Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Monday, April 23, 2007

NY Times (Overly) Optimistic On PC Gaming

The New York Times just published an article about how PC games are bouncing back:

Anita Frazier, an industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm, noted that in the first two months of 2007, domestic retail sales of PC games reached $203 million, a 48 percent increase over the $136.8 million in the period a year earlier. She noted that these figures do not include revenue generated by PC game sales online, or online subscriptions to play PC games.

“Yes, it does look like a fluke, doesn’t it?” Ms. Frazier said. “Rest assured it’s not.”

She said the bulk of this surge in sales is rooted in the role-playing video game genre that, itself, grew 43 percent over the same period last year. “The robust performance we’re seeing in PC game sales can be tied to several key titles across several genres,” she said, “but we’d be remiss not to address the continued success of World of Warcraft.”
-- PC Games, Once Down, Show Signs of Rebound

Ah yes, World of Warcraft. We'll get back to that later. Let's go back to the beginning of the article where the Times uses a 28 year old lawyer as an example of the nouveau PC gamer:

When I was a kid, I used to like Nintendo and used to play on consoles,” said Mr. Kirschner, a 28-year-old lawyer. “But right now I don’t have the time or money to invest in a $400 console and $50 in a game.”

He then buys Civilization IV. Which costs $40 on Amazon right now. Many new games for the PC cost $60. And let's not even talk about how cheap $400 is compared to getting serious about your gaming rig. So I think the cost portion of this quote is something of a non-starter.

The genre is more pertinent. The "new PC gamer" is looking for titles which can be played at random intervals for random periods of time (some would call that casual, I'd say ... sporadic). Console games are often more about sucking you in for at least an hour or so at a time. Although with things like Live Arcade, that's changing as well.

He continues about the kind of games on the PC that, "It’s not just killing unlimited enemies on a screen." Course, the problem here is that many PC games are becoming married to the console format. Even titles which aren't "just killing unlimited enemies on the screen" like Knights Of The Old Republic or Fable get their start on the Xbox and then port over.

Civ IV is just one example of a genre still pretty exclusive to the PC world. The other would be the MMO genre. Which brings us back to World of Warcraft. As I mentioned earlier - MMO's are moving into the console realm at a pretty decent clip. I wouldn't expect WoW to go Xbox on us anytime soon, but what happens when the console market gets it's own World Of Warcraft? I mean, that's essentially the kind of hammer Halo brought down. Sure, GoldenEye proved to many that a console FPS didn't have to suck, but Halo brought online multiplayer into the fray - proving that nearly all the advantages of a PC FPS game were workable on the console.

I mean geez, if Bungie produced a Halo MMO for the 360 - can you imagine the resounding soundwave?

Now let's look at these numbers:

The upsurge comes after some recent reversals. Over all, retail sales of PC-based games in the United States exceeded $970 million in 2006, an increase of about 1 percent of sales the previous year of $953 million, which represented about a 14 percent drop from $1.1 billion in 2004.

By contrast, according to the NPD Group, retail sales for console games in 2006 were $4.8 billion; another $1.7 billion was spent on games for hand-held devices like Sony’s PlayStation Portable.

A one percent increase after a fourteen percent drop is hardly a "reversal". The handheld market eclipses the PC numbers and the console figures simply swallows it whole. Consoles buyers are over four times the size of the PC consumers and let's remember the bonus materials consoles give developers and publishers: much lower rate of piracy, easier hardware footprint and quality assurance.

So how exactly is the PC market poised for a resurgence when the console market still enjoys a far more viable customer base?

Games For Windows is trotted out as one factor. I still don't see how this Vista only offering will make much of an impact in the next few years. The Times then also talks about major gaming rigs like Dell's XPS monster, mentions how it costs over five grand and then finishes with a quote about "the economics of the PC" that “everybody needs a computer.”

Sure, but if the PC gaming market shows anything - it's that not everyone needs a computer to game.

Again, I'm not looking for PC gaming to fail. Many of my fondest gaming memories were on a PC. I would love a PC game revival - but nothing in this Times article adds up to one.


Troy Goodfellow said...

I agree that the NY Times oversells the point. Burning Crusade alone is likely responsible for much of that blip, with CnC3 being the rest. But if you add in the digital delivery that is dominant in many PC gaming sectors, things look a little better, though not as optimistic as the article portends.

