Today the platform of choice for the vast majority of gamers is the console, there’s really no question about it. Whilst video games may have found their feet with PCs consoles took them to the next level offering a consistent user experience that expanded the potential market greatly. PC gaming however is far from dead and has even been growing despite the heavy competition that it faces in consoles. However the idea of providing a consistent user experience whilst maintaining the flexibility is an enticing one and there are several companies that are attempting to fuse the best elements of both platforms in the hopes of capturing both markets.
OnLive is one of these such companies. Their product is, in essence, PC gaming as a service (PCGAAS?) and seeks to alleviate the troubles some gamers used to face with the constant upgrade cycle. I was sceptical of the idea initially as their target demographic seemed quite small but here we are 2 years later and they’re still around, even expanding their operations beyond the USA. Still the limitations on the service (high bandwidth requirement being chief amongst them) mean that whilst OnLive might provide a consistent experience on par of that of consoles the service will likely never see the mainstream success that the 3 major consoles do.
Rumours have been circulating recently that Valve may take a stab at this problem; taking the best parts of the PC experience and distilling them down into a console creating new platform called the Steam Box:
According to sources, the company has been working on a hardware spec and associated software which would make up the backbone of a “Steam Box.” The actual devices may be made by a variety of partners, and the software would be readily available to any company that wants to get in the game.
Adding fuel to that fire is a rumor that the Alienware X51 may have been designed with an early spec of the system in mind, and will be retroactively upgradable to the software.
Indeed there’s enough circumstantial evidence to give some credence to these rumours. Valve applied for a patent on a controller back in 2009, one that had a pretty interesting twist to it. The controller would be modular allowing the user to modify it and those modifications would be detected by the controller. Such an idea fits pretty well with a PC/console type hybrid that the Steam Box is likely to be. It would also enable a wider selection of titles to be available on the Steam Box as not all games lend themselves well to the traditional 2 joystick console controller standard.
At the same time one of Valve’s employees, Greg Coomer, has been tweeting about a project that he’s working on that looks suspiciously like some kind of set top box. Now Valve doesn’t sell hardware, they’re a games company at heart, so why someone at Valve would be working on such a project does raise some questions. Further the screenshot of the potential Steam Box shows what looks to be a Xbox360 controller in the background. It’s entirely possible that such a rig was being used as a lightweight demo box for Valve to use at trade shows, but it does seem awfully coincidental.
For what its worth the idea of a Steam box could have some legs to it. Gone are the days when a constant upgrade cycle was required to play the latest games, mostly thanks to the consolization of the games market. What this means though is that a modern day gaming PC has the longevity rivalling that of most consoles. Hell even my last full upgrade lasted almost 3 years before I replaced it and even then I didn’t actually need to replace it; I just wanted to. A small, well designed PC then could function much like a console in that regard and you could even make optimized compliers for it to further increase it’s longevity.
The Steam Box could also leverage off the fact that many PC titles, apart from things like RTS, lend themselves quite well to the controller format. In fact much of Steam’s current catalog would be only a short modification away from being controller ready and some are even set up for their use already. The Steam Box then would come out of the box with thousands of titles ready for it, something that few platforms can lay claim to. It may not draw the current Steam crowd away from their PCs but it would be an awfully attractive option to someone who was looking to upgrade but didn’t want to go through the hassle of building/researching their own box.
Of course this is all hearsay at the moment but I think there could be something to this idea. It might not reach the same market penetration as any of the major consoles but there’s a definite niche in there that would be well served by something like this. What remains to be seen now is a) whether or not this thing is actually real and b) how the market reacts should Valve actually announce said device. If the rumours are anything to go by we may not have to wait too long to find both of those things out.
Any long time gamer (I’m talking about 10+ years here folks) will remember the time when the PC was the platform for all games to shoot for. It’s not that consoles weren’t good, by many standards the original Xbox and PS2 were quite capable machines at the time, it was more that PCs gave you the best experience and the limited input options for consoles made many games simply untenable on the platform. The next generation of consoles provided something different however, they were more than powerful enough to give a modern PC a run for its money at the time and the games on them were definitely a step up from their predecessors. What has followed is a massive boom in the world of console gaming and subsequently a decline in the world of PC gaming.
This is not to say that PC gaming is dead and buried, far from it. Whilst consoles might have taken the lion’s share of the gaming market there are still a great many titles that make their way onto the PC platform. For the most part however it is obvious that these games were developed with the console platform in mind first with paradigms that don’t necessarily make sense on the PC making their way into the final release. This process has become known as the consolization of PC gaming and it has been met with a lot of criticism by the PC gaming community. Whilst I don’t like what this means for PC gaming I do understand the reasons behind the shift away from the PC as being the primary platform.
Primarily it comes down to simple economics. Since the PC was the platform for so long many seem to think that it’s by far the biggest market. The truth is unfortunately that for the vast majority of the market the console reigns supreme with PCs making up a very small percentage of it. Take for instance one of the biggest recent retail releases, Call of Duty: Black Ops. Total units moved for this game in November last year were in the order of 8.4 million with only 400,000 of them being on the Wii, DS and PC platforms. Putting that in perspective that means that the PC release accounted for less than 5% of the total sales volume and data from previous years shows that this number is on the decline.
A single data point however isn’t enough to prove the theory and no one will argue that the Call of Duty series is a bit of an outlier in itself. However if you take a look at the sales charts for each platform it’s quite clear that PCs really are a niche market when it comes to games totaling around 3% of the total units moved. Of course 3% of a multi-billion dollar a year market is still a significant chunk of change but it’s comparable to say the difference in market share between Windows and Linux (and should provide some insight into why nearly no one bothers with developing games for Linux).
Just because PC gaming is becoming a niche market doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear anytime soon however. There are still many types of games, real time strategy being one of them, that just simply don’t work well in the console world no matter how much tweaking you do to the core game play. It does however mean that consolized games should be the expected norm for PC gamers and whilst that might mean a sub par experience it does have the added benefit of extending the life of our systems significantly, which I know is a small consolation. Still unless the PC somehow manages to draw crowds the size of any of the console platforms those of us who choose the PC as our platform will have to make do with what we’re given as the game developers of the world must give the crowd what they want.