Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Fading glory of PC games

(David - thank you for suggesting this topic).

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up on PC games. I've always considered consoles as being inferior to PCs. But now it seems like PC games are being aggressively pushed out of the market by consoles. Just 5-6 years ago in most video gaming stores the majority of space was occupied by PC games, with just a couple of shelves dedicated to consoles. Now the situation is just the opposite: I've seen already couple of stores that do not carry PC titles at all! In other stores you have to work hard to locate one or two tiny shelves with PC boxes - all the rest are games for PS2, Xbox and GameCube.

I don't like this at all. I also think that having a healthy market for PC games is essential for the development of video gaming industry and video games as a cultural phenomenon. Consoles are much less flexible than PCs in terms of game genres and game mechanics they can support.

So, can anything be done to reverse this market takeover and bring the market to some kind of a healthy balance? In order to answer this question we have to understand why the consoles became so popular.

A quick disclaimer: I am absolutely sure that some research has been done already regarding those questions. However, I don't know anything about the results of those researches. So, whatever I say now is just my own opinion, based strictly on my own perception. If anyone would point me to any materials on that issue, I will be extremely grateful.

What made consoles so popular in recent years? The answer is very simple: the consoles just got better! One of the major problems with consoles was lack of horsepower - in computing, graphics, sound. The consoles of the current generation are powerful enough to run complex 3D games similar to the PC games. Of course, the most complex 3D games - "Half Life 2", "F.E.A.R.", "FarCry" are still beyond the power limits of PS2s and Xboxes, but look at the next generation - PS3, Xbox360, Wii... The have multi-core processors, capable of running several processes in parallel and tremendous graphics power. This comes very close to the current gaming PCs. So, with the lack of power being out of the way, the other advantages of consoles begin to shine. It's important to understand those advantages in order to come with a working strategy for PC games to regain their market share. The most important advantages of consoles are, as I see it, price and simplicity.
  • Price. Even though the prices for the next generation of consoles are simply outrageous (except Wii, probably), a console is still far less expensive than a decent gaming PC. And - another related issue - a console ages much better than a PC. A console becomes obsolete only when the next version of the device saturates the market. Until then, the console is as good as new. Different situation with PCs: a capable high-end gaming PC in two years becomes mediocre, and will not play any modern game.

  • Simplicity. Consoles are really "plug and play" - you plug the cables, and you are ready to play. Compare this with setting up a new PC... With console, it's easier also to start playing: you insert DVD (or cartridge), turn the device on - and there you are! With PC, you have to install the game, configure it, sometimes download a patch...

So, what happened is: for quite some time parents bought consoles to kids, because they were cheap and easy to use, and to keep them off their parents' computers. Now the kids grew up, they are used to playing on consoles, and the gap between PCs and consoles is almost closed.
Is there any hope for PC games? I think, yes. First of all, the situation might improve in some not-so-distant future when having a computer will become a requirement for school. With kids already having their own computers, the parents might be more inclined towards buying them a PC game than towards buying them a separate gaming device. Thus a new generation of kids raised on PC games will appear. But, speaking frankly, this will happen only in several decades - and this is a tremendously long time for an industry which is hardly forty years old. And what can be done now?

Well, PCs still have several advantages over consoles, which can be used to regain public's interest in PC games:
  • Controls. Mouse is still far better as an aiming and selection device than any joysticks. And a keyboard is much more versatile control device than any gamepad. Besides that, a keyboard can be used for text input - meaning, for example, chats for multiplayer games.

  • Graphics Since consoles are hooked up to TVs, the quality of image is limited by the capabilities of TV screen. Displays are still far ahead - but, alas, the lack of resolution is compensated by the size of the screen. Playing a console game in front of a large TV is definitely an intense experience. Still, this advantage can be used.

  • Storage. This is where computers are still far ahead of consoles. How this can be used in games? Well, for example, a game might feature a complex and large world, which requires constant downloading of new parts. Or the game might produce some useful artifacts (images, movie clips etc.) which will be stored on a computer's hard drive.

  • Native environment People are, generally, using computers not only for games - but for surfing the web, reading and sending emails, sending instant messages and so on. A game can be integrated with these activities - which makes Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) an important part of re-capturing the market.

There is one more advantage of PCs - now from the point of view of game developer and designer. It's much easier for an independent game studio to develop a PC game than a console one. The prices for console SDKs are still very high. Which means that PCs as a platform are much more open to innovations than console. And, as we know, innovation is one thing the computer games industry needs desperately.

To summarize: in order to regain their market share, the PC games should capitalize on the strengths of PCs as a gaming platform, should be innovative and should target all ages of the audience (including the youngest kids). Not sure whether this will help - but this is the only direction I can see.

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David said...

Excelent! Yet again you've put a new spin on the situation all aside from the all too average 'fanboy' that follow the blind.

David said...

However, you seem to be overlooking many aspects of the industry. Implying that as computers become more available to children and young adults that PC Gaming will reemerge is within reach of the imagination. However, looking at simple design elements is no way to conclude any perspective on the industry.