How "PC Gaming is Dead!" Nearly Became Reality
I've got a riddle for you.
I've developed and sold five award-winning games that have each sold well over one million units each, as well as five expansion packs. I'm said to be one of the most influential developers of all time, and many have claimed that I've never released a bad game--a feat which even top tier developers like Rockstar and Naughty Dog can't lay claim to. After my demise, my employees went on to create games like Words With Friends and Orcs Must Die!
Who Am I?
Things that shouldn't happen, unfortunately, have a habit of happening all too often. Studios die all the time, to be sure, and each death is a tragedy, but this one? It's got to be the worst. Sure, Looking Glass died when both Microsoft and Sony decided not to buy them, and Eidos was unable to front them the cash for Thief 2: Gold, and yes, GRIN passed on when Square Enix jerked them around... but Looking Glass had always had challenges with sales, and GRIN's output hadn't exactly been spectacular.
A studio that's never made a bad game, won multiple awards, never sold less than a million copies, and has some of the brightest minds in the industry working for it should never run the risk of being shut down, ever.
Unless, apparently, its name is Ensemble.
What killed Ensemble? The answer is, unfortunately, pretty simple: they developed PC games, and in a market where PC gaming was dying (and RTSes had historically functioned poorly on consoles) there wasn't much room for an RTS-only developer. Microsoft had to shut them down.
Oh, wait, no, that can't be right. PC gaming didn't die, after all, and it's not exactly a miracle that it survived. Valve had laid the framework for digital games distribution back in 2004, and Ensemble didn't die for half a decade. Not only that, but Ensemble's 2009 closure took place two years after Steam really started to take off and PC gaming had already begun its resurgence.
Let's give Microsoft the benefit of a doubt, though. Even though Ensemble was still profitable, Microsoft saw no future in PC gaming; after all, anyone walking into a Gamestop or Wal-Mart might reasonably assume the same thing, given the lack of dedicated PC Gaming storage space. Games for Windows LIVE was a dismal failure, so it's likely to assume that Microsoft weren't putting much stock in anyone else--not when they'd traditionally been able to break into any software market they'd put any effort towards. PC-heavy studios, like FASA and ACES shut down, even though FASA's Crimson Skies and MechAssault had actually done quite well on the original Xbox.
On top of that, it's worth remembering that in 2009, Microsoft was reeling from the Red Ring of Death issues with the Xbox 360 and still working feverishly hard on what would eventually become the fastest-selling consumer electronic of all time, the Kinect. Financially, the entertainment division was not in a good place, and Microsoft backed off on high-risk, expensive, AAA projects (which is why, a full 2-3 year development cycle later, we don't see that many Microsoft exclusives on shelves).
Instead of choosing to back the PC, Microsoft put their money behind the 360, and, as we now know, that gamble paid off... for Microsoft. For studios like Ensemble and ACES, it clearly didn't.
Microsoft, of course, wasn't the only company forecasting the death of PC gaming. Formerly PC-exclusive developers, like Crytek and Epic, who had previously sold millions of copies of their games on the PC, fled the platform. Developers like Ion Storm Austin shifted development to consoles and console audiences as well--a decision that Deus Ex producer Warren Spector would later come to regret.
What so many people failed to understand was that... well, PC gaming wasn't dying.
The market was growing, thanks to Rockstar's 2001 smash hit Grand Theft Auto III. That became the reason to own a video game console, or, specifically, a Playstation 2. Grand Theft Auto III was the game that allowed Sony became the undisputed champion of the last generation. For many people, it was the reason to try out video gaming. As a result... where 500,000 sales might have been a nice number before, publishers started demanding higher sales figures. Look at EA now: They're talking about how they need to sell five million copies of Dead Space 3 for it to survive, even though every Dead Space game has been profitable. It's greed--a desire to maximize profits rather than release quality software--that drives them.
As the market grew, so did Gamestop. Why? Well, it's a corporation that thrives on the trading of used games. As anyone who runs a retail store will tell you, nobody wants to keep stuff on their shelf if they can't profit on it... so PC gaming started to disappear from Gamestop's shelves. At around the same time, PC games were starting to go digital. Steam launched in 2004, though it wasn't until 2007 that the worries that Steam would collapse started to die down.
The disappearance of retail games led to the NPD--a leading market research company--removing PC sales figures from their weekly reports... which, to people who read NPD reports, made it look like PC numbers were too minimal to matter.
On top of this, gaming websites were exploding in popularity, leaving print magazines behind. Most game websites seem seem to treat PC games as the proverbial red-headed stepchild--largely because most game journalists seem to have a background with console gaming. Since the rift between console and PC game sales only started in 2001 (the market was, after all, healthy enough to support millions of copies of the Mysts, Dooms, Warcrafts, Half-Lifes, and Ages of Empires), one might think that the PC gaming market would be equally represented... but it wasn't--and hasn't been (My personal pet theory is that the PC gamers went into modding--and later development, while the console gamers became journalists). This meant that discussion of games were skewed... and reports of PC gaming's demise were greatly exaggerated.
As all this was going on, and people started trumpeting the death of PC gaming, developers started to put more money into console development, which meant there were less PC games to buy... which meant... well, the market really did start to die.
...fortunately, PC gaming didn't die. Developers are starting to ensure that the best version of their games is on the PC. Digital distribution means that PC gaming is often the most cost-effective way to go. Modding has tremendously affected the way people look at games, as well as the Indie resurgence.
PC gaming nearly died for two primary reasons: firstly, greed and secondly, false assumptions. Companies wanted astronomically high sales, and retailers didn't want to stock what couldn't be traded in. People, perhaps because they didn't know much about PC gaming, because they interpreted data wrongly, or were unwilling to accept that brick and mortar stores didn't have to be the only avenue of game distribution, falsely prophesied the medium's death.
All the while, PC gaming just kept improving.
That's not to say that there aren't scars, though. Large, exclusive, stand-alone games are a thing of the past--if a developer's spending money on a PC-only game, chances are that the game's an MMO or a F2P title. With no single publisher having a major interest in keeping the PC afloat, there's no real reason to have an exclusive. That's not to say that there aren't exclusives, though. In fact, the PC has more exclusives in any given year than most platforms. One of my favorite games of 2012, Orcs Must Die 2 (which, by the way, was developed by former Ensemble staffers) is a PC exclusive. Still, will PC gaming ever see a new release as groundbreaking and influential as System Shock or Age of Empires? No one really knows.
Exclusives aren't the only problem, of course. Some games, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, take cues from console games that they really shouldn't. Some franchises, such as MechWarrior, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and, yes, Age of Empires, have returned as bastardized Free to Play affairs.
PC gaming is, without a doubt, the best way to game. With the exception of a small handful of exclusive games, there is no experience that can't be had on the PC. There is nothing you can't do; just the other day, in fact, a random internet person posted a patch that not only updated two very old PC games for modern systems, but updated the editor as well, opening up brand new opportunities that the mod community has been clamoring for since the games were released. Even forms of gaming that consoles have no means of replicating are available to PC gamers. The last valid protests--wanting to game from the comforts of one's own couch--have been rendered irrelevant. Even the largest publishers in the world are admitting that the PC is a great platform, with EA saying that it's their "fastest growing platform."
PC gaming lives on. It won't die. It can't be killed.
We won't let it.