Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Traditional Console is Doomed - the PC is the Future

Steam is, as you surely know, the platform of the moment for PC gaming fans around the world - allowing users to form communities, play online and purchase games for their accounts, all in a free and complete environment.

Steam saw an 'active user' increase of 178% in 2010, pushing the Steam user counter to thirty million active accounts. It was not the first time that Steam had noted such a significant growth in user-base - and this year was the sixth year running when the Steam product sales were more than 100% higher than the previous years. A staggering growth for Steam, and it reveals just how much profit is being made, especially since Gabe Newell became gaming's newest billionaire, with a net worth of $1.5bn earlier in the year.

Steam already has thirty million users, and internet connections are getting up to speed in most places now. Downloading the tremendously large game files may actually be quicker then going to a store and physically purchasing the game in the coming months, at least for some countries. The usage of digital distribution could be seen to be relatively proportional to the increasing speeds of broadband around the world.

Steam is a digital distribution site for all aspects of PC Gaming, and it's growing at a massive rate.

Of course, how long is the idea of going out to buy a game in a store specifically intended for that purpose? Personally, I can't see it lasting an awful lot longer - we can already see one of the biggest European retailers, GAME slowly spiraling into the ground, as their stocks hit a record low of less than a single penny in the United Kingdom only mere weeks ago. I think that the high street game retailers are slowly fading out - sure you've got your local supermarket that stock games, but the selection is sometimes poor at best, and the prices can be massively expensive, especially considering what you're buying isn't a necessity, just a bit of fun once in a while. A massive price tag could very easily turn you away.

UK retail games outlet 'GAME' faces financial troubles and looming bankruptcy.

However, what does this mean for the traditional gaming console? I'm not denying that both the Xbox 360 and PS3 both have legitimate options for digital distribution on their respective online services, but they are the monopoly in this situation. They designed the system, they say what goes. This also applies to price. You won't see many competitively priced games on the Xbox Live or PSN Marketplaces because they are all being moderated by the respective staff of the companies that run the services. Now we're just biting our own tail, and we're back to the same issue that plagued us with buying from the supermarket - the price is sky high.

Xbox and PlayStation both have online marketplaces, but the selection is usually sparse and expensive
Either way, the consoles are still mostly disk dominated - the put-in-and-play generation of gaming consoles is still with us, and the reason that we still have this style of gaming is because the Xbox 360 was released in late 2005 and early 2006, with the PlayStation 3 launching around a similar time period. At the time of release, digital distribution was not really that viable of an option for gaming, so the disk format remained - it would have been extremely difficult for the manufacturers of the console to realise that in a few years, the disk will be going out of fashion, and internet-based digital distribution is coming in, and even if they did see it coming, they were taking a chance if they did. Digital distribution was a new technology - Steam was barely emerging at this point and the majority of in-game communication across the PC platform was controlled by Xfire, which has seen a massive reduction in its active users over the past few years.

What's worse, we're not seeing a new console tailored for digital distribution for quite some time. Microsoft have already said there'll be no Xbox hardware announcements in the upcoming E3, despite rumors and secret meetings, and Sony reporting that they have no plans for a new console 'for now'. The PlayStation 3 was meant to last about ten years at its inception, mind you. Just shows you how quickly hardware moves.

Microsoft and Sony are both reluctant to update their consoles, despite the fact that the disk format is slowly becoming obsolete.

However, with hardware moving as it is, there is a fair likelihood that both users and developers may abandon the platform. Users may abandon the platform because PC Gaming is more attractive - there's more innovation because it's so much easier for indie developers to produce their games, the graphics are better because the hardware has moved on so much, and most of all - it's getting cheaper.

The AMD Llano architecture chips paved the way, creating a pretty powerful CPU and a pretty powerful GPU all in one package, for far less than it would cost to purchase them separately. It could be that soon we'll be seeing CPU/GPU chips begin to rule the market, progressing graphics performance to the level of the desktop cards of today, and beyond - but offering them with a lower price, and less power consumption - and best of all, game capable hardware in your average family PC.

Nvidia showcase their graphics against that of a console. The difference is that soon this performance may be affordable through high power CPU/GPU bundles

AAA publishers are also going to feel the hit most likely when/if PC gaming becomes the dominant platform, because with the vast amount of online services offered up for cheaper-than-chips prices to both indie and large house developers, as well as efforts like Kickstarter (where a community can pledge towards an idea. Tim Schafer made a lot of money for Psyconauts 2 here) that can cut out the publisher completely, allowing developers to stand on their own two feet.

Sanctum is but a single example of an indie success story, made in the Unreal Engine and now available on Steam.
It's getting even easier for developers to get started with their games too, with free to use versions of the Unreal 3 engine, CryENGINE 3 and rising-up indie development tool Unity (that now accommodates Android and iOS ports of developed games with minimal effort) being offered up with surprisingly nice licensing terms, allowing their products to be used for free for personal purposes, and for a fairly low fee in a commercial environment. This will also play to the rise of the indie developer.

These developments will begin to happen soon, and it will change the shape of the gaming landscape forever. Developers will have to be innovative if they want to continue swimming, and graphics will advance at a rate never before seen - gaming will be bigger than ever, and this is only the start. The traditional console is doomed, the PC is the future.

Images courtesy of Steam, Giantbomb, Microsoft and Epic Games.

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