The fall and rise of PC gaming

It’s 2011, and the PC’s days as a gaming powerhouse look numbered. The platform has StarCraft II and World of Warcraft, but in an industry dominated by Call of Duty and consoles, Angry Birds and smartphones, the PC is simply no longer a viable contender. It’s dying. What happens next?

Two years on, it’s still here, and it isn’t just hanging on, either. In fact, in 2013 the PC is fast becoming the most exciting, vibrant gaming platform on the planet.

Valve’s Steam gaming service has more than 50 million registered users – more than Microsoft’s Xbox Live. Game sales are rising at retail, with the PC overtaking Nintendo’s 3DS and DS handhelds to become the fourth-biggest platform in the UK.

Last year, Diablo III defied the doom-mongers to become the fastest-selling PC game ever, shifting 6.3 million copies within its first week; Microsoft’s much-hyped Halo 4 for Xbox managed only four million within the first month. In the past financial year, Electronic Arts made more money on the PC than on the PlayStation 3.

Hype may be building around the next-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles, expected late this year, but it’s fair to say the PC has rammed its flag into the ground and set up camp for good.

A gaming renaissance

So why is the PC hot again? “The best way is to think of the gaming industry as happening in phases, and right now PC gaming is enjoying a renaissance,” says Jason Paul, director of product marketing at Nvidia. “Gamers play on the PC because they want the best experience possible.”

For Paul, that means “amazing graphics, physics effects, geometric realism, advanced lighting, and more detailed textures that simply aren’t available on the console”.

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Current-generation consoles are based on DirectX 9 technology that’s now more than seven years old. In that time, the PC has moved on to the DirectX 11 era, embraced resolutions far in excess of 1,920 x 1,080 and seen the performance of CPUs and GPUs improve dramatically, to the extent that – on raw floating-point operations – Nvidia’s current GeForce GTX 680 GPU offers almost eight times the performance of the Nvidia-designed RSX chip in the PlayStation 3.

For a long time this didn’t matter. Console developers have always found new ways to push old hardware, and publishers didn’t invest in high-end features or high-definition textures for the PC release alone. However, in the past few years games such as Crysis 2, Battlefield 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Max Payne 3 and Far Cry 3 have delivered enhanced PC versions with DirectX 11 graphics options or downloadable high-resolution texture packs.

“Developers understand that the PC is far ahead in terms of technology and performance,” says Paul. “Just look at the top PC games of the past few months, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3, and Borderlands 2 – and you’ll see developers are more readily integrating PC-exclusive features such as DirectX 11, PhysX, and high-resolution textures.”

Nick Button-Brown, Crytek’s general manager for games, agrees, adding that the power of the PC means Crytek’s upcoming Crysis 3 can use “the tools and technologies we developed for high-end cinema production”, allowing the company to push the graphics envelope further. “It’s great how much performance we can get out of the cards at the moment,” he says.

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