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Is PC gaming dying? Or thriving?

Every couple of years — usually after a fresh crop of consoles hit the market — the drumbeat starts to sound: PC gaming is finished. Consoles are where it’s at. Is it true? Is PC gaming really dead?
Image: PC Gaming
Gamers play online during Campus Party, the world's biggest online electronic entertainment event, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Is online the future of PC gaming? Or will consoles crowd out the once-dominant platform?Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images file

Every couple of years — usually after a fresh crop of consoles hit the market — the drumbeat starts to sound: PC gaming is finished. Consoles are where it’s at.

Three years into this so-called “next-gen” console cycle, sales of the game systems — and by extension, the games for them — have generated a boatload of cash. But you don’t hear much about PC gaming these days, unless it’s “World of Warcraft.”

Is it true? Is PC gaming really dead?

“I don’t see it dying, but I do see it taking a back seat to consoles, especially with games delivering first to the consoles, presumably to sell hardware,” says Douglas Peterson, a PC gamer and software engineer from Marcos Island, Fla.

He’s got a point. “Assassin’s Creed” for the PC hits shelves next month — five months after it released on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. “Mass Effect,” which shipped as an Xbox 360 exclusive at Christmas, will come to the PC in May.

There’s more. LucasArts, a longtime PC developer, is now focused on console game development. The company’s much-anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” will ship this summer for all game systems – except the PC.

2K's Firaxis Games studio, long considered a bellwether PC-game developer, will ship the next iteration of its “Civilization” franchise on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS . 

“We’re big PC fans, but we definitely see, when you go to the computer store, that little rack of PC games,” says Sid Meier, creator of the “Civilization” series. “It’s definitely a big change from five years ago, when there was a whole wall of PC games.”

Peter Molyneux, chief of Lionhead Studios, told game blog Shacknews last week that he thinks the PC is becoming a casual gaming machine — an anathema to hardcore PC gamers everywhere. And last month, Epic’s Cliff Bleszinkski said PC gaming was in “disarray.”

“What’s driving the PC right now is Sims-type games and ‘WoW’ and a lot of stuff that’s in a Web-based interface,” Bleszinkski told MTV.

Ouch. This is from the company that had so much success with its “Unreal Tournament” franchise — on the PC.

(Lionhead Studios is owned by Microsoft and is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)

Kristen Salvatore, editor-in-chief at PC Gamer magazine, says it’s purely a numbers game.

“Why would a company, when they could cast a wider net, why wouldn’t they? I certainly can’t blame them for that,” she says.

To wit, Epic has sold 4.5 million copies of “Gears of War” on the Xbox 360; Microsoft, which publishes the game, declined to provide sales data for the same game on the PC.

The million-dollar question, of course, is why PC games sell fewer copies than their console cousins. Everyone’s got a PC. Far fewer folks own an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3.

But at $350 and $400, respectively, those consoles are far cheaper than a PC — and they’ve got plenty of good stuff under the hood. You’re not going to be able to play “Crysis” on that four-year-old Compaq Presario you’re rocking — much less your work-issued Dell laptop.

But you don’t need to drop $4,000 on a tricked-out gaming PC, says Salvatore. And she contends that this type of misinformation has done plenty to sour people on PC gaming. 

“We’re making the barrier to entry higher than it needs to be, and that is really is up to the industry,” she says. “We’re not doing a great job about educating people of how easy it is to get into this hobby. “

Easy or not, PC game sales were dwarfed by consoles and console games in 2007 — at least at retail. PC game sales accounted for $911 million in revenue — a relatively small percentage of the $18.8 billion sales seen by the industry overall, according to the NPD Group.

There’s one missing piece of this equation, and that’s “World of Warcraft” — the game PC advocates inevitably point to when console fans start bashing their platform. Blizzard’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game juggernaut counts 10 million active subscribers — each paying 15 bucks a month. That’s a lot of gold.

Last month, prompted in part by the success of “WoW" and games like it, the NPD Group announced that it would start to track online game subscriptions.

“While we haven't yet publicly released our first quarterly data, I can tell you that non-retail sales related to PC games is bigger than what occurs at retail, so the PC games market is clearly still thriving,” NPD analyst Anita Frazier wrote in an e-mail.

Blizzard president and co-founder Mike Morhaime agrees that PC gaming is alive and well, but contends that his company isn’t the only one having success.

“If you look at the top 20 list, you’ll find that Blizzard is doing very well, but we’re certainly not the only companies that are doing well,” he says.

"Call of Duty 4," "Sins of a Solar Empire," "The Orange Box" and "Crysis" all make appearances on NPD's February list of top-selling PC titles. But the rest is dominated by "World of Warcraft-" related titles and some flavor of "The Sims."

In the old days, the best-seller lists were dominated by first-person shooters and adventure games. Now, those games have migrated to the consoles.  It’s a paradigm shift that many PC gamers find hard to take.

But Salvatore says she has no problem with casual games and MMOs blazing the trail in PC gaming.

“We need to be much more inclusive,” she says. “The more people who understand that their PC is a gaming platform, the better — whether you’re a hardcore gamer or a casual gamer."