I can't throw a rock at the internet these days without hitting someone proclaiming that PC gaming is a shrinking violet. Consoles have become near PC-like themselves, and seem to be drawing both developers and customers away from the PC.
NPD data would seem to reinforce the notion. According to a report by the NPD, PC gaming software sales are looking down compared to the rest of the industry. Last year, the NPD says, PC gaming did about $970 million, a rather small chunk of the roughly $13 billion games market.
And what about the old notion that the PC was a haven for the most innovative developers? Well, recently John Carmack announced that his next-generation game would find its way to the XBox 360, PS3, Macintosh, and the PC. Developers seem to be making more games with a multiplatform focus, with seminal PC series such as Bioshock (the spiritual successor to the System Shock games), Unreal Tournament III, and Call of Duty 4 making their way to consoles.
You can hear the cries of doom and gloom miles away: PC gaming is dying, dead, on the way out, yesterday's news, whatever. But is it really? Because when I look at PC gaming, I see not only a growing market, but a place that is still the premier platform for videogames.
Take games for instance. It's true that more and more games are multiplatform, but that trend has been developing for a while, and has spilled over to consoles as well; very few games are exclusive to the XBox 360 or PS3. This is simply a result of the fact that code can often be ported between platforms with relative ease, and doing so can increase the potential games audience by millions – a more prudent strategy than making separate games for each platform. But the PC still has more AAA, platform-exclusive content than any console. Just this year, we've seen Crysis, World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade, World In Conflict, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, The Witcher, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Team Fortress 2, Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, Hellgate: London, Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance and Tabula Rasa.
Meanwhile, the PS3's most notable exclusives were Lair and Heavenly Sword, both widely regarded as duds. The 360's only notable exclusives were Mass Effect and Halo 3, the former of which has already been confirmed for the PC. And PC gamers even got a graphically-updated, expanded-content version of the 360's last AAA title, Gears of War. Most of the other big games this year – Orange Box, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, DiRT, Kane & Lynch, etc. – were all on the PC as well. This isn't to say there aren't some great console exclusives; Guitar Hero III and all things Nintendo certainly count – but no single platform has had as many top-notch games as the PC.
But what about the hardware market? It certainly is easier to purchase a plug-and-play console than a gaming PC where you have to think about drivers, hardware upgrades, monitor resolutions, memory compatibility, etc. etc. Right? Well, sure. PC gaming is, and always has been, somewhat of a niche market for precisely that reason; it's not as user-friendly as consoles. But gaming hardware is still going strong. Dell recently acquired Alienware, maker of high-end gaming PCs; subsequently, Dell has aggressively entered the gaming PC market with their XPS systems. Hewlett-Packard acquired Canadian boutique Voodoo PC, and has also entered the gaming market with their sleek-looking Blackbird 002 desktop systems. Meanwhile, for do-it-yourselfers like me, more and more hardware choices are out there than ever, many of them marketed toward enthusiasts, with motherboards boasting built-in liquid cooling and overclocking-friendly features. Would these companies be investing so much in PC gaming if the market was clearly in decline?
But what about those software sales? Well, just as the NPD doesn't take into account sales from Wal-Mart, there are two other rather large markets they ignore in PC gaming: subscriptions and digital distribution. With stores like Steam, the EA Store and Direct2Drive becoming ever more popular among PC gamers, more and more gamers are sparing themselves annoying CD checks, scratched or lost disks, lost activation codes and cumbersome DRM software by turning to digital distribution. Personally, I don't buy boxed copies of games unless I have to – I love the convenience of digital distribution. And most MMORPGs have subscription fees – World of Warcraft for example has a remarkable 9 million subscribers. But, their dutifully paid monthly fees are not included in the NPD's data. Finally, it's worth noting that while console games have crept up to $60 apiece, PC games are still never more than $50 new. So are the NPD's figures really a surprise?
Lastly, PC gaming is still unrivaled in its communities. Whether it's the thriving hardware enthusiast communities, massive online videogames or the ever-present modding communities, no platform can provide the unique community experience of the PC.
The fact is, PC gaming is still the premier platform for videogames. No other platform has better technology, more AAA games, more sheer variety, more tightly-knit communities, or more flexibility for your budget. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against consoles, which often have some great exclusives and provide an excellent gaming experience for the money. In a perfect world, I'd own every console and a great gaming PC; unfortunately, I have to make a choice. But those who shout doom and gloom for the PC need to look again – PC gaming is not just alive and well, but better than ever.