If you were a PC gamer during the last decade, you probably heard at least once that PC gaming was dying. It seemed like fans and journalists alike were declaring the end of the PC game era in favor of consoles taking over the game industry.
Flash forward to today and things are the opposite: With the PC game industry stronger than ever and people talking about how the PC is going to take over the consoles. For today’s post, we’re going to examine how this reversal of fortune happened.
Let’s begin with talking about the trends that at the time were shifting the perception that the PC industry was going to end.
In the early 00s, game consoles were finally reaching a point where they could not only compete with arcade machines, but with computers in terms of putting out decent looking games.
While high end PCs had a lot more power to them compared to a console, designers were not making use of them that much. 3D while not completely new, still featured blocky people and muddy textures.
The first sign people were using the new found complexity of console games, was in terms of gameplay with titles like Grand Theft Auto 3 and cinematic with games like Metal Gear Solid 2.
Console games were looked down at as the simpler games from the PC audience which is part of where the whole PC vs. console debate came from. But this was the console generation where console games made progress forward in terms of gameplay and graphics.
Xbox Live was the first real step in providing an online architecture for a console and was also the first time that a console had digital distribution with XBLA. The release of Halo was a huge deal as this was a FPS, a genre commonly seen on PCs, running and handling well on a console.
In 2005 when the 360 was released, console gamers finally had a platform that could stand toe to toe with playing PC games for the most part. This was the first console which could handle the porting of popular PC titles like Skyrim without sacrificing too much, and where the PC received popular console ports.
Xbox Live was in full swing, providing players with online multiplayer, achievements and the ability to play games from Indie developers. Many people joked that all that was left was to attach a keyboard to the 360 and you had a computer in your living room.
It was around this time that the sentiment that the PC was going to die was at its strongest, but as you can probably tell that never happened. Looking over the last few years, a combination of events from both the console and PC industry played a role in reviving the PC game industry.
The first big point that helped the PC industry bounce back would undoubtedly be Steam and the rise of digital distribution. I know that in the past I’ve talked about how great Steam is but it is true that it has had an everlasting affect on the Game industry.
The ability to sell games directly to the user and bypass the need of a physical store was huge in providing accessibility. With Steam itself acting as both store and security, developers did not need to include hidden DRM (for the most part.)
The other benefit from digital distribution came as Valve implemented sales which drove the cost of playing PC games compared to consoles down dramatically. While console game prices remained high, it became easier and easier to afford to play PC games.
Speaking of affording PC games, the introduction of Free To Play games like League of Legends was another big deal. Now, there were F2P games long before LOL such as the Kingdom of Loathing and other browser based games, but titles like LOL proved that you could deliver a retail quality game free to consumers and still turn a profit with micro transactions.
I’ve said it before: Love them or hate them, micro transactions have become a major element of game design and games like League of Legends (and eventually Team Fortress 2) led the charge on that front.
F2P also had the effect of revitalizing the MMO market where everyone excluding World of Warcraft was having trouble staying afloat.
But in my mind, the biggest factor in how the PC has managed to stay afloat would have to be the rise of the Indie market. Thanks to Steam and digital distribution taking off, game designers were no longer tethered to retail stores. And as game development software became more mainstream, it became easier for anybody to create a game.
The increased accessibility of game development allowed designers to make a variety of games and not be forced to adhere to mainstream trends or audiences. We have seen a number of quality game companies and their respective games from the Indie market that would not have been possible a decade ago.
Because these games were developed without the added cost of expensive assets and advertising, the idea of a game costing $20 or less being considered “shovelware” was no longer the case.
I have lost track of the number of 15 and below dollar games I’ve bought that amazed me with the depth and quality of the game design.
Where once console manufacturers avoided Indies or made it hard to work with them, we’re now seeing them being embraced and wooed to the console market, such as Binding of Isaac, Don’t Starve and many more.
And all these quality games and low prices would have not been possible on a closed platform like a console. Where developers need to get their games certified or adhere to any mandates posed by the manufacturer to get on.
Now the console industry did have a hand in keeping the PC market afloat but not in the best way for them.
With the standardization of control schemes that made it easier for games to be released on multiple consoles, so did it make it easier to port games to the PC. And with Steam providing an easy to use store plus DRM service to cut back on piracy, allowed PC gamers to enjoy the best that third party developers had to offer.
With console games now not only available on the PC, but subject to the same sales that PC games have enjoyed, the attraction of a console became less and less with exception to platform exclusives like Halo, Mario and so on.
Another issue from hardcore gamers is the generalizing that has taken place among AAA developers, where most games feature the same mechanics and design.
On my cast with Jon Shafer, we talked about this issue and the problem comes down to cost and risk. If an AAA game that costs millions of dollars fails, most likely that studio is going to be shutdown and everyone will be laid off. And so, making a completely different game that there is a chance that not enough people will like is just too risky for these major studios.
Allot of AAA games are compared to the summer blockbusters: Big, expensive, and exciting for the first time but then easily forgettable.
But indie developers who can create games with far less time and development cost don’t have that problem.
This allows indie games to turn a profit, even if they go on sale for $5 or less, where a retail game that cost millions of dollars would not.
It’s amazing to think how fast the game industry has grown and changed in ten years and how the PC and console markets have become intertwined: As console manufacturers are looking at attracting indie developers and the big push lately is to bring the PC to the living room. Whether or not ideas like the Steambox will work are still up for debate, but I think we can safely say that the PC industry is not going to die anytime soon.