[With claims of the decline of the PC gaming, commentators seem to lose sight of the platform's historic strengths and its place in the world -- Gamasutra's Chris Remo looks at companies like Valve and Stardock to define 'the new old wave' of PC gaming.]
Amidst the neverending talk about how the PC is changing or declining as a market for hardcore games, outside of perennial chart-crusher World of Warcraft, commentators seem to lose sight of the historic strengths of the platform and its place in the gaming world.
Meanwhile, studios like Valve and Stardock -- successful, independent companies comprised of staffers whose memories seem to go back a little further -- understand some key principles that have always defined the PC platform in a positive way.
These include ongoing, direct contact with their audience; agility and responsiveness in development and support; and smaller teams that can afford to take interesting design risks and thus foster a loyal niche (not to mention thrive on sales that are less than astronomical).
The 'Game Gods'
It's easy to forget that some of the PC's industry-changing success stories are more than just high sales numbers. The archetypal such case is id Software's Doom. Our recently-reprinted profile on the game serves as a reminder that it wasn't truly record-breaking sales that made Doom a success so much as it was a combination of a small, dedicated team, a business model that connected directly to consumers and allowed for higher margins, and a fresh gameplay concept.
Over time, those crucial elements became obscured by the rockstar lifestyles and Ferraris that were cited in every magazine article about "game gods" published throughout the 90s. The reality is that, with rare exceptions like The Sims and WoW, PC games have traditionally not had the per-title sales numbers that the most successful console games muster.
This is only a shock if you try to treat the PC as just another console, like so many modern-day publishers do -- loading it up with ports of multiplatform games whose franchises (and sometimes entire genres) have never had a strong base on the PC to begin with, then expressing disappointment when they underperform.
What many of these publishers, particularly those relatively new to the PC, don't realize is that this has never been a successful business model -- why would it be now?
Embracing The Differences
And as much as consoles and PCs are converging technically, the platforms are still very different, both with respect to their input methods and, just as importantly, their underlying principles. As an open platform in contrast to the manufacturer-controlled consoles, the PC is a place where developers and publishers can be the ultimate gatekeepers of their own games.
That responsibility has always been embraced by the more successful PC developers, from the relatively small Stardock to the mid-sized Valve to the massive Blizzard.
Witness how Valve's titles, which are now multiplatform, evolve on the PC versus on consoles -- Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead receive ongoing balance tweaks and updates on the PC, in some cases multiple times in a single day, a process that is significantly bottlenecked on console online services.
NPD has reported for the last few years that PC game sales have been dropping at retail, while admitting in those very same reports that largely untrackable digital distribution is on the rise.
The poor treatment of PC games by specialty gaming stores (it has long been a bizarre truth that a PC gamer is better served by going to Best Buy than GameStop) is driving more and more consumers to successful digital distribution platforms like Steam and Impulse.
These act not just as online stores but as increasingly full-featured gaming hubs that connect gamers to developers and to each other, fostering a sense of PC gaming community that for several years had been lacking.
Smaller Teams, Bigger Returns
But beyond the technical, communication, and distribution angles, there is a certain development attitude that is more native to the PC, one currently best embodied by Valve and Stardock in particular. These companies, and their partners such as Ironclad Games, of Sins of a Solar Empires fame, have embraced smaller-team development.
The result is games that are ideally suited to digital distribution, games that in many ways have the scope and ambition of full retail games. Yet, they are scaled down in intelligent ways that allow them to define and cater to an understood audience rather than try to spread themselves more thinly.
Valve is a particularly interesting case, because it consciously made the choice to move from the mega-scale development of Half-Life 2 to smaller games like the Half-Life 2 episodes and the wonderfully unique Portal -- as well as the recent genre-bending multiplayer game Left 4 Dead. If one of its current-day titles were to fail or fall short, it wouldn't have bet the farm on it.
Stardock, meanwhile, has chosen to carve out a very clear niche for itself, one ideally suited to the PC: strategy games. Its own turn-based Galactic Civilizations series has been a success, and it is getting ready to ship Gas Powered Games' Defense of the Ancients-inspired Demigod while developing its next internal title, Elemental.
Its real-time collaboration Sins of a Solar Empire was one of 2008's most impressive success stories; its 500,000 units may seem piddly at first glance compared to big console blockbusters, but its sub-$1 million budget puts that figure in a completely different light.
Mythbusting Budget Bloat
The lesson seems simple, but it's often overlooked in our NPD-obsessed industry: return on investment is a lot more important than units sold, especially as budgets continue to balloon dangerously.
And making games that can afford to succeed with a smaller audience often means the developers have more creative freedom -- which, in an ostensibly creative industry, means a lot.
It is worth noting that both Valve and Stardock, as entire companies, are smaller than some of the individual teams making competing triple-A games.
As of last year, Valve employed 160 staffers and has put out five games since 2006 -- while Stardock employs fewer than half that. Ironclad Games, which is much younger than the other two, boasts a mind-boggling team size of nine.
These companies show that it is a fallacy that successful modern game development must be bloated and unwieldy, and they know that the PC platform and its audience do not reward offerings that treat the system like an afterthought or a multiplatform port repository.
Particularly amidst the current financial uncertainty, it makes sense to explore PC game development that is more economical and knows its audience.