Phil Spencer of Microsoft can flamboyantly announce increased activity of the Redmond giant on personal computers, Ubisoft can announce that the PC is currently the best gaming platform, but let’s face it: 2018 proved emphatically that PCs are nowadays in decline, and their users are somewhat patronized. Further fragmentation of digital distribution platforms doesn’t help a bit either. Even if it is too early to talk about a crisis of PC gaming, it is worth looking at its first symptoms and causes.
Shun the big gun
Think for a moment: which of last year’s greatest hits were released on PC? Of course, we have the new Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, Far Cry and Battlefield, as well as the inglorious Fallout 76 (which is still a big premiere, quality aside). However, these are rather not pieces of interactive art, but merely products of solid craftsmanship, series that have been on computers since time immemorial. Meanwhile, the truly ambitious, top-rated, high-budget games of the last twelve months basically bypassed the tin-cans.
Will Red Dead Redemption II finally get to the PC? Even if, the players will probably have to exert much patience.
MINES AND COLLUSION
Still, at the beginning of last year, the biggest problem of PCs was not the lack of exclusive titles or second-rate console ports, but rising prices of the components – specifically GPUs and RAM. In the first case, the reason was the cryptocurrency mines (indeed, Inno3D company even released a special graphics card without video outputs for this specific application). In the second one, the increased demand for memory in laptops and smartphones turned out to be the reason (or – if one trusts the reports of the Chinese inspectors – collusion between manufacturers). Fortunately, in the middle of last year, the situation normalized and the months to come give hope for more peace.
Monster Hunter: World is an exception here, but even this action RPG by Capcom debuted six months earlier on consoles, and the PC conversion was riddled by problems with the multiplayer and pestered by average optimization. As for the rest – Red Dead Redemption II, God of War and Spider-Man, the three loudest releases of the past twelve months – the PC gamers got no love what so ever. In the case of Rockstar's production, there are reasons to believe that developers are planning to bring their western epic to computers, but the case of Grand Theft Auto V suggests that a considerable amount of time will pass before that’s realized.
Things look a bit better this year because practically every potential hit (with the exception of Kingdom Hearts III) will also appear on desktops. However, if you trust the reports, which are sound quite reliable, 2020 may bring the ninth generation of consoles, which in turn will trigger the next war of exclusivity between Sony and Microsoft. The Japanese have traditionally announced several different games, which the PC players will only be able to watch jealously on YouTube: The Last of Us: Part II, Ghost of Tsushima, Death Stranding... And the Redmond Giant will certainly try to fight for the audience and it is not at all certain whether they’ll stick to the Play Anywhere program.
Exclusivity? Wrong address
Things are even worse if you look at last year's exclusive PC titles. It’s common knowledge that there’s a whole lot of independent productions too small for consoles, but when we talk about larger games, we actually have to narrow the list down to just one: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. One could also mention Subnautica or Frostpunk, but the first of these games has already been converted to PlayStation 4, and the second one will follow suit within the coming months.
Where're the nines?
A number of productions with an average rating of more than 90/100 (according to the Metacritic review aggregator) in relation to other platforms can serve as evidence of a certain quality crisis in PC games. As many as seven such titles have been released on PlayStation 4. The same number of titles appeared on the Xbox One. Nintendo Switch has had an even better year, with nine games exceeding the 90/100 average (although most of them have already made their debut on other platforms). Meanwhile, the PC can boast only one such game – Into the Breach. It is also worth pointing out that in the top five best-rated productions there are many as four independent games plus Monster Hunter: World, i.e. a console conversion.
The second Pillars of Eternity, according to the first announcements, was also supposed to be released on consoles (PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch), but now, things went silent. It is known that the conversions are handled by an external company, Grip Digital, but the creators are probably not holding their breath for amazing commercial success. Why should they, if even on PC – the classic RPG’s nursery – the title is said to have performed very poorly, barely exceeding the threshold of 100,000 copies within six months of its release?
