Last year, hype over the impact of piracy and the supposedly shrinking PC games market reached a head when the NPD reported that Crysis, in its first two weeks of sales, moved only around 86,000 copies. Unreal Tournament 3 reportedly fared even worse, tallying just shy of 34,000 copies. Both of these games received enormous hype, and these seemed like pretty dismal numbers.
Then came the piracy talk. Developers including id, Epic, Crytek, Ubisoft, and Infinity Ward suggested that piracy was so rampant on the PC that it was fueling their decision to focus more centrally on console development. Was CryEngine2 the last great PC gaming engine? Would PC gamers become increasingly subject to "dumbed-down" multiplatform games and belated ports like Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect, while PC exclusives that didn't fall into strategy or MMORPG categories faded into obscurity?
I'm relatively new to the PC gaming landscape. I played some PC games here and there over the years and once lost a whole summer to Quake 3, but until a couple of years ago I had always been a console gamer. But I had always looked at the PC with envious eyes, and had always wanted a really nice, high-end gaming rig. Of course, I realized that an uber-rig was not necessary to enjoy PC gaming. But I figured that since I was going to get a new PC and I could afford to treat myself, why not get something really great? In early 2006 (back when AMD processors still ruled the performance charts) I built my first PC. My first game was F.E.A.R., which at the time was still a PC exclusive. I haven't looked back since. As both a gamer and a hardware enthusiast, I can honestly say that I enjoy PC gaming far more than I ever enjoyed console gaming. But to listen to some people, I got into the game at a pretty dismal time. However, I think that a closer look at the facts tells a different story.
Let's look back at that NPD data. First, it should be noted that the sales for Crysis actually exceeded the NPD's forecast. Second, it should be noted that the NPD only tracks a limited amount of U.S. retail sales — notable exceptions include Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us. With the exception of Amazon.com, it does not track boxed sales through e-tail, nor does it track digital download sales. The NPD only recently began tracking online subscriptions. When you figure in these markets and look at the global picture, things might turn out differently. And they do. According to the July 2008 issue of PC Gamer UK, Crysis has sold over 3 million copies. Since the release of Crysis Warhead, Crysis has been available on Steam and Direct2Drive, undoubtedly bringing the game to a bigger audience (Steam alone has over 15 million users). Not bad for a high-end PC game that, at one time, was thought to be a flop.
At the same time, long time PC gamers have to accept that as consoles have evolved, genres once considered to be squarely in the PC niche have now found a comfortable home with an expanded audience that encompasses both consoles and PCs. These include both single-player and — more recently — online first-person shooters, strategy games, and even MMOs like Age of Conan. Consoles have always encompassed a much broader audience than hardcore PC gaming, so if developers have the capability to bring their games multiplatform, it's safe to say that they will.
Not that this is some sudden new trend. The first Splinter Cell was ported to the PC after it made its debut on the XBox, as was my personal favorite XBox game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was developed and released simultaneously for XBox and PC, as was Thief III and Deus EX: Invisible War, just to name a few. Sometimes, these games seem to suffer in one area or another because of their multiplatform focus; other times, they translate very well. Generally speaking, I think the difference tends to be negligible. Many of my favorite games have been multiplatform (Oblivion comes to mind), and I've found that with the right developer, multiplatform games can push PC hardware just as much as PC exclusives.
And while it may have been disheartening to see a game like Mass Effect belatedly ported to the PC, Bioware is now developing a new, PC-exclusive RPG slated for release next year. EA, the world's biggest publisher, is firmly behind the PC with exclusives like Spore and the Crysis games, both of which have been both critical and commercial successes. Smaller developers like Stardock and GSC are contuining to garner a strong following, and of course the almighty Blizzard is stirring up legions with Starcraft 2, Diablo 3 and the 800 pound gorilla that is World of Warcraft and its forthcoming expansion Wrath of the Lich King. There is still a strong PC niche for strategy games, adventure games, MMOs, and online shooters. As consoles evolve, those niches may bleed into multiplatform focuses as well. But the PC platform will continue to evolve as well, just as it always has.
And what about the veritable explosion of customized gaming computers? Not too long ago, three companies ruled the roost: Alienware, Voodoo, and Falcon Northwest. Now, Alienware has been purcahsed by Dell, who have also ventured into the gaming PC arena. Voodoo was purchased by HP, who stormed on to the market with their innovative Blackbird gaming PC. Overclocking fiends OverdrivePC were purchased by another growing boutique, Velocity Micro. Countless boutiques have found a successful niche, with names like Maingear, Hypersonic, Uberclock, and Digital Storm. Would there be such a burgeoning market for customized gaming PCs if PC gaming itself was waning? And this is of course not to discount the market of which I am a part, which is the massive DIY hardware enthusiast crowd. Communities of this sort have sprung up all over the internet, and even the once niche practice of overclocking has become so mainstream that component manufacturers advertise their products for easy overclocking.
And lastly, a word on piracy. While many developers insist that that piracy is a primary reason for their increasing focus on console development, the reality is that the data does not exist to show, empirically, just what kind of a sales impact piracy really has. Research in the music industry seems to suggest that piracy may not have remotely the impact many perceive it to. Recently, Myriam Sughayer of EA and Dan Hewitt of the ESA commented on the hullabaloo over Spore's piracy, and had this to say in an interview with Gamasutra:
"Stepping aside from the whole issue of DRM, people need to recognize that every BitTorrent download doesn’t represent a successful copy of a game, let alone a lost sale"
"It’s important to remember that it’s not a one-for-one equation. Our calculation isn’t such that we say that every game that’s been stolen is a sale loss."
"We’ve talked to people that made several unsuccessful attempts to download the game and ended up with incomplete, slow, buggy or unusable code. In one case, a file identified as Spore contained a virus. To say that every download represents a successful copy of the game –- or that there’s been more than 500K copies downloaded -- that’s just not true."
Developers who blame only piracy for their woes without critically examining other contributing factors of their business models (I'm looking at you, Epic) are left to explain the success of PC-exclusive games ranging from Crysis to Spore to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to Sins of a Solar Empire. While the PC has never had an audience comparable to consoles (with the notable exception of "casual" games like The Sims), it's patently absurd to believe that developers cannot have great success on the PC. PC gamers are a devoted bunch, a strong community of gaming and hardware enthusiasts that, like anyone else, will purchase strong and innovative products that speak to their interests. While the particular genres popular on the PC and the sometimes complicated hardware aspects may not be for everyone, PC gaming will, for the foreseeable future, retain its core audience of devoted gaming enthusiasts. Perhaps with the success of Steam and other digitial platforms, along with CDProjekt's innovative Good Old Games store, the advent of the PC Gaming Alliance and the Microsoft Games for Windows initiative, we may see PC gaming expand its reach. But despite looming controversies over DRM, "consolization" and piracy, I don't think long-time devoted PC gamers have anything to worry about. The last couple of years have seen more top-teir releases than any other time in PC gaming's history and hardware that has brought incredible performance to mainstream pricing. Now isn't just as good a time as any to be a PC gamer, it's a friggin' amazing time to be a PC gamer.