In an era of high-definition, online interconnected systems like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, will PC gaming go the way of coin-operated arcades? According to market research firm The NPD Group, sales of PC games precipitously declined to $701 million in 2008, a 14 percent year-on-year drop. But is the sky really falling for desktop users? A deeper look suggests not, pointing to a hobby that’s instead evolving so rapidly it would make Darwin blush.
Anticipated retail releases like_ Starcraft II_ and Diablo III promise to reinvigorate the category in 2009. But more importantly, the pastime is undergoing a renaissance on the unlikeliest fronts. Free Internet browser-based outings, streaming content delivery services and copy protection-free online software libraries continue to experience meteoric growth. Massively multiplayer online (MMO) universes from World of Warcraft to MapleStory and Club Penguin are also enjoying ballooning interest from all ages, and expected to be a $13 billion market by 2011. Likewise, casual downloads such as Westward III and_ Totem Tribe_ prove that hours of fun don’t always come in a cardboard box. Technological advancements in data storage and transfer have prompted an uptick in user-generated, or homebrew, content as well. See City of Heroes‘ upcoming custom mission creator, or_ Spore_, whose fans have designed over 75 million creatures and objects in under six months.
Independent titles are growing in stature, and pushing the boundaries of experimental design. See underground smash World of Goo a quirky physics-based puzzler, or Love, an Internet universe where computerized routines let you remodel entire landscapes and build or destroy anything in sight.
Even hoary old staples like the text adventure and 2D point-and-click epic, holdovers from the Apple II era, are enjoying new life after years of neglect. Courtesy of software emulation, mobile handsets such as the iPhone as well as netbook and laptop computers are further helping players reacquaint themselves with the classics. The phenomenon helps to explain a sudden upsurge in interest surrounding so-called “abandonware” sites (Google it for instant gratification), where players can—not so legally—retrieve bootleg copies of out-of-print titles. Don’t forget the continued availability of episodic outings either, or bite-sized game releases delivered in regular installments like television shows.
So the next time a smack-talking friend rolls their eyes and demands you finally ditch your mouse and keyboard in favor of a wireless controller, don’t be afraid to defend your poor old desktop. Simple figures based solely on retail sales may tell part of the story. But not the entire tale of a platform that’s still home to some of the most exciting, diverse and groundbreaking game developments.
Get Rich Playing Games (getrichgaming.com) author and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg has covered technology for 300+ outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.gadgetexpert.net.