Remember when pretty much everyone in the games press and a good chunk of the industry said PC gaming was dead? Man, that seems like it happened so recently. That’s probably because it did. Only a year or two ago, you couldn’t look at a non-PC enthusiast site without seeing almost everyone condemning the platform as corpsified and one that would always play second fiddle to consoles in the home, saddled with half-assed ports of games that were designed for controllers and 720p first. Even with the huge rise of mobile and indie development, everyone said there just wasn’t a case for gaming on computers anymore. The usual bevy of nonsense excuses was offered: Piracy’s out of control! A computer than can run games is too expensive! PC gaming’s too complicated!
Then some time in 2011, the sentiment almost universally shifted and in the last couple of months, this seems to be the increasingly common viewpoint.
As a life-long PC gamer first and someone who also supports computers for a living, I’ve always thought similarly to Jim Sterling. I’ve owned every console since the PS2 and have a huge library of console games. I don’t dislike consoles at all, far from it. However, especially in recent years, the continued excuses I hear about why PC gaming can never be mainstream I always believed to be crap. Piracy is a huge problem on every platform from Xbox 360 to iOS, it’s just whined about more on PC. Virtually any computer you buy now can run games to some degree and even something as low as $500 can run AAA stuff decently if you don’t care about having all the settings maxed. Most reasonably equipped PCs can easily be plugged into a TV if you want to game on the couch and almost every new game has native controller support. And with the lessening frequency of driver updates and well as drivers, games and operating systems that keep themselves current automatically, it’s never been easier to be a PC gamer. I could sit my girlfriend or my Mom down with a new PC with Steam on it, say “Buy, install and play something.” and neither of them would have any harder a time doing that than they would putting a game into a console. Sterling also touches on how digital distribution means the actual games are almost always cheaper now as well. The standby excuses no longer apply and are just that, excuses.
Meanwhile, consoles have paid online services that are free on PC. Patching also became possible this generation which has given rise to the “release now, patch later” mentality that the absence of used to be their greatest strength. This is backed up with manufacturer “certification processes” that are supposed to ensure you get quality in the box. However, especially of late, we’ve heard many developers (especially smaller indies) complaining about how bureaucratic and slow they are and how more and more are finding the process not worth it. Even with this, we still get numerous games like say, every Bethesda release that are often barely playable at launch or the strange and continuing problem of most Xbox Live Arcade titles shipping broken online play. When you combine this with both Microsoft and Sony making games more and more secondary and trying to turn their machines into all-in-one living room devices, I think Sterling’s bang on when he says that consoles are simply becoming closed, less powerful and increasingly less friendly PCs.
Most indie developers have said that they both endured fewer headaches and made more money by releasing to Steam on PC or even the App Store than on any console service. Services like that allow you to create and release a game entirely on your own whereas Xbox Live Arcade requires that you have a publisher who cuts into your profits. Then there’s retail games where self-publishing hasn’t been a realistic option for over a decade. You can patch and update your game with ease and as often as you want on PC without penalty and contrary to the console certification philosophy, PC games that are broken at launch are no more or less common. In other words, PC not only has by far the largest number of potential players in the world, it’s the easiest platform to develop and maintain your game for.
Here’s the thing though: That’s been the case on PC for the better part of a decade now and it was the case throughout most of this time when people declared PC gaming dead. What amazes me is not only that the pendulum has swung back but that it’s done so with such speed that the pendulum’s practically warped by the G-force. The PC always does get a bit of a resurgence as a console cycle ends and given that this cycle has gone on way too long, a certain amount of that is expected. This time seems different though, with many developers big and small now speaking out against how frustrating the consoles are to work with and how many who have previously released on them aren’t going to bother anymore. Many say that between PC and mobile platforms, consoles are increasingly becoming irrelevant and that the next generation may be the last of them, at least in their current form. I don’t know if that’s true but I do know that PC and mobile are raising the bar of value expectations both from developers and consumers and if the consoles want to continue to have the great success they’ve attained, the large companies in charge of them need to stop slogging through the mud and learn to be agile and less controlling.
What I’ve really learned throughout watching this huge and sudden paradigm shift is just how increasingly irrelevant and frankly useless the enthusiast press is becoming. The same people who were declaring the PC dead with certainty only a couple of years ago are now cheering it as the killer of consoles. These are the same people who said the DS and Wii were gimmicky and would never take off and that people would never want to play games on a mobile phone and that PC gaming was always going to be a niche for wealthy nerds. PC gaming never went anywhere and was never close to dead but people believed it because the enthusiast press said so. I’ve come to realise in recent months that the segment is really just an inter-feeding echo chamber based on opinions people pull out of thin air without any real empirical evidence. Time and time again, the enthusiast press proves itself to be pretty useless at understanding trends and what consumers actually want, only at taking wild guesses and stating them as fact. It frustrates me to see their word so often taken as law among gamers, even when it constantly flip-flops and is proven wrong by others who remain ignored. I don’t know how one goes about fixing this problem but I’ve been granularly moving further and further away from this segment of game coverage in the last couple of years and I think if they aren’t careful, a lot of other people are going to as well. If when the next Xbox and PlayStation come out, we start seeing coverage once again swinging back to the PC being irrelevant, I think perhaps it’s their own relevance they should check.
I’ve always been a PC gamer first and will continue to be, even though I will likely be all three new consoles when they arrive. I do wonder what the future is going to hold in this regard but the important thing to remember is that throughout the entire history of gaming (including one major crash), playing games on computers has always endured and grown, no matter what has happened to every other segment. I think consoles are important for growing the gaming audience but if the future is in fact one where open, expandable, decentralised platforms can once again be dominant, I think that’s ultimately good for everyone. Regardless of where you choose to do your gaming, make sure you make your choice because it’s where you prefer to be, not because it’s where the increasingly irrelevant press tells you to be.