Though digitally-distributed console games have forced retail distribution to scootch on over and make room, the retail games market for consoles is still very hot. By contrast, the retail market for PC games could probably fit in a thimble. At best, you’ll find some dusty games knocked askew on the same shelf where game retailers also sequester the leftovers from some years-ago attempt to sell VHS movies.
But that doesn’t mean PC games have fallen out of favor. In fact, PC gaming is more popular than ever. How does PC gaming manage to thrive even as its few physical offerings rot away on GameStop’s shelves?
PC-based digital distribution–Steam, for example–has been around for a while, and has had some time to grow. Console game distribution through the likes of Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare/Virtual Console, and PlayStation Network are still comparatively young and need some time to mature and catch on.
But age and experience only formulate part of a success. Steam also entices buyers with sales and game bundles. Said game bundles are especially helpful for indie developers. They don’t reap wads of profit because they’re essentially letting their game go for next to nothing, but a whole lot of discounted sales is still preferable to sitting on a full-priced game that goes nowhere because nobody really knows who you are, or what your game is about. Frictional Games, a studio based on Sweden, sold over 200,000 copies of its horror game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, thanks to Steam’s holiday sales. Carpe Fulgur, another indie studio, recently sold 100,000 of one of its localized games, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, with the help of Steam’s “Indie Story Pack” bundle. Neither studio made a fortune, but they definitely have the means to continue on, now.
The dedication and maturity of the average PC gamer also contributes to the success of the PC gaming market. “Maturity,” in this case, refers to the general age group that PC gamers fall under; there’s never any guarantee that anyone, anywhere, will consistently act their age. That said, PC gamers tend to know every curve of their rig. They grew up with PC games and find a controller a poor substitute for a keyboard and a mouse as far as FPS games are concerned. Players who grew up on console games are more likely to bounce from one platform to another, and are a bit less concerned about the hardware under the hood. North American kids in particular are more likely to start gaming on a console, and they don’t care what makes the Xbox 360′s guts work, as long as the dreaded Red Ring doesn’t rear its hot head. They just want to turn the game on and start playing. By extension, their parents aren’t interested in Steam, or bundles, or indie studios. They just want to walk into a GameStop, buy that game Junior has been asking for, and be done with it. However, with the rise of free-to-play online PC games in recent years, it’ll be interesting to see if this trend shifts at all.
For now, PC gamers and console gamers occupy their own niches and have different ways of acquiring product and showing support. But it goes to show that even if you don’t witness a mob of people make the physical purchase of a PC game, it doesn’t mean that the market has faded away.