It all looks as if the PC was again becoming the bastard child of the industry, overshadowed by the more profitable consoles. Sure, most publishers release their games on the desktop, but the two priorities are Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The PC, on the other hand, is now a sanctuary for strategies and classic RPGs, and – more importantly – independent games. How long will this remain true is another question.
Indies eaten away
It’s nothing new that indies are going through lean years lately, mainly because of Valve’s increasingly nonchalant policies on Steam. The platform used to be an alternative for a corporate career; it was the catalyst of the surge of popularity of games such as Don’t Starve, Terraria or Hotline Miami. Back then, however, a relatively small amount of games was released on Steam and it was easier to gain ground. Today, dozens of games of usually poor quality are released daily, and it becomes increasingly hard to even become noticed among such a landslide. Eve games from well-respected teams, such as Into the Breach by Subset Games or Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope can’t be certain of a spectacular commercial success.
Deluge and the flood
For the time being, there is not enough reliable data concerning the total number of video games that went to Steam during last year. However, if you trust SteamSpy, more than nine thousand games have been released through Valve’s platform in the past twelve months. This is more than two thousand more than in 2017, twice as many as in 2016, and seventeen times as many as in 2013. In November, 873 titles went to Steam, the most that have ever been released there in a single month. And there are no real prospects for improvement, to be honest; more than a hundred games have already made their debut on Steam in 2019.
Hence it hardly comes as a surprise that an increasing number of indie games are simultaneously released on PC and consoles. Last year’s high-profile examples include Celeste and Dead Cells, which only gained on their multi-platform releases, becoming quite popular. You could expect more and more developers and dev teams certain of their artistic vision to head over to the – so far – largely uncharted console territory.
And since we’re at it – there’s another important question we should address in relation to the state of PC gaming. Can you still remember the times, when Steam was basically the only platform for your every game? Those were the days, I tell you. If you want to play, say, FIFA, Fortnite, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Forza Horizon 4 and Monster Hunter: World, you have to prepare five different digital distribution platforms. It’s totally understandable that each big publisher wants to distribute their own game through proprietary channels; too bad that this comes at the price of the players’ comfort. In case of uPlay or Origin it’s only a matter of a few games, but look at Epic Games – they decided to throw down a gauntlet and challenge Steam, offering their own set of interesting indies and giving their creators a better deal.
I’m leaving thy sandbox, sir. And I’m taking my toys!
Last year, Activision stated that it didn’t need Steam and the latest Call of Duty was released via Battle.net. The second famous release, which bypassed Steam, was the infamous Fallout 76, whose predecessors eagerly used Valve’s platform. It is quite possible that other companies will follow suit, further undermining Gabe Newel’s giant.
The war between distribution platforms is also a bad omen for developers. Even if they’re offered a better deal, the hypothetical exclusivity surely will substantially decrease the number of potential buyers. The so-far Epic Games Store exclusives, Ashen and Hades, bring 90% of the profits to their creators, but you have to remember that the pool of potential consumers is much smaller than on Steam, which celebrated reaching 18,500,000 users online at the same time in January last year.
The PC has always been dying
There is, however, a silver lining. Pretty much since I remember, the PC has always been said to be doomed, usually when the next generation was around the corner. Meanwhile, years go by and PC gaming is not nearly a niche for a handful of desperate and nostalgic people. There still is a whole lot of great games being released on PC, even if 2018 was one of the worse years in terms of triple-A games, which indeed were mostly kept at bay. Maybe the PC is not the priority for devs and publishers, but in most cases, the console releases finally make it to the desktops. We can only hope that this doesn’t change anytime soon.
The industry works in cycles – right now, there are over 90 million PlayStation 4 consoles around the globe. Add to that a few dozen million Xboxes. The eighth generation has been in full swing, which translates into more secure profits in a rather straightforward fashion. This will last for some time until the next generation comes. Initially, it won’t be as appealing to publishers as the current gen is now, and it should be a good moment for the PC gaming to reclaim some lost ground, just to reach the same spot again. Unless streaming, the third world war or climate change shatters the current order.