26 January 2009
(originally published July 2008)




































Stuart Campbell’s seen a lot of naked emperors in his time. But that’s not important right now. TPCG charged him to find the truth about the controversial current state of the PC games market, and he came up with some surprising answers. Why not join him and find out what they were? Have you got a bus to catch or something?

We hear a lot these days about the death of the PC games market. Now, frankly the uniquely terrible nature of statistics in the UK with regard to the PC games market makes the proposition that the market is dying an extremely difficult one to either confirm or refute. The most recent published figures show that the PC takes around 15-20% of the UK games market share by value (obviously things fluctuate from month to month depending on what games have been released), comfortably above the 360 and PS3 and only slightly behind the Nintendo DS. (The Wii crushes everything in its path, and has resulted in everything else having a smaller market share than in 2007, when the PC was often in first place – in July of that year, for example, the PC took 20.7% of the full-price market by value, ahead of the 360 with 17.8% and the DS’s 17.1%.)

“We feel the market for PC games is on a downward spiral in terms of value generated in the UK market.”
- Dorian Bloch, Chart-Track, March 2008

What’s more, these particular figures come from official UK chart compilers Chart-Track, whose “Methodology” page states that their reports are based on over-the-counter retail sales”, and therefore don’t include download sales or things like subscriptions to MMOs, which must both make up a huge proportion of the money spent on gaming. (Steam, for example, has 15 million registered users.) On the other hand, the PC charts are notorious for including non-games “leisure” titles, with the likes of Norton Anti-Virus fluffing up the numbers, so frankly the official UK sales stats (such as they are) are close to worthless and get us nowhere.

Crytek hunt through the twilight underworld for people with illegal copies of Crysis.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume for now that if so many people (Crytek, Epic, iD and others, slightly oddly even including Chart-Track themselves) are saying the PC market is dying, then it must be so. The question for PC gamers then becomes ”What can we do to stop it?” After all, there’s a credit crunch on and we’re all about to be thrown out of our homes, so just saying “Quick, everyone buy twice as many games!” won’t cut it. Apart from anything else, who can afford petrol to drive to the shops these days? So we need a smarter solution.

The first step, of course, is to establish what’s causing this failure. As you’ll see from the quotes scattered around the page, many of the big PC developers blame it on piracy. This, it should go without saying to anyone with an IQ in double figures, is an idiotic paranoid fantasy. For one thing, nobody’s claiming the spectacularly thriving DS market is dead, yet it’s by far the easiest current format to pirate for, with countless easy-to-find direct-download sites that don’t even need you to use a BitTorrent client, and the easy availability plug-and-play flashcards that can hold hundreds of pirated game ROMs costing around £25, less than the price of a single game.

“We seem to lead the charts in piracy by a large margin, a chart leading that is not desirable. I believe it’s the core problem of PC gaming. To the degree that PC gamers who pirate games inherently destroy the platform.”
- Cevat Yerli, President of Crytek, in PC Play, April 2008

And for another thing, absolutely NOBODY has the remotest idea how much money is really “lost” to piracy (ie would have translated into a genuine sale), and all the astronomical figures claiming otherwise are simply made up off the top of someone’s head. (Though the industry’s getting better at supporting the numbers with fake science - the most recent trend is to count up the number of downloaders on torrent sites, extrapolate that to all torrent sites, and count each one as a lost sale, usually coming up with figures around the 5:1 copies-to-sales ratio.)

Many pirates (watched here by elite ELSPA anti-
piracy paratroops) are FILTHY FOREIGNS.

Actually, that’s not quite true ONE person knows what the copies-to-lost-sales proportion might be. Russell Carroll, director of casual-games company Reflexive, researched the matter more extensively than anyone has ever done before, with regard to his company’s successful Arkanoid clone Ricochet Infinity, which recorded a massive 92% piracy rate - that is, for every 100 copies they detected being played, only eight had been paid for, more than 11 pirate copies per legitimate sale.

“I find myself when I have a discussion about piracy trying to convince people it's a serious problem. Some estimates show that as much as 50% of game sales are lost to piracy in the US. In Eastern Europe, Asia and South America the losses are estimated to be 90% plus.”
- Todd Hollenshead of iD, speaking at GDC 2007

So how much money were Reflexive losing to piracy? Without it, would they have sold 12 times as many copies? Ten? Six? Even if just one pirate out of 11 would otherwise have bought the game legitimately, they’d have doubled their sales. We don’t have room here to detail the full results of their various experiments, which can be found at Reflexive's website, but the bottom line was this:

“As we believe that we are decreasing the number of pirates downloading the game with our DRM fixes, combining the increased sales number together with the decreased downloads, we find 1 additional sale for every 1,000 less pirated downloads. Put another way, for every 1,000 pirated copies we eliminated, we created 1 additional sale.” – Russell Carroll, Reflexive

One in a thousand, dear readers. By the ONLY even halfway-proper research into the subject, what we find is that the total elimination of videogame piracy, were it to be somehow possible without ELSPA or the ESA simply sending burly men round to smash your PC (and let’s not rule that out as a possibility, the way they’re going), would actually increase sales not by the industry’s strident claims of 100% or 500% or 900%, but by the whopping margin of 0.1%. That’s a rate of loss roughly comparable to the amount of your money that you lose down the back of the sofa in loose change every year. 0.1%? It’s no wonder most publishers and industry bodies just make the figures up off the top of their heads, while they frantically infest your PC with crippling DRM and spyware and lobby the government to pass laws making it an imprisonable offence to even watch someone else playing a game you haven’t paid for.

