Is PC Gaming Making a Comeback?
Lately, it seems everybody has an overflowing of love for PC gaming. Or at least, plenty of lip service for it.
Consider Mark Rein of Epic Games, who discussed at GDC 2011 the fact that powerful PCs, even today, can “simulate the future” of console development. There was id Software’s John Carmack at E3 2011, when he said PCs are “an order of magnitude” beyond the capability of consoles. There was Relic Games’ James McDermott, discussing that company’s dedication to PC gaming and the community it has built there.
Could it be, perhaps, that all the naysaying that has been going on for years is starting to see a reversal? Is PC gaming making a comeback?
In fact, it seems a little more accurate to say that reports of PC gaming’s death were greatly exaggerated.
Sure, console gaming is a big moneymaker for developers, and for good reason. A developer can get a SDK for an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3 and be done with it. They know exactly what they’re working with and the limitations of the hardware, and developing for it might not be easier, but at least there are parameters. You’re making a game within the confines of a specific metaphorical box. Anyone who wants to play that game merely has to purchase the console — it’s easier on the player and easier on the developer.
PC gaming is tougher. Leading-edge computing technology is just about the only thing that restricts game development for PC gaming, but freedom and power don’t necessarily make developing a game easier; they can, in fact, make it more difficult. How great do you make your game’s graphics? How many resources do you put into developing the perfect engine to do just what you want? Which distribution channels do you choose when it comes time for the game to be available for players? These are make-or-break decisions for many developers, especially those who don’t have blockbuster AAA development budgets.
But just as freedom can be scary, it’s also liberating. Developers have the capability on PC to make precisely the game they mean to. And as it turns out, it seems there are plenty of PC gamers out there who want to play them.
A Community Hungry for New Ideas
For indie developers especially, there’s no place like PC. Recently, Zeboyd Games, the developer of retro-RPGs Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World announced that it made more money in their first week on their games when they became available on Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam, than it did in about a year and a half on Xbox Live. The developer made $100,000 and moved 30,000 copies of both games in a bundle in just its first six days; meanwhile, the games had occupied the Xbox Live Indie Games portal since December 2009 and moved more copies, but for less money.
Elsewhere in indie gaming, the Humble Indie Bundle No. 3, wrapping its two-week stint of selling a mess of indie games for a combination of developer profit, charity and non-profit organizations, has in excess of 368,000 bundles. The pay-what-you-want bundle was packed full of games — 12 in all by the end — and raised better than $2.14 million. Not for triple-A titles or because of huge marketing budgets; because PC players wanted to pay for them.
And lest we forget the reigning king of all that is indie, Minecraft. Markus “Notch” Persson, the game’s creator, reported just this week that Minecraft had moved 3 million copies. Note that the game is still only in beta and won’t be coming out until November. For point of comparison, Electronic Arts’ Dead Space 2 and Dragon Age 2 have only bested 2 million copies across all platforms. Minecraft is even getting its own convention.
Money to Be Made
Then there’s Electronic Arts, which released its most recent quarterly financial report at the end of July. Guess what it showed.
If you guessed higher PC profits than for Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, you win the honor of continuing to read this analysis.
That’s right, EA pulled down $154 million in profits for PC, versus Xbox 360 ($152 million) and Playstation 3 ($111 million).
There are a few caveats for those numbers — specifically that they were generated using non-GAAP accounting, which lets them be a little more speculative than real, hard-and-fast profits (banking on things like customer goodwill and potential), but the numbers demonstrate that, just like console gaming, PC gaming is an extremely viable endeavor for EA — more so, perhaps, than either of the two consoles currently leading the market. And EA has a pair of PC gaming’s most anticipated titles getting ready to launch in the near future: Battlefield 3 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Plus it seems to be breaking free of Steam to start its own digital download portal, Origin. Dollar signs surround all three of those items.
For the most glaring and persuasive argument for the strength of the PC gaming community, one needs only look at Steam. Valve’s digital download service is crammed full of games, triple-A and indie alike, with well-known and totally unknown titles standing side-by-side. At any given moment, there are millions of players online on Steam — as I write this, 3.325 million people are logged into the service.
Valve has recently shied away from releasing Steam sales numbers. In the past, it said, releasing them seemed to give the appearance of a shrinking PC market that was actually thriving, and given how often Steam slashes the prices of games and how deep those discounts are, it’s not surprising that the numbers might be a little wonky.
If you go by the people who run Valve, though, Steam is doing very, very well. Valve founder Gabe Newell said in February that Valve at the time was more profitable per employee than Apple or Google. Forbes speculates the man is close to becoming a billionaire, “if he isn’t one already.”
The Cutting Edge
While most of the evidence above is circumstantial rather than definitive, it paints a bright picture: one of a PC gaming community that is just as robust as it has ever been. Yes, things have changed — consoles have become more powerful and casual gamers have taken to Facebook and PSN and Xbox Live. Call of Duty fanatics pick up an Xbox 360 controller rather than sit down at a mouse and keyboard, more often than not.
But a changed community doesn’t mean a diminished one. PC gaming remains the cutting edge of video gaming: the place where new technology is created and tested, where new game ideas are developed and honed, where experiments in the artistry and depth of gaming are made. The PC gaming community, in turns, wants games that have incredible graphics as well as those that are old-school, 8-bit and innovative in some other, non-visual way. And it votes with its wallet, that much is obvious.
There’s a reason so many developers lately have been talking about how much they like PC gaming — there’s money in it. There are loyal fans in it. There are players who are looking for great new games and not necessarily the next yearly installment of Shooting Franchise X and Football Franchise Y. It seems to be more and more obvious with each passing day that the PC community is thriving.
So “comeback” seems to be the wrong sentiment. It seems more that the PC gaming community continues to evolve, searching for great new things to play and become a part of, be it the horde of World of Warcraft or a legion of miners reconstructing Penn Station in Minecraft. And it’s a community that rewards developers willing to create something new with devoted fans. It’s our community, and we love it.