PC gaming: retail isn't the full picture

· by Steve · Read in about 7 min · (1341 Words)

I’ve lamented a few times on this blog about the way the PC gaming industry has appeared to have been in a slow decline in the past decade, and how consoles now dominate our gaming landscape. Now, I love my console games as much as the next guy, but as a developer, such a closed platform is always a disappointment. I grew up in the UK where pretty much every kid who played games did it on a PC - not as we deem it now, but a Personal Computer, not a console. If you were a patriot you had a Sinclair Spectrum, made by our good old Uncle Clive, and if you were a glamour-seeking traitor you had a Commodore 64 😉 If you wanted, you could tinker with the guts of it and make your own stuff, and many of us did. To people like me, the concept of a new generation of kids growing up with only shrink-wrapped, patent-protected boxes is rather horrifying. Of course that isn’t the full story, with the homebrew scene creeping onto consoles too and the advent of XNA, but still these are deliberately limited / controlled / neutered by the powers that be (or at least they do their damndest to), the merciless gods of the console universe. There’s really nothing quite like knowing that the only difference between you and the guys that made the game you’re playing on is a bit of time and skill. No restrictive licensing agreements, no brown envelopes bursting with cash, no NDAs and no ‘must have a previous track record to apply’ catch-22s. All you need to do is learn.

The PC has never had these restrictions - it’s a total free for all (although with the advent of Vista and the ‘Games for Windows’ brand, I can see MS at least trying to control the space more, which is a little disconcerting). However, instead it’s had issues with user friendliness and wide hardware differences which, to eyes perusing the surface, has led to a steep decline in PC games, with venerated PC developers all over the place jumping ship and developing primarily for consoles now. If you walk into a game shop these days, and seek out the dark and dingy corner that might be dedicated to PC games (I’m waiting for them to start installing bead curtains or something), you’d be forgiven for thinking there are only 3 PC gaming elements left today - the AAA monster-budget crowd (mostly FPS & RTS, very occasionally a RPG), the casual crowd (Sims 25 and Movie License 10) and MMORPGs (mostly WoW). Those are the only ones that really grab the headlines these days - everything else is wall-to-wall console games. And certainly the retail sales figures would suggest that PC gaming is in terminal decline, and to some people like me, who see the PC as an important open frontier for new creators and more importantly new original content, that’s sad.

However, it really isn’t true. Whilst the game shops and retail sales figures paint a dismal picture, what’s happened is that PC games are breaking free of the retail stranglehold. Selling a game at retail is utterly brutal - with a small amount of shelf space, you have a relatively small amount of time to get noticed, and most of your punters are going to be mostly looking for brands they already know. Retailer and publisher margins border on robbery on the high seas, so your slice of the pie is small anyway. So to actually make any money, you have to attract unfeasibly large numbers of people, which itself means you have to pour enormous money into making a game that will attract attention in a crowded space, ie a AAA title. Hence the enormous boom/bust cycle, consolidation and risk-averse state of the industry.

PC games are increasingly being sold in other ways. Yes, all the consoles have download services too but really that’s little different from virtual retail - the space is still controlled by another party. That’s not changing the rules, that’s just switching to slightly different looking horses. In fact, you could even make a case at the extreme end that it’s a step backward in terms of publishing freedom to the days before 3rd-party publishers, before Activision, when the manufacturer of the console controlled all games publication. Sure it’s online which is new and dandy, but the model itself, where the company that made your console controls all the commercial strings, is positively prehistoric.

No, the place where PC gaming is really booming is in the independently published, direct-to-customer, niche audience crowd. Smart PC users know how to use Google, talk among themselves and read message boards, and (since you’re here reading this), blogs. Viral marketing is a very powerful reality, and it’s not something you can engineer or control (as Sony has discovered) - if something’s good, and it appeals to even a small part of the massive PC owning population, you can have something huge. Broadband means that obtaining content is far more convenient than ever before, all you have to do is attract the audience. People like Microsoft and RealArcade (and even Valve) will tell you that you need a portal to sell your games through, but that’s strictly not true and is trying to import the traditional publisher model on a distribution channel that doesn’t actually need it. Yes, you can get your game in front of more randomly browsing punters that way, but actually when you count the conversion rate, is it actually worth it versus saving the money and relying making a really good product that people will talk about and come to you direct? If you have something really good, a small amount of seed marketing can go a very log way indeed.

For example, take Runescape. You’ll never have heard of this if you just perused the game shelves, but they have a significant subscriber and player base and do perfectly well without having a publisher or marketing posters in HMV. And look at PopCap, an established leader in casual gaming who have just grown steadily and organically from their online presence. And Carom3D, an online Billiards game that when I looked just now had over 2000 players online (and uses Ogre, BTW). There are hundreds of small developers out there selling their games to specific slices of the PC gaming crowd - and let’s face it, there are a bazillion of them. Microsoft might be all smug about their first-to-10-million on the 360, but this number is utterly dwarfed by the number of home PCs out there. The difference is that the PC is actually becoming more diverse all the time, because of the lack of central control, the advent of broadband and the need to diversify from the traditional models - and retail doesn’t matter so much anymore. Lower barriers to entry, longer ‘shelf’ life, these are all very positive things. So whilst traditional high-profile games are seeing a significant transition to consoles, where the grass is a little greener for that sort of thing (or at least, easier to manage and with the backing of the big bankrollers), all that’s happening is that the PC is being back-filled with something else entirely, that doesn’t show up on the radar of the traditional ways of measuring platform success.

So, the consoles might have all the glitz, and AAA PC titles attract all the shelf-attention, but underneath this surface detail there’s an awful lot of things going on in PC gaming that really deserve to be celebrated more. In fact we could be on the cusp of a resurgence of the PC as a gaming platform - but on its own terms, not constricted by the publisher / retail consortium that somehow gets away with making most of the money whilst those who put in the hard graft (the developers) seem to be getting more and more screwed every year. I’m glad that Ogre is a part of that counterculture 😀