Next-Gen Now: Why PC Gaming is back in business

Rewind a year or two, and the very concept of the PC as a games machine appeared to be dead. Despite a vibrant indie gaming scene and a committed fanbase of hardcore enthusiasts, the games industry seemed to be giving up on the PC. Major console titles weren’t getting PC releases, or were getting them a month or two after the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. The reluctance of publishers to invest in high-resolution assets meant that even leading PC games looked like little more than upscaled console versions, while the failure of Crysis as a commercial blockbuster had lead one of the PC’s biggest cheerleaders – Crytek – to embrace the Xbox 360 and PS3. Retail sales were in the doldrums, and it was hard to tell whether download sales were picking up the slack. If PC gaming wasn’t dying, it was certainly on its last legs.

Now, however, things look different. Recently the NPD group announced that while sales of video game consoles, games and accessories has gone down by 28 per cent between May 2011 and May 2012, sales of PC games had gone up by a staggering 230 per cent. Some of this could be put down to the enormous success of Diablo III – the first PC exclusive to top the charts since July 2010. However, in July Electronic Arts’ CEO, John Riccitiello, stated that “the fastest growing platform in video games today is the PC.” even if he went on to note that “it’s growing through subscriptions, through micro transactions and through downloads” rather than through boxed copies being sold.

It seems that the PC is undergoing a renaissance as a games machine, but why? Well, it all comes down to a series of factors, all of which are combining to put the PC – however temporarily – back on top.

The Diablo III Effect

We can’t underestimate the importance of Diablo III. Blizzard’s threequel has sold over 10 million copies and is the fastest-selling PC game of all time. It’s also the first really major, non MMORPG PC exclusive since the original Crysis; a game with the kind of cachet that attracts hardcore gamers, non gamers and even people who might not have touched a PC game in years to come back to the platform (we know it also plays on Macs, but let’s not split hairs right now). Blizzard sensibly built it so that it would run well across a range of hardware – not just a modern, high-end PCs – which helped make it accessible to the widest possible audience. It’s quite possible that Diablo III has made people think again about the PC as a games platform, and take a good look at upgrading systems, downloading titles and exploring what’s out there once again. Guild Wars 2 is now, to some extent, repeating the same trick. The old wisdom that PC exclusives don’t sell no longer applies.

The Steam/Origin Effect

Arguably, Steam and other services – in particular EA’s Origin – are doing for the PC what the iTunes store did for the iPod; making it so convenient and affordable to buy PC games that the idea of buying a physical product for console use just seems backwards. Microsoft and Sony are catching up on the idea of selling Triple-A games direct through a download marketplace, but they’re way behind progress on the PC. Steam has 35 million customers ready to download the latest titles while Origin has over 13 million, and sales and bundles make impulse purchases all the more tempting. Simply put, Steam and Origin have made the PC a cheaper and easier platform on which to buy games.

The Indie Scene

It’s not that Sony and Microsoft haven’t had their indie hits, but the PC is the birthplace and the home of the indie gaming scene, and it’s still the platform at the centre of indie development, the indie community and the more indie-focussed elements of the gaming press. Sure, XBLA hosts three of the year’s biggest indie hits in Minecraft XBLA, Trials Evolution and Fez, while iOS has a huge and extremely successful scene, but think of the breakout hits the PC has bought us in the last twelve months – Legend of Grimrock, Dungeons of Dredmore, Dear Esther, Thomas Was Alone, The Binding of Isaac – and then try and imagine how many of these would have appeared on any other platform.

New Business Models

Whether publishers like it or not, the games industry is changing, and the PC is at the bleeding edge of that transformation. The whole notion of ‘Free 2 Play’ and ‘Freemium’ games began on the PC, and the last few years have seen these new models grow from second-rate MMORPGs and strategy titles to encompass social gaming experiences The Sims Social, kid’s favourites like Sony’s Free Realms or the all-conquering Moshi Monsters, racing games like Need for Speed: World and shooters of the quality of Team Fortress 2 and Tribes: Ascend. What’s more, we’ve seen previously underperforming titles, including Age of Conan, Dungeons and Dragons Online, DC Universe and Lord of the Rings Online flourish under the Free 2 Play model; a feat that Star Wars: The Old Republic presumably hopes to repeat.

