The State of PC Gaming

Alex Calvin
The State of PC Gaming

PC GAMING WEEK: With all the buzz around the new consoles, it is quite easy to forget about the PC gaming market.

If you look at the Top 40, the platform is often under-represented thanks to the lack of inclusion of digital download data. And it certainly doesn’t garner the same mainstream media hype as home consoles do.

So let me open with a few facts: shipments of PCs fell by almost ten per cent globally in 2013, but the amount of PC games sold rose, and going in to 2014, the platform is now number three in terms of boxed market share in the UK.

According to the latest estimates, PC games made £500m digitally and physically in the UK during 2013.

And many who work in the industry are optimistic about the current state of the PC gaming market.

“PC gaming is at an all-time high. Consoles have come into line with PC architecture, there are now more ways to consume content than ever before – we’re seeing great indie and self-published releases capturing the imagination of the market with unbelievable sales,” says Murray Rigluth, director development at Sony DADC.

“It really is the Nirvana for PC gaming right now; consistent year- on-year growth from multiple territories, wider integration with peripherals and the continual advancements in technology from both the hardware and software vendors is making PC gaming almost plug and play, appealing to a wider audience, rather than a narrow subset – which was the traditional view of PC gaming.”

However, the lack of digital downloads in the Top 40 gives a skewed perspective of the PC gaming scene.

“Given the size and importance of download systems like Steam and EA Origin, a chart that doesn’t include sales through those platforms doesn’t really tell the whole story,” says Doug McConkey, head of brand at UK developer Dovetail Games.

THE FULL PICTURE

McConkey continues: “As an industry, we need to recognise the importance of providing well- rounded data when it comes to PC sales. This is a valid and valuable market and in order for those operating in it to make serious and sensible judgments, it needs to be monitored as diligently as the console gaming market is.”

Imre Jele co-founder of Bossa Studios agrees. “Digital download and in particular Valve’s Steam platform is a hugely dominant force,” he says.

“Not only because of the quantities they achieve in sales and revenues, but also how it altered buying patterns of players, gave opportunities to smaller teams and extended the long tail sales.”

Industry body UKIE is attempting to fill the gap with its own digital chart, although it requires support from publishers.

Andy Payne, chairman of Mastertronic says: “It’s been frustrating to see data collection fall way behind the curve. UKIE has taken a lead in digital, and got most of the major publishers to input their data and that is encouraging, we would like to see more data from more creators being input more regularly.”

Just to give an example of the disparity between boxed and digital sales for PC, in Q2 of 2013, seven of the Top Ten boxed titles did not appear in the digital chart. Overall, the boxed charts feature more mainstream fare such asThe Sims 3 and its expansions, while the download chart was dominated by core gamer titles such as Bioshock Infinite and Borderlands 2.

UKIE CEO Dr Jo Twist adds: “Through our Digital Sales Charts project we can see just how strong demand is for digital games, and in particular for indies who want to self-publish.”

PC has become a hot bed for creativity – with both games self-published through platforms such as Steam, but also in the creation of mods from bedroom coders.

Rigluth says: “We’re seeing great indie and self-published releases capturing the imagination of the market with unbelievable sales.“

Simon Urquhart, PC gaming category director for Dixons Retail comments: “Indies are pushing the boundaries and modders are finding new life in older titles like the multiplayer mod for Just Cause 2.”

PLAYING CATCH UP

Retail has had a hard time adapting to the changes – physical retail especially so.

“Physical retail plays an ever- diminishing role in PC gaming,” admits Urquhart.

“PC gamers already buy most titles digitally and fewer triple-A PC games are released to encourage retailers to devote space to physical boxed games.”

But Urquhart argues that the emphasis on console gaming has lead to publishers neglecting the PC market, and in turn, neglecting physical retail.

“Many PC games are produced as an after-thought and released well after the marketing budget has been spent. Where is Grand Theft Auto V on PC? I think this has led to an emphasis on console gaming over time,” he adds.

Miles Jacobson, studio director of Sports Interactive, says that PC gaming’s lacking presence in the High Street is potentially damaging to the market.

“It’s obvious that the shelf space made available for PC games in the High Street is well down on where it was even two years ago, but it’s still a very important environment for us to be in,” he says. “Having a presence on the High Street – no matter how small – gives us

Delaying games like GTA V and Assassin’s Creed on PC has put High Street retailers off the format says Dixons Retail’s Urquhart.

But Darren Cairns, EVP of marketing at retailer Green Man Gaming does not see this as a problem, and argues that the lack of a physical presence is a perk of publishing for the PC.

“Publishers are attracted to the digital market because of the margin increase they get from not having any platform fees or royalties and the result is a steady stream of games coming through,” he explains.

BREAKING THE LAW

The downside to an open platform like PC is how easy it is for players to obtain the games illegally. And publisher attempts to protect their IP have, at times, irritated legitimate buyers.

“It is important that companies who want to protect their IP from infringement know how to do so, and have the support to do so,” says Twist.

“Their IP is valuable and how to protect and take action without harming the relationship with fans is important. Tackling IP infringement is a combination of education, use of technology, innovating with business models and tackling IP crime at its source, such as investigating major organised peer- to-peer syndicates.”

At last year’s London Games Conference Sports Interactive’s Miles Jacobson shared some interesting information about piracy. A flaw in an illegal version of Football Manager 2013 allowed him to see who and how many downloaded the game from file sharing websites.

“The point of the information was to educate. Not just those inside the industry, but also those on both sides of the argument in any industry that is or might be affected in the future by IP infringement,” Jacobson explains.

Since then, Jacobson has been looking to further investigate the mass of raw data SI uncovered.

“We’re still looking into the possibility of drilling down a little deeper into those numbers with an academic partner to see if we can gain any further insights from them.”

But the industry has learnt a great deal about combating piracy over the years – namely that trying to prevent it entirely can be a fruitless task.

“There will always be piracy no matter what,” says Philipp Brock, PR manager for Nordic Games.

“Of course there are certain methods and tools at hand to be a bit annoying, but absolutely no chance to eliminate it.”

Richard Barclay, head of marketing of Excalibur Publishing believes piracy can be reduced if distribution is improved in emerging markets.

“There’s a link between piracy and poor distribution. Portugal, Croatia, Romania, Greece and Hungary have amongst them the highest levels of piracy relative to their populations and poor distribution,” he says.

NEW WAYS TO PLAY

The PC games market is leading the way when it comes to digital and indie games. It’s also the place where new business models are being experimented with. And these experiments are putting extra pressure on the boxed market.

“Free-to-play, or play-whilst-the- game-is-still-in-development – like Steam’s Early Access – or frequently-updated-episodic- content are a challenge to the traditional boxed retail sales scene,” says Rob Noble, UK and Nordic Territory Manager for Gameforge.

“Free-to-play gaming continues to provide significant driving force behind growth in the European PC market.”

He continues: “The PC, as a delivery channel for gamers, appears able to adapt to changing consumer habits far quicker than console,” Noble adds. “This keeps the sector fresh and vibrant.”

There can be no doubt in anyone’s minds that the PC gaming scene is leading the way in terms of innovating the market. It has changed how publishers and retailers sell games and how we as consumers buy them.

And the market continues to evolve. We have new genres, such as MOBAs, we are seeing eSports attract tens of millions of viewers, and within the year PC will invade the living room with its Steam Machines.

The PC games market has never been more a more interesting and exciting place to be.

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