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Opinion: The New Old Wave of PC Games
Opinion: The New Old Wave of PC Games Exclusive
January 23, 2009 | By Chris Remo

January 23, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[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.

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Tom Newman
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Great article! Speaking from personal experience alone - PC gaming is far from dead. I know many dedicated PC only gamers who are not buying a console any time soon. The difference between those who use PCs as oppossed to consoles is big. While many console owners wait for new releases, play, then either shelf or trade in, PC gamers don't pay close attention to release dates at all, and don't stop playing old games just because something new has come along. I don't have any research to back this up, but I would speculate that people spend as much time playing PC games as consolse, if not more when factoring in MMOs. I still have friends who are playing Half Life 1, Warcraft III, and Diablo 1. When a new game comes out, rarely is there a sense of urgency to run out and upgrade. This IS not very good for publishers, and marketing execs, distributors, and stockholders alike would like to see this change, but it doesn't look like it will.

Stephen Chin
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I would have liked to see a little more to the article but a good one nevertheless. And I wouldn't really call Valve an indie publisher/developer at least in the usual arthouse film-type indie image we usually associate with the term. Moving to the article though...

The article definitely makes some good points such as the strange space of PC games in gaming dedicated stores. I'm not sure if this is really a sign of a bad thing though. After all, PC game was originally mostly shareware with more niche titles in retail.

As a whole, as Tom suggested, I agree in that the way in which PC gamers and console gamers play, approach, and interact with not just the games but their platforms are very different, but not just because of MMOs. PC games and gaming tend to invite the player to create their own experience and tailor what they want to their own needs at their own pace. PCs, as a much more customizable piece of hardware, are more closely identified and personalized with their owner. And the actual gaming experiences themselves are more easily transported especially in the case of small games or games based off Flash, Java, or accessed through a portal site. Or whether it's through your choice of platform features itself - what IM you use and how you organize things.

This makes it easier to enjoy PC games on a more bite-sized level. When you can multi-task on a PC between different activities or quickly go from gaming to doing something else without having to set up, move around your house, or have to decide between that other major time eater (TV), there's less of a sense of urgency and time.

Stephen Chin
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Quick add as I look over some other articles. I don't really really thing the old rock star/gaming god mentality has completely vanished from PC and gaming in general. We still seem to treat and latch on to names and people and give them more weight as if in an attempt to be associated with the Next Big Thing - even if they've done comparatively little. It's like running around trying to get pictures of the newest child actor... and ignoring more experienced senior actors standing ten feet away. Which isn't to say such folk don't deserve their opinions but rather that we look to them as some sort of guru whose opinion is more important than anyone elses.

Daniel Camozzato
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I'm a PC gamer and I'm not buying a console anytime soon, even through I see many advantages in consoles.

I would buy a console if it were something you use to play games. The problem is that I feel a console is something that defines *what* you will be able to play for the next few years (unless you buy every console out there, of course).

I would love to play my old Genesis games, except my console is now dead. With an emulator and a PC, I can play them again. Eh, really. Why buy a console? If it's not available for PC, it is probably not worth it. :)

Chris Remo
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I agree Valve doesn't really feel like an "indie" in the colloquial sense, but I didn't use that word in this article. Valve is certainly an independent developer, though -- it's self-contained, not owned by a publishing conglomerate, owns its own IP, etc. It's fully independent, so I think it's fair to call it such. It relies on EA for retail distribution, but by their very nature, independent developers generally have no choice but to pair with a distribution partner.

Caleb Garner
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yea i too think that's a great article... i too am a pc gamer (my 3DO died the other day RIP, not really since i have an emulator). I'm a bargin gamer... i don't flock to the latest and greatest.. instead I like finding close out deals like getting bioshock and Stalker last month for $5 each on steam...

but yea Chris made a great point from a publisher point of view.. that urgency isn't there. that's because there is value to pc gaming.. talk about backwards compatibility.. i have games from the 90's that still run fine! Mods like Zombie Panic and Insurgency have taken most of my gaming time lately.. and i didn't pay a dime asside from owning Half Life 2...

I do see some advantages of consoles at times, but never quite enough to make me open my wallet.. as a developer, I really don't like having to kiss the ass of some Console developer and jump through hoops.. XNA development is tempting.. but still at the end of the day... someone else determines if i can sell a product... I don't care for that, not when I have other options..