Free 2 Play isn’t always popular with hardcore gamers, who generally prefer a single upfront cost, but it makes the barrier of entry lower for more casual gamers, and this resonates at a time when £40 to £50 on a game is a big investment. And this is where things get interesting. When EA’s John Ritticiello stated that the PC is the fastest growing platform in video games today, thanks to subscriptions, micro transactions and downloads, EA as a company took notice. And now other big developers are seeing too. This is why Crysis developer, Crytek is hinging its future plans on Free 2 Play and other big names will doubtless follow suit. This will take some adjustment. In Ritticielo’s words, it’s “the culture of building something like a broadway play where you go on every night instead of a canned television performance that’s done once and it’s done."

Tired of Waiting

However, there’s one other reason for the PC’s renaissance, and it’s the most exciting reason of all. Both hardcore gamers and developers seem to be growing tired of the current console generation. The technology is old. They’re reaching the limits of the visuals they can create and the worlds they can build. Where we once waited five years for a new generation of machines, we’re now expected to wait seven or eight. In the meantime, the PC has kept making progress. Even mid-range DirectX 11 graphics processors are vastly more powerful than the GPUs in the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, and developers are finally creating games that can make use of them. Two years ago there wasn’t a vast amount of difference between Battlefield: Bad Company 2 running on the Xbox 360 and the same game running on a PC. Only a few advanced titles – Crysis, S.T.A.L.K.E.R, Metro 2033 – were really flying the flag for a high-end PC.

Now things are different. As an Nvidia spokesman told Fortune magazine in July, “Toward the end of the console life cycle, the gap between console and PC is just too big for developers to ignore.” That’s why we’re seeing PC versions of Battlefield 3, Max Payne 3 and Crysis 2 that already hint at what next-generation games should look like, while the games that made the most impressive showings at E3 were all running on PC. Watching footage of Crysis 3, Watch Dogs, Square-Enix’s Luminous Engine tech demo and Star Wars 1313, with dazzling texture, water and particle effects, and incredible levels of detail, all running at a full HD 1080p, the message is clear. We don’t necessarily need to wait for a new generation of consoles: the next generation is already here.

You can understand the frustration of developers and publishers as well as gamers. It’s in their nature to want to push boundaries, and to create games that do more than reiterate on last year’s grand design. In July, Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot told the press that “We have been penalised by the lack of new consoles on the market” because “It’s important for the entire industry to have new consoles because it helps creativity. It’s a lot less risky for us to create new IPs and new products when we’re in the beginning of a new generation.” In a way, the PC is providing an outlet for that desire.

Next Generation, Now

The fact is, with a PC the next generation is something you can experience right now. You’ll need a desktop system or a high-end laptop with a dedicated mid-range to high-end GPU, but the likes of Battlefield 3, Max Payne 3 and Crysis 2, not to mention The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City and Sleeping Dogs, will look substantially better on a PC than they do in their console incarnations. Nor do you need a £250 to £400 graphics card to see the difference. A £100 Radeon 6850 or 6870 graphics card will give you enough 3D horsepower to be getting on with, though we suspect next year’s titles might require a little more grunt to run at high or maximum detail settings.

Of course, the consoles will catch up. We don’t really know any clear details about the specifications of the Xbox 720 or PlayStation 4 as of yet. Durango, as the next-generation Xbox has been codenamed, is believed to use an Intel processor and an Nvidia graphics chipset, with talk of multiple GPUs working together to render different elements. PS4, meanwhile, is rumoured to be based on a custom AMD APU working together with a Radeon 7xxx processor (potentially one based on the 7850’s Pitcairn architecture but with fewer shaders). One thing, however, is for sure: by the time these consoles arrive in late 2013/early 2014, the same components will be mid-range on a PC. There is no reason why the PC couldn’t maintain its status as the premium gaming platform, provided developers give PC gamers the added detail and shader options that they desire.

Admittedly, there’s more to games than just graphics. The joy of the current hardware generation was that it gave developers the power to explore the potential of larger open worlds, cinematic storytelling, real-world physics and more complex AI. Again, however, the PC can be at the forefront here; after all, few console games have caught up with the work of Crysis and Crysis: Warhead in this area, and even a basic PC has the processing power and memory to cope.

In a way, Microsoft and Sony’s reluctance to roll out the next generation has worked in the PC’s favour. Just as it did in the late 90s/early naughties PC gaming boom, the format has an opportunity to win gamer’s hearts and blow gamer’s minds. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the PC exclusives we saw in that era, but the PC market could be an incredible test bed for whatever the next generation has in store. Certainly with the PC’s power, its accessibility and its place at the forefront of the Free 2 Play and Freemium revolution, its days as a gaming powerhouse are far from over.