I really hate it when people compare total console numbers to PC numbers. The PC is a fourth computer machine, and its sales can be compared to any other individual machine. The PC has to compete against three separate platforms, not one monolithic console monster.

You wouldn't, for example, compare the Wii to both other consoles combined to show that it lags. You would put the number next to individual sales for the PS3 and 360.

PC sales will probably remain pretty much where they are, which as Greg Costikyan has noted, is disappointing since it is the only really "open" platform that anyone can program for. The PC will survive because this openness attracts niches like adventures, wargames, mod-friendly titles and the like. The consoles have gatekeepers.

Josh said...

I don't know if I would describe the PC as a "fourth console", though. In some ways, sure, it's more accurate - many developers pick one hardware format over another - it's not like Sega has the same presence on the PC as they do on any console hardware.

Still, in some ways the PC does have to compete with one monolithic console monster. Whereas many people own multiple consoles - having multiple PC's doesn't grant you much diversity. If a developer is going to cross-develop, it's the hardware of lowest common denominator which will force the design, not that dual SLI motherboard. So while there might be a Resident Evil 4 for every platform under the sun, the PC port is hardly worthwhile (doesn't even include mouse aiming).

The PC is up against consoles as a whole because ... well, because it isn't a console. Because there is a flipside to Costikyan's point, a flipside directly related to things like piracy and profits.

This distinction is also why, as you say, certain genres will continue to have an edge on the PC market. The flipside of the Resident Evil example would be something like *The Sims* (even though I would love a proper Sims 2 follow up for a console). Heavily ported, but really "works" on the PC.

My problem is that examples like that seem to be getting less common. Some of this angst stems from having recently upgraded my PC and still having little to get excited about. Costik has a point, though, even if PC dev has downfalls, it's still just about the lowest bar to cross than anything out there.

It still, however, could use a nudge from the heavies. This is kinda where I see Microsoft has abandoning the PC gamer. Turning a cold shoulder to the massive XP crowd isn't going to benefit PC gaming in general.

Troy Goodfellow said...

I don't see what the lack of "multiple PCs" has to do with anything since almost every household now has a PC. If you consider it a gaming platform, it stands with the Wii/GC/Xbox/PS. The thing is, the PC is seen as mostly a work machine. And gaming on the PC can be a chore - tray and play is still a ways off.

The decline of the PC can largely be blamed on the lack of standardization on the platform. Games for Windows is supposed to address some of this, but, like you, I don't see Vista or this initiative as a serious effort by Microsoft.

In a not-yet published editorial, I refer to PC gaming as the premium cable of the industry. It is increasingly where you'll find stuff aimed at a specific niche, bypassing the mainstream altogether.

Of course, the NPD numbers miss the large number of direct download sales or purchases made through online retailers. And given the receding presence of PC games in brick and mortar stores, I think this represents a much larger percentage of sales than it does on any of the consoles.

Anyway, I don't think the PC is dead as a platform, and for certain genres it remains the go-to place. But this article does nothing to persuade me that the computer is any more than a fourth place machine in the gaming mindshare.

Josh said...

No, that's kind of my point. I have a PC, a laptop and a Mac. Between three personal computers, they barely equate to one gaming machine. On the flipside, having multiple consoles means having multiple dedicated pieces of gaming hardware.

And from a sales view, any console hardware might be seen as more attractive than PC hardware. I'm not making a case for or against here, but the problems on PC's are distinctive to the PC - and not at the console market as a whole. Hence the many titles that might be cross-platform on consoles, but see either no or a sad port to the PC. That's where the 4x sized market becomes key. A wide and diversified console market isn't really good for PC games because it gives developers that many more choices to not have their work pirated.

I definately concur that a lack of standardization is a huge problem. This is why I wag my fingert at Apple, who has far more power to control standards than Microsoft. But then I see Games For Windows - and when you realize it's little more than an update of the same features ploy they used on XP to sell more XP boxes, it's kind of sad.

There is, of course, no technical reason why Microsoft couldn't release Xbox Live for XP. Or Halo 2 for XP. Especially when you compare the costs of upgrading to Vista (legitimately) and getting a DX10 card to boot, it becomes fairly clear that Microsoft's first priority for gaming is the 360, then Vista and ... somewhere else is the mass of XP users.