Seriously, how many more of these do you need?

But if it’s not piracy that’s allegedly killing the PC (and it isn’t), what is it? The industry sticks like glue to the “IT’S ALL PIRACY!” line, and as a result there are few alternative explanations offered. But in this reporter’s view (as alert readers of my popular and insightful column in the pages of this very mag will already know), the only logically-feasible culprit is the one that few either in the industry or the audience want to confront, and it’s the same disease that has a track record of victims trailing all the way back to the Atari VCS – a stagnant, rotting software pool.

Vastly more than any other format, the breadth of game genres in the PC mainstream is chokingly constricted. (Yes, there’s plenty of variety available in the casual and freeware markets, but what we’re talking about is boxed retail product that you can buy in GAME, which is what makes up the charts.) Browse the shelves of your local software boutique and you’ll find the PC represented by a stultifyingly conservative selection of game types that hasn’t changed in a decade, and is increasingly unfashionable in an era that’s alive with a broader canvas of gaming than at any time since the very earliest days of arcades.

“Consoles are definitely stealing a lot of hardcore gamers from the PC. The sales of the console versions are something like ten times the sales of the PC versions.”
- Mark Rein of Epic, interviewed in The Guardian, January 2008

High Street, mainstream-accessible, media-covered console gaming stretches all the way from GTA IV to Brain Training to Space Giraffe to Call Of Duty 4 to Mario And Sonic At The Olympics to  Ridge Racer 7 to Wii Fit to Guitar Hero to Gran Turismo 5 and all points in between. But scan the PC section and it goes “space war – dungeons and dragons – space war – dungeons and dragons – World War 2 FPS – space war – highly technical simulation - space war – dungeons and dragons – World War 2 FPS - space war”. PC gamers are stuck in a rut, grinding it ever deeper as they shuttle back and forth over the same few well-worn tracks, and eventually they’re going to get so deep that the trench collapses over their heads and buries them.

On the Wii, fun casual titles like Carnival Funfair Games are sold to High Street customers along with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy rather than being a sneered-at niche, and they do amazingly well as a result. In fact, CFG reached No.2 in the charts, and stayed in the top 10 for many weeks.

So what’s the solution? How do we save PC gaming? Well, sit down and hold onto your hats, because the answer might just be “piracy”. Who knew?

Here’s what I* want you to do, viewers. We’re going to conduct a little experiment. For the next three months, take the money you were going to spend on PC games and put it to one side. Then each month, instead of just going out and buying whichever World War 2 FPS or goblin-slashing sub-Tolkien fantasy grindfest you were going to buy and pour endless hours of levelling-up into, spend the time instead by downloading pirate copies, along with copies of a whole bunch of games you wouldn’t normally have considered. Try puzzle games, fun kart racers, 2D and 3D platformers, sports games that aren’t by EA, scrolling shoot-‘em-ups, fighting games, rhythm-actioners, anything. Don’t rely on crappy unrepresentative demos, play the whole game.

Then, at the end of each month – and this bit’s terribly important – spend every last penny of the money that you set aside, but spend it on the thing you enjoyed the most, not just the thing that got the most hype. That’s it. Nothing more complicated. Just try before you buy.

Next month, why not take a no-risk trial of a game that looks like this?
You might like it.

It’s a no-lose scenario. Either you’ll find that when you broaden your horizons a bit, freed from the constraints of having to lay out cash in advance, you end up revitalising your gaming with a much more colourful rainbow of experiences, spreading money more evenly and widely around the industry and resulting in a far more varied and vibrant market. Or you’ll confirm your prejudices, discover that what you really like IS the same old genre pieces as before, and thus be comforted by the knowledge that if and when the PC games market does die, you’ll have nobody but yourself to blame. (Taking responsibility for your own fate, after all, is far healthier for the mind than impotently raging at a shadowy and nebulous outside force that you can’t control.)

“Entertainment software piracy is estimated to cost the U.S. entertainment software industry billions of dollars every year.”
- Entertainment Software Association website

Have you got the guts to take a walk on the wild side, chums? Can you cast off your chains of fear, throw away your blinkers of prejudice, toss aside your straitjacket of servitude and open your heart to everything the PC has to offer? Or are you just dumb, unthinking slaves of whoever’s got the biggest marketing budget and the most intimidating propaganda? Why don’t you find out for yourself?

The PC development community burning to the ground, yesterday.

* The opinions expressed by Stuart Campbell are his own personal views which in no way reflect the feelings or
policies of Total PC Gaming or Imagine Publishing and oh my God are we really letting him say this? – A. Lawyer



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