Pirates ate my gold
Unfortunately, there's a looming threat to both types of PC game distribution, and one that's often identified as a smoking gun for those troubled retail sales: piracy.
Numerous developers and publishers have waded into the argument claiming Bittorrent is harming them, while the formerly PC-centric likes of Epic and Crytek have even claimed it's a major factor in their decision to now turn their attentions primarily to consoles.
Research into the scale, and most of all the real-world fiscal effects of piracy, remains fairly limited, and this shortage of empirical proof one way or another has made the unending online debate on the matter peculiarly confusing and often vicious.
On the one hand, you have 2D Boy, the chaps behind indie mega-gem World of Goo claiming that over 80 per cent of the game's players had pirated it, but calmly stating that it hadn't harmed sales.
On the other side of the argument, there's someone like developer, Cliff Harris of one-man studio Positech (best-known for thoughtful indie fare such as life management game, Kudos and the sprawling politicking of Democracy): "Nobody can say with a straight face that having well-known sites where people can get your product for free has zero effect on sales. To pretend anything else is just silly", he reckons. "One of the things nobody ever talks about is the psychological effect piracy has on games developers. If you work 10 hours a day for a year to make something, then find people taking it for free 24 hours after release, you just cannot begin to describe how depressing that feels to them."
Indie, we love you
The crux of piracy debate often hinges on the question of whether someone who Bittorrents a given game would otherwise have been a customer of it. On the one hand, that person is clearly not paying to play your game. On the other, there's every chance that the only reason they're playing it is because they didn't have to pay.
Meantime, the anti-piracy camp calls it theft, while the pro-piracy guys claim that making a digital duplicate of immaterial code is hardly the same thing as physically swiping an item. It's a semantic and ethical war which only further obfuscates an issue that's increasingly dominating all discussion about the PC as a gaming platform.
Recently, id's John Carmack even claimed that PC hardware manufacturers were taking advantage of the current ubiquity and ease of piracy to help flog more of their gear. Still, one glance at the most leeched torrents reveals that it's the big-name games such as Call of Duty that attract the most illegal downloaders.
Indie developers might have more to lose, but not yet being mainstream is to their advantage. That's perhaps one of the reasons why there's a thriving indie scene, both paid and free, despite Big Publishing's doomsaying about the PC. "There is widespread acceptance of indie gaming, and it's easier for indies to be taken seriously as a creative force," says Positech's Cliff Harris, who recently released Kudos 2 to a warm response.
"Also, advances in PCs mean that you no longer have to optimise the hell out of C++ to run a game at 30FPS, so you don't need my phenomenal coding skillz to be an indie developer any more. There are lots of reasons for the big budget games to die out. The graphics arms race is definitely slowing down. In terms of profitability, indie devs like 2DBoy or even me are probably more profitable per employee than Activision."
Valve's Steam has quickly become a major portal for some of the higher-profile indie games – the low-budget likes of World of Goo and Audiosurf have been big hits on the download service. "They're very profitable," agrees Valve's Doug Lombardi. "And that's the beauty of the indie gaming scene: one person to a handful of people can make a game and if it hits at all, it's money hats for everyone."
Rumour even has it that Valve literally made a money hat to congratulate Audiosurf's Dylan Fitterer on the MP3 racing game's huge and profitable success…
Of course, if indie games do become the dominant force on PC, it's bad news for Nvidia and ATI-AMD. We're already at the point where there's little reason for most PC owners to have anything beefier than a mid-range graphics card, and with the Xbox 360 and PS3 now entering the latter years of their life we can't expect many console ports – currently the major source of big-name PC titles – to demand especially high-end PCs.
Meantime, Intel is pushing back with efforts to make the CPU rather than GPU the key component in a gaming PC, as well as readying its hybrid CPU/GPU Larrabee chip. Unless there's an unexpected new glut of PC exclusive graphics-fests, as with that double-whammy of Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 back in the day, there could be dark days ahead for high-end 3D cards.
Times are changing
Stardock's Brad Wardell has a slightly different take. "We experienced a temporary change from the trend that had existed for many years prior. In the 1980s, consoles dominated and PCs were the exception. But then there was a meltdown in the console market that allowed PC games to dominate. What we've been seeing since has been the gradual reassertion of consoles and the PC gradually returning to its core strengths. Action games, sports games and other console-centric games were never the types of games that were the PC's to lose."
Stardock makes what you could call traditional PC games – high-strategy, roleplaying, 4x – to a casual observer, space RTS Sins of A Solar Empire might be living up to every stereotype of PC gaming, but it's paying off – it was the number one PC game at US retail earlier last year. And that's despite a good chance that you've never heard of it.
It's appealing directly to a specific audience, which is in stark constrast to a big FPS's attempts to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, thanks to the relative genericism of shooting men in the face. The latter approach potentially means more sales, but the former means getting the game exactly right for a certain group of people, and without having to rely on costly, time-consuming graphical prowess to lure in an audience.
It's an approach we can expect to see more of – you can even argue that the higher profile, glossier likes of Dawn of War 2 and Left 4 Dead are taking a similar approach. They're games in which the mechanics are far more important than the appearance.
Declining retail sales and the Bittorrent bogeyman aren't, then, a death knell for PC gaming. Whether it's growing into something new, beautiful and impressively independent or returning to the ideals it was founded upon back before Doom brought about the age of graphics and adrenaline, it's in probably the most exciting state it's been in for years. Vive la evolution.
First published in PC Format Issue 225