Despite my recent building resentment of Windows Mobile (sooo much crazy innovation in the relatively overnight iPhone platform)... i still have to say that unlike Apple.. if i want too.. i can make something and sell it, with little / no hoops to jump through

So long live the open market!

jaime kuroiwa
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I've always believed that PC gamers and console gamers have evolved independently of each other, with differing needs and expectations of what entertains them. The popularity of some PC games and the popularity of the Wii clearly illustrate these differences between a PC gamer and a console gamer. When a title goes multiplatform, especially between PC and consoles, it raises a flag, because the game was developed with distinctly different types of consumer in mind, and history shows that you can't satisfy everyone.

It seems the only people who claim PC games are on the decline are "numbers people," not gamers. If you look at Eidos' Tomb Raider makeover announcement, you can see how people can claim failure despite favorable reviews and stellar sales. It's already common knowledge that the game industry (i.e. the business of making interactive entertainment for consumers) is recession-proof, so saying that PC games are in any way suffering is plain ignorance.

BTW, Frys has a much better selection of PC games than Best Buy. ;)

Aaron Knafla
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Digital distribution is the most exciting development in gaming right now. The PC is the first platform to truly throw the physical media (and useless retail middleman) aside.

Full Steam ahead. :)

Thomas Marciniak
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Great article, the PC is were the creation process begins and consoles are just offshoots that will eventually merge back with the PC ( basically they already are). As we move from office settings to remote working practices, the survivors will probably be entities such as Valve etc. Those that can adapt to the changes. The large corporations whom have pigeon-holed the way things should work (statistically), lose the human element of connecting to that part of us that wants to be Part of something.

Do I dislike consoles? No way! I love any gaming medium, form Board Games, Laser Tag to the FPS. Soon my coffee table's surface will turn into a game of Risk or Monopoly, my walls into the Amazonian Jungles, and my favorite chair a roller coaster. It will always still begin with a PC, and probably powered by Steam!

Thomas Marciniak
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oops left the H out of where.

Ulf Jalmbrant
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One thing I find interesting is how gaming habits vary between regions. Here in sweden the litch king expansion was the best selling game of 2008 but only if you count the 360, pc and ps3 version of gta4 separately.

The top 10 list for pc is not that waried consisting of Spore, MMOs, two the sims expansions as well as the ever popular counter-strike.

When combining the sales of multiplatform games then the only PC exlusive games in the top 20 are the three MMOs.

In 2007 almost 50% of all games sold were pc games but this figure might be declining. There was a 10% reduction in pc sales in the spring of 2008 compared to 2007. Clearly the fact that pc games has a much larger price range in stores positively affects the number of copies sold. I suspect that pc games can sell steadily over a long period of time and two of the swedish best sellers clearly show this.

You have to be really popular to beat the sales of either counter-strike or warcraft 3.

Alan Feekery
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I play both PC & 360 games, getting the best from both platforms. I would buy all my pc games via steam due to as the article states gamestop do not cater for pc gamers, tbh no where really does anymore.

Richard Keil
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I think the target audience is just more diverse now than it used to be. The majority who plays games these days don't even have the knowledge in operating, or interest in spending so much money into a PC. Instead most want the plug-and-play experience of a console.

Me and most and my friends are still only into PC titles. Most likely because we are from a different breed. FPS or RTS games with a Joypad are just repellent to us.

I admit, I do enjoy the sofa experience of Rock Band a lot! But that's about it.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Funny how everybody already has a PC for simple tasks like Web browsing or e-mail, and thinks spending additional $100 on a better graphics card is a big deal, but at the same time has no problem with spendig three, four or five times as much on a dedicated system. And they think it's a bargain. Modern versions of Windows practically operate themselves, but even that seems to be too much, as if people were too lazy to make a double click. As for gamepads, they're great for a lot of things, but them being worse than mouse for FPS games is a notion you can argue for on scientific grounds. One of them is integrating and the other is linear, and you can ask any control theory specialist about what that means.

PC definitely has an image problem. It's a shame how publishers and groups like PCGA have never gotten around to doing something about that.

Daniel Camozzato
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@ Jacek

I suppose anyone who has enough money to improve the PC's image is too busy spending money to make it look bad. Well of course, why bother developing games for a platform where the players can choose the OS, choose the hardware, choose to play your game for 10 years, and so on...?