Eight Things That Still Haven’t Killed PC Gaming
I’ve lost count of how many reasons I’ve heard for the impending death of PC gaming over the years, but here are eight things that stick out in my memory.
As I look back on my ten-year tenure as GI’s PC editor (which ends next week), I can’t help but smile at how easily the platform has shrugged off all of these supposedly dire threats.
We’ve been hearing this since what, the PlayStation with its cheap-to-manufacture CD-ROM games with high storage capacities? Despite PC-deficient console gamers’ decades-long insistence that consoles do everything a PC can only without the bugs and the tough-to-navigate system requirements, PC gaming has consistently stayed one step ahead of its prophesied doom. The platform has always had something unique at each point in its history: high-def adventure games like Myst, real-time strategy games like StarCraft, massively multiplayer online games like EverQuest, unbelievably creative indie games like The Binding of Isaac, and much more. Creative game developers are continually finding new ways to use the PC’s unique features to experiment and innovate in brand-new directions, and that’s unlikely to change as long as consoles are fixed, closed platforms.
Widespread availability of broadband changed the game from the days of swapping floppies at school. Readily available torrent seeds kicked piracy into yet another level from the days of Kazaa and LimeWire. Piracy rates skyrocketed in the early 2000s as college kids downloaded everything they found on shady sites to the massive hard drives that were becoming increasingly affordable. Despite this, companies like Valve discovered that gamers would pay money for added value in the form of free updates and multiplayer services that were easier to cut pirates off from than the game code itself. That didn’t stop other publishers from jumping off of the cliffs of DRM insanity, though.
Facing increasingly dire levels of illegitimate consumers, companies fought back by escalating their digital-rights management in an ill-fated arms race with hackers. Far from the endearing code wheels and tech tree trivia of the ‘80s, DRM efforts began actively hurting game sales. DVD drives were wrecked by driver-level shenanigans. Hidden, difficult-to-remove software degraded overall PC performance. In at least one memorable case, Titan Quest suffered from awful word-of-mouth reports because of a DRM solution that corrupted the experience with increasingly nasty bug-like phenomena if it thought the copy was pirated. Not all was lost, however, as other companies like CDProjekt bucked the trend and reaped big sales (though putting out excellent games certainly didn’t hurt their cause). The well-documented struggles of Assassin’s Creed II on PC thanks to Ubisoft’s draconian DRM appear to mark the nadir of this chapter of PC gaming history, as Ubisoft recanted its original stance of putting that level of control in every one of its games shortly after announcing it thanks to bad press and consumer backlash.
Perhaps the worst idea to try to stem the tide of piracy was Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live service. In theory, sharing a unified login with your Xbox Live account was a win-win for gamers: You get all the chat, friends list, matchmaking, and achievements on PC as well as Xbox now, hooray! In practice, the entire service was a disaster from the very beginning. Microsoft canned cross-platform play before it even came out with that awful Shadowrun shooter in 2007 (though it was re-added in 2009), and the GFWL client suffered from hardware incompatibilities and network problems from launch on. Authentication server failures were a regular occurrence, locking players out of the games they bought at random times. Matchmaking worked poorly at best. Worst of all, your kids couldn’t watch Netflix in the other room on your 360 if you were signed into your account on the PC. With all of the disadvantages of a connected online service and none of the positives for consumers or publishers (the DRM layer was easily cracked), the few publishers who initially supported GFWL abandoned the service after only a few games. Microsoft has since all but killed the GFWL initiative, instead hoping that its unified Windows store and Live account paradigm with Windows 8 will achieve its goals. (Spoilers: It won’t.)
Other markets, particularly China with its lax intellectual property rights, were ahead of the curve in dealing with widespread piracy. The solution, microtransactions, was heralded as the scourge of gaming that would prevent any interesting development from taking place ever again as studios chased metrics-driven cash cows. The jury is still somewhat out on this one as developers and publishers struggle to find the right balance between real money, in-game rewards, subscription fees, and box cost. However, avoiding too much doom and gloom is easy when looking at the success of titles from Guild Wars 2 to League of Legends and witnessing one disastrous quarterly report after another from Zynga.
Another knock-on effect of the piracy problem was a sharp decline in retail presence for PC gaming, particularly at specialty retailers like GameStop [full disclosure: Game Informer’s parent company]. Without being in stores, how would anyone buy PC games at all? In stepped digital distribution, most notably Valve’s Steam service. Just as Apple found with iTunes, game publishers discovered that consumers would still pay money for their digital goods if the process of buying a game through the Internet didn’t suck so much. Once digitally distributed games stopped being wrapped in layer after layer of DRM, pushed through horrendously slow download speeds, and had decent online documentation to replace paper manuals, the money started pouring in. Who would have thought that treating customers like clients instead of thieves would be a winning business strategy?
Console digital distribution lagged behind its PC relatives, but the rise of Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade and (later, once it stopped sucking so badly) Sony’s PlayStation Network were heralded as (another) death knell for PC gaming. “Look at all these indie games,” the haters said, “being sold for $10-20 and with all the conveniences of console gaming. Surely developers will abandon the PC entirely now that they can be on Xbox!” Well, it turns out to not be that simple. While XBLA and PSN have been very good to a small number of heavily promoted titles, far more have failed to gain traction thanks to poor discoverability on those services. Some tiny indie studios simply don’t have the cash to buy development kits or pass through certification with Microsoft or Sony, which run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Sony (and later) Microsoft have announced plans to mitigate these issues on their next-gen consoles, but literally anyone can put out a PC game with no approval or submitting to any company at all. That will remain a strength for the platform no matter what.
Reading too many tech pundits over the last few years can give the impression that Apple (and later Google) has burned down traditional genres, platforms, products, and markets like the Golden Horde pillaging its way across Asia. As the iOS and Android markets reach maturity, though, the reality is that their gaming segments don’t seem to have made any real difference in the PC space at all. If anything, you can see more interesting and creative projects coming out for both PC and mobile platforms as getting a game up and running on PC is orders of magnitude easier once you have an iOS or Android build, and hitting more platforms lets studios take riskier gambles in the hopes of striking it big.
Even though PC gaming is in better shape now than it has been in my entire career at GI, what’s the next big PC killer you see coming down the pipe?