels of videogame dogma over the past five or so years, you’ve probably absorbed more than a few aggrandized claims about where this business is headed–depending on who you talk to, motion controls, music games, MMOs, free-to-play games and social networking have all been poised to take over the industry at one time or another.

Not all of the rhetoric sounds so hopeful. Some parts of the industry are fading away, and in general, those same game gurus saw it ahead of time–the traditional Japanese RPGs and 3-D platformers that flooded the market of yesteryear, for example, may indeed be dying breeds. But another claim about a supposedly endangered facet of gaming, an older and more common one, has yet to ring true.

Contrary to the popular line of thinking, PC gaming is not dead–and I’m tired of hearing otherwise.

Gaming is a rapidly changing beast, and it’s understandable that a lot of our predictions are way off base. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been completely baffled by a Nintendo announcement only to bite my tongue (they’re going to add a waggle-stick to the GameCube and sell 85 million units? “Never,” I said.) On the other hand, it’s easy to call Nintendo out on some things I got right–in 2004, CEO Satoru Iwata told the Japan Economic Foundation that “customers do not want online games.”

That’s all a longwinded way of saying something simple: there’s room for wild predictions and differences of opinion, but would-be truthsayers (myself included) need to be open to stepping back, taking a fresh look and perhaps making a bit of a paradigm shift.

This brings me back to my sticking point. I’ll be the first to admit that PC gaming has moved past its golden age of classics, such as Doom and Monkey Island, and the US retail market has declined far enough (to about $500 million in 2009) that you aren’t guaranteed to even see a PC shelf in the games section at Best Buy. Some major developers, often with good reason, are focusing their efforts on dedicated gaming consoles, and PC ports are often broken, late or nonexistent–even if the franchise originally had a home on the PC (GTA, Assassin’s Creed, Fable, Halo and Gears of War are all offenders on one level or another.) Worst of all is rampant piracy, which Epic Games President Michael Capps once said is “killing” major players in the PC games space.

That isn’t the whole story, though. PC gaming has been forced to make radical changes in the wake of the Internet, piracy and explosive console popularity, but they aren’t all bad. In fact, they helped boost the global PC gaming market by 20% last year, up to a whopping $16.2 billion in revenue.

That doesn’t sound very “endangered” to me. So how are PC games still thriving?

It’s hard not to start with the Internet–the cause and solution of so many problems. Digital distribution is picking up where the retail market dropped off, accounting for millions of purchases that aren’t recorded by traditional channels like the NPD. Most of those come through Valve, whose Steam platform accounts for over 70 percent of game sales. The service provides day-and-date access without traveling to a store, background patching, an achievement system akin to the Xbox 360’s, ridiculous sales, community networking and enough other features that I could probably fill this column just deifying Steam.

The rise of social networking and microtransactions provides another fertile ground for PC gaming–the Facebook game, FarmVille, has an estimated 300 million-plus users, and franchises going free-to-play like Lord of the Rings Online are often proving more lucrative than traditional games.

Global connectivity also means that independent and small-budget games like last year’s Super Meat Boy and Amnesia: The Dark Descent can get the recognition–and sales–they deserve. Indie development has never been more exciting than now, and its home is clearly on the PC. Ever heard of Minecraft? Markus Persson could only have designed, created or distributed such a phenomenon on the PC, which is free of the market policing of Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.

And that’s really the heart of PC gaming: freedom. Away from Nintendo’s “Seal of Quality” and Microsoft’s strictly regulated online services, PC developers can create and update games exactly as they see fit. Gamers themselves reap similar benefits–on a PC, they can customize controls, tweak graphical settings and even create and share modifications that alter gameplay.

PC gaming is different than it used to be, but claims about its imminent demise are shortsighted and close-minded. As DICE general manager and Battlefield designer, Karl Troedsson, said last week, they’re “bullshit.”