Dig far enough under all the news about the tussles over mandatory Kinects and indie support for either the Xbox One and the PS4, and you’ll find a shocking bit of info: PC gaming is at its best since the 1990s. Were it John Lennon, PC gaming would be making haughty claims about how it’s “bigger than Mario” and scoffing at the petty squabbles of its box-bound competitors. And with good reason. Provided you’re not wild about jumping into exclusives like Forza 5 or Infamous: Second Son, it’s looking more and more like you won’t be left too far behind if you decide to skip the upcoming console generation altogether. PC gaming is on the rise, and while it’d be easy to claim that these successes lie in the superior processing and graphical potential of the PC caused by such a lengthy console cycle, the truth is that keys of the platform’s resurgence may ultimately lie in much more mundane roots.
It wasn’t long ago, of course, that PCs were hounded by the usual premature proclamations of demise heaped on the platform since its first heyday ended sometime around 2001. As early as 2005, Cnet was arguing that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 would mark the end of the PC as a gaming platform; more recently, we’ve heard similar claims centered around the sudden rise of social games (which often count as PC games in their own weird way) or the advent of smartphones and tablets. It wasn’t as though such proclamations packed much weight; even during its darkest hours, the PC witnessed the staggering rise of World of Warcraft’s millions, while millions of other players also flocked to games like League of Legends, EVE Online, and Mojang’s indie wunderkind Minecraft.
It’s not hard to see why folks less invested in gaming news would think otherwise, as endless piles of doom and gloom piled (and continue to pile) in with reports on the PC itself. As recently as last Thursday, research from IDC Insights added another dose through its revelation that PC shipments were expected to drop by 9.7 percent worldwide this year, marking another grim milestone in a steady slide that the firm expects to last through at least 2015. And yet, while sales of actual PCs might be lagging, revenues from games sold for the platform have shot up at almost an equal rate.
Way back in April, the PC Gaming Alliance revealed that the PC gaming market had brought in a total of 20 billion dollars in 2012, marking a full eight percent gain over the figures from the last year. Some of that number has to do with the release of hits like Diablo III, which sold more than 3.5 million copies within 24 hours of its PC release, but that’s but a piece of a larger puzzle that saw widespread interest across games from countless genres and from multiple publishers.
The long life of the current console generation is more responsible for this shift than it tends to get credit for. When the Xbox 360 and PS3 first made their appearances back in 2005 and 2006 respectively, it was perfectly possible to claim that it was simpler and cheaper to pick up one of the ready-made gaming boxes than it was to fork out cash and time to build a competent PC. Thanks to advances in PC development over the recent years, that’s no longer the case. While flashy upcoming PC games like ARMA 3 still need beastly (and costly) video cards to run well, an owner of one of today’s standard laptops or desktop units with at least an Intel Core 2 Duo chip and 512 MB of memory can run the majority of games just fine with adjusted settings.
Additional barriers to operating a gaming PC have slipped away over time. Thanks to advances in download speeds and the general maturity of the Internet itself, it’s no longer necessary to hunt down a “professional” to fix many of the little annoying problems platform’s subject to. Equipped with a decent grasp of Google, it’s possible for even the most technologically challenged gaming enthusiast to maintain the rig on his or her own. Couple that with the fact that the PC (and related devices like smartphones and tablets) has taken over the role television once played in our lives, and it seems only natural that so many would gravitate toward interacting with work and play through the same device. The console as we know it, in other words, has become somewhat redundant.
All that may account for the reasons why players who aren’t concerned about owning the best graphics card or processors might nevertheless gravitate toward PC gaming, but it does little to explain the explosive numbers mention above. For that, we have to turn to digital distribution services of the likes of GOG, Origin, and most importantly, Steam. Set aside the blessed convenience of being able to access almost any game you want at any time, digital distribution services also tend to trump out their retail and console cousins by price alone. It’s usually even enough to justify the purchase of new hardware since the savings you receive from the sales still result in smaller expenditures than you’d witness with boxed console games.
At times, the deals are staggering. During July’s Steam summer sale, quality games like Portal 2 and Rayman Origins were available for under seven bucks. Last month’s Humble Bundle offered by EA via its Origin service, for instance, allowed downloads of the hits Dead Space, Dead Space 3, Crysis 2 Maximum Edition, Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box, Medal of Honor and Mirror’s Edge in one package for as little as five bucks, with the whole project bringing in more than $10.5 million for charity from 2.1 million bundles.
Stripped of the need to worry about production costs and excessive middleman fees, digital distribution allows both consumers and developers to benefit, particularly since sales often result in more copies sold and thus more revenue. As Runic Games CEO Max Schaefer once said in an interview with Gamasutra,”We find that we get several thousand percent increases in units and revenue on the days of the Steam sales [for Torchlight], and unit sales are usually about double the normal for a few weeks after the sales are over.”
A curious side benefit of PC gaming’s reliance on digital distribution is that it allows us to have a hand in the creation in the type of games we want to play. Some of the most standout games from the last year, such as Faster Than Light (FTL), saw their start as Kickstarter-funded projects. With crowdfunding, developers are free to make the kinds of games they want without fears of a publisher rejecting the pitch or that the concept’s too specialized to warrant widespread attention.
There are other factors at play here, sure, such as the emergence of multiple quality MMORPGs and fun free-to-play games like Planetside 2, but I believe these are the broad strokes responsible for the resurgence. The question remains as to whether the upcoming releases of the Xbox One and PS4 consoles could reverse this trend. For my part, I believe the PC will be fine. In fact, it may be more than fine. One of the big shifts in the new console generation is the reliance on AMD’s x86 architecture, making it easier than ever for developers to port their games to the PC.
In the words of AMD senior product marketing manager Marc Diana in an interview with The Verge in June, “We’re struggling to find a name for what used to be called porting, because there’s not really a problem with that anymore.” (In fact, several developers showed demos of their Xbox One and PS4 games on the PC at E3 rather than on the devices themselves.) It’s so easy, in fact, that some of the next generation titles may actually come to the PC first as a result, and so this happy arrangement begs the question: why get a console at all?