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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Gaming Landscape 2000 to 2009 Part 1: The PC

PCs have always been a staple of gaming going back to the 1970's.  Text-based adventure games, MUDs, and ASCII games like Rogue were some of the first immersive games.  Commodore games still get a lot of play, and the 1980's and 1990's were extremely kind to the platform.  By the year 2000, the PC's fortunes were skyrocketing.  The experience you could get on a PC was unmatched by any system.  Comparatively, the N64 was four years old and extremely long in the tooth and the PS1 was starting to show its age graphically as well.  The Dreamcast had just launched and had great graphics, and included online play on select few games, but EVERY GAME on the PC had online play.

That's to say nothing of the quality of the games.  Diablo II launched in 2000 and proceeded to break countless mice.  Everquest started to hit its stride and become EverCrack way before World of Warcrack.  Deus Ex created a believable world with countless solutions that still resonates today.  No One Lives Forever was the first shooter that was "better than Half-Life."  Sure, there were some lazy PC ports, but the vast majority of groundbreaking games came out on the PC first and foremost.

The PS2 launched in 2001, and didn't really dent the PC's strong customer base.  I mean, they promised a game like SOCOM that allowed for online play, but once again, the PC had it in virtually every game without any major hurdles.  Sure, the PC was more expensive, but the quality of the experience was unequaled, with games like Rise of Nations and Jedi Knight II providing an experience that rivaled or beat most consoles.

As a matter of fact, up until this point there was a pretty clear demarcation building.  The PC was home to shooters, strategy games, and Western-style RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment.  Consoles were the home of action/adventure games like Zelda and JRPGs like Final Fantasy.  Obviously, we're oversimplifying the matter and of course there were exceptions, but this was the way of things.  The PC had the graphics to keep up with shooters where consoles couldn't, and console controls were better suited to handle adventure games.

By the year 2000, things were going along swimmingly for the PC.  When did the PC's fortunes turn?  It can be traced to three things:  The growing ease of piracy, XBox Live, and Half-Life 2.

Piracy is usually the scapegoat for most people when discussing the downfall of the PC.  It's easy to blame, and it indeed had a real impact.  I mean, why pay for a game when you can get it for free?  It seems like a rather obvious problem.  In 2000, piracy was becoming an issue, but hard drives were small and discs held a lot of data.  CD burners were starting to become more prevalent, but they were still kind of expensive.  Broadband was starting to become common, but most people had dialup.  You could maybe get games on Limewire or Kazaa (remember Kazaa?) but you had to contend with viruses and slow internet speeds.  In other words, there were enough roadblocks in place to make piracy more of a headache than a boon.

What's changed?  With hard drives getting bigger and bigger, you can store more ISOs and cracks than you could in days gone by.  In the past, you may have had a 10-15 GB hard drive, and a game disc would take up 700 MB of that space.  That was valuable real estate that you couldn't afford to occupy.  Installing a CD burner to get that ISO off your computer would run you at least $200, and half of the time that burner would make coasters (Buffer Underrun Error!)  Now, you can get cheap hard drives that hold 250 GB or more.  Sure, an ISO may be 4-7 GB, but you're still in great shape, space-wise.  A top-flight, error-free DVD burner can be purchased online for $20, and DVDs are a dime a dozen.  On top of that, internet connections in 2000 were topping out at 1.5MB/second and most people were still on dialup.  Now, chances are that if you're reading this entry, you have a high-speed connection that's at least 1.5/MB if not far more.  That means that a full ISO, instead of taking you a full month to download, now takes you only a day or sometimes even an hour to get.  There are far fewer roadblocks to piracy than before, and it's become far more difficult to stop.

In and of itself, piracy isn't the lone cause of the decline of PC gaming.  A large chunk of that can be traced to XBox Live and similar services.  Up until then, the PC's major benefit, online and LAN multiplayer, was just a mere pipe dream for console makers.  It was the one area of gaming that couldn't be touched by consoles, and it was beautiful.  Even when the PS2 launched with an Ethernet jack, it was still more of a headache to connect online than anything else.  Then the XBox came along, and Halo over Live became de rigeur.  It didn't take long for companies to latch onto the idea of a closed system that was easily manageable to keep cheaters out AND that wouldn't have the same piracy risks as the PC.

Slowly but surely, the XBox started becoming home to shooters, which were once solely the purview of the PC.  Now we're seeing games like Modern Warfare and Fallout 3 landing on consoles far before the PC, if they ever even get there.  Gamers decided that they would overlook the deficiencies of the two-analog-stick control system in exchange for ease of use and managed friend lists, and the XBox (and later the PS3) ended taking the runoff from the PC market.  In effect, they aren't growing their own separate markets, but rather taking away the PC's market, cannibalizing it in order to grow their own.

Lastly, Half-Life 2 is to blame.  It seems like lunacy to blame Half-Life 2, one of the greatest games of the decade, for the issues plaguing the PC.  Hear me out.

Before Half-Life 2, game activation was simple.  Put in your CD Key during the install, and you can play.  There was a booming used market at Gamestop, Electronics Boutique, GameCrazy, Fry's, and others because you could very easily transfer game ownership from one person to another.  Then Half-Life 2 came along and demanded that you activate the game online.  Once it was activated online via Steam, you really couldn't transfer ownership without a lengthy process.  Trade-ins on Half-Life 2 became nonexistent.  How could you trade in a game where ownership couldn't be transferred?  Since it was a very high-profile game, the issue really couldn't be pushed aside or ignored.

All of a sudden, EB Games and Gamestop saw their opportunity to downsize their PC gaming racks.  PC gaming had long been a thorn in the side of retailers, what with their big boxes that weren't easily stacked and their byzantine system requirements that led to more returns and customer service headaches than other games.  From the retailers' perspective, why waste the valuable shelf space on a platform that caused so many problems AND wouldn't give them their huge markup that they were accustomed to on used console games?

This led to the Great PC Game Selloff of 2005 and 2006, as gaming boutiques slashed their used inventory at unheard of prices.  It wasn't uncommon to find great, AAA used titles for $5 with manuals and cases.  It was beautiful and a little sad.  You knew what they were doing and why they were doing it, and the longer you held off buying the games the longer used PC games remained stocked at the stores, but how could you pass up those prices?

Once PC gaming left the boutiques, it lost its visibility.  A new AAA PC game no longer carried the same prestige as before.  Sure, MMOs have picked up the slack, but there's something wrong about paying someone a continual sum of money for the privilege of continuing to play their game that you've already bought and paid for.  Now, the only games that come out for the PC are MMOs, indie games, and console ports.  It's been a precipitous drop for the PC.

However, that's not to say that the PC didn't deserve to die.  For all of their merits, PCs are expensive.  A good gaming rig will cost you $1000 or more while a 360 or PS3 is $250.  Plus, trying to figure out the system requirements of their home PC is an exercise in frustration for most gamers.  It's a little sad seeing a once-proud, monolithic platform being reduced to a shadow of its former self.  However, it's still the system with the highest install base, higher than any console, higher than any handheld.  The glory days may never return for the PC, but it'll still be around for a long, long time.