There was a time when personal computers were the tools of choice for hard-core gamers. But four years ago, on the brink of the release of the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360, analysts were proclaiming the death of PC gaming.
These new consoles - well, Sony's PS3 and Microsoft's Xbox - were more powerful than the computers at the time, and were integrating with home entertainment systems to provide high definition experiences beyond just gaming. Nintendo, meanwhile, offered a completely new approach to gaming with its Wiimote controllers.
And this year, Electronic Arts decided to kill the PC versions of many of its popular sports titles, including Madden NFL 09, Tiger Woods PGA Tour and NBA Live. LucasArts is releasing The Force Unleashed, its new Star Wars title, on every platform except PC.
Even developers who built their companies by producing games for computers are now turning to console development.
Crytek's Stan Huebler has indicated that his company, which stunned the industry with its PC-processing intensive Crysis, won't be making any more PC exclusive titles, and id Software's John Carmack told Tom's Hardware Guide that one reason his company, the creator of Doom and Quake, is developing games for consoles is because "the sales numbers on the PC are not what they used to be and are not what they are on the consoles."
The reason for that, says Rahul Sood, founder of the specialty computer manufacturer VoodooPC and now chief technology officer for Hewlett Packard's global gaming business, is that the distribution model for PC games is changing.
"It's going online," he says. "There's a much higher distribution of PC games online than there ever was before, and it's growing."
The PC Gaming Alliance, an industry group that counts AMD, Intel, and nVidia among its members, released a report in August stating that PC gaming was worth $10.7-billion (U.S.) in 2007, but only 30 per cent of that figure was accounted for by retail. Online revenue was worth double that of retail sales.
Capturing some of that market is one reason that Dragon Age, by Edmonton-based BioWare, is getting a PC release.
"The traditional tracking methods don't really reflect all the revenue that's coming into the market," says Ray Muzyka, general manager of BioWare and a vice-president of Electronic Arts. "EA and BioWare are looking for new models."
"The market is changing and it's up to us to respond," Mr. Muzyka says, citing internal research suggesting that more than 260 million PCs worldwide have been used to play games. That's an install base that dwarfs all the consoles added together.
Mr. Muzyka explains that the PC platform is the "natural place" for Dragon Age, a game he calls the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, a PC game released by BioWare in 1998. PC fans, he says, "are an important audience for us."
Indeed, recent growth in PC gaming suggests that its death may have been pronounced too soon.
"Video games are a cyclical industry," says Ryan Bidan, games product manager for Microsoft Canada. Mr. Bidan says that in an era of new consoles, game makers need to focus additional resources on figuring out how to create games for the new hardware, but once development efficiencies have been established, those resources can be diverted back to creating titles for PC.
At this year's E3 trade show in July, there were more games than ever tagged with "PC" and "Games for Windows" logos. EA has the likes of Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Mirror's Edge, and Rage all pending on PC, Ubisoft is supporting the platform with Far Cry 2 and Prince of Persia, while Bethesda's Fallout 3 and Activision's Guitar Hero World Tour are also arriving for the home computer. Grand Theft Auto IV hits the PC in November, and BioWare's forthcoming Dragon Age is starting out as a PC exclusive.
The PC is still the gaming platform of choice for a particular audience. "It's still the most powerfully connected platform," says Sid Meier, director of development at Firaxis games and the creator of the Civilization series of strategy games. The mouse and keyboard interface for PC games, he says, allow developers to do things that can't be done on consoles.
But Mr. Meier's latest release is Civilization Revolution, a game developed for DS, PS3, and Xbox 360. He says that the types of games being released for consoles is evolving, in part because the technology now makes it possible for strategy and multiplayer games to run on those systems. "It felt like the time was right to bring Civilization over to the consoles and allow this different audience to play it."
Mr. Bidan says that from a business perspective it makes sense to release a game on as many platforms as possible in order to increase the potential customer base and therefore to increase sales. With the broad appeal of the Star Wars franchise, he suggests that LucasArts was limiting the number of fans who can play The Force Unleashed by not including a PC version in their release plans. "I think it's short sighted," he says.
One reason some publishers are avoiding the PC, though, is in an attempt to reduce the impact of piracy. "That's a real concern," says Meier. "I certainly have heard companies having questions about the viability of games on the PC because of those issues."
He calls massively multiplayer online games such as Blizzard's World of Warcraft "inherently pirate-proof," and offers that as one reason the genre of games appearing on the PC was changing to include MMOs, casual games and games from independent producers.
Mr. Sood says that the recurring revenue model of the MMOs - gamers pay a monthly subscription fee to maintain their license for the game - is also why PC gaming is alive and kicking. "It's nowhere near the death of PC gaming," he says, "it's growing at an alarming rate."
"There's a lot of changes," he says about the current state of the business, "but no signs of death."