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It’s cheaper than ever to build a rig capable of playing all the latest games.  So why are large release PC game sales declining?

There was a time when you had to spend top dollar in order to build a gaming-capable rig.  In 2010, however, it is less expensive than ever to build a PC gaming rig, and AV options like speakers, headphones, and monitors are sharper and better than ever.  So why are large release PC games suffering from reduced sales and less exclusives?  Here are four reasons.

1.  The console-PC graphic gap

For a long time, better visual quality was decidedly in favor of the PC.  This was attributed to the substantial power advantage computers had, as well as higher resolutions and better viewing devices like computer monitors.  Now, however, consoles have closed the graphics gap.  Capable of pushing a resolution of 1920 x 1080 onto large, super clear flat screens, combined with multi-core processors, consoles have significantly reduced the difference in visual quality and computing power.  It’s hard for many people to justify spending money on a gaming PC and a nice monitor when a console can output visuals that are relatively similar in terms of quality.

Building a gaming PC may cost the consumer less than ever before, but the cost of retail game development is higher than ever before.

2.  Cost of producing current-gen games

With the ability to push more polygons and employ more sophisticated calculations and code behind the scenes, the cost of producing a modern video game for retail has risen exponentially.  Between having to produce more artwork, more lines of code, and having a larger team, it’s very difficult from a cost standpoint to release a game for a single platform now.  Because of this, most games have an interface designed for consoles, which is then ported to the PC.  Some PC games, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, have a completely different interface and control scheme from their console brethren, but this is an exception rather than the rule.

Piracy also runs rampant on the PC, since it is the easiest platform to “steal” games for.

3. Piracy

It is nigh impossible to determine just how major of an impact piracy has on game sales, but it would be foolish to claim it has had none.  With mainstream adoption of things like the torrent protocol, the spread of high-speed Internet connections, and old-school file sharing mainstays like newsgroups still in wide use, the days of unreliably downloading games from warez sites and Hotline servers are long gone; piracy can now be perpetrated on a massive scale unlike any time before.  Since the 360 requires modifying the hardware to play pirated games, and the PS3′s use of Blu-Ray makes file sizes prohibitive to download, it is logical to conclude that piracy hasn’t affected the console space nearly as much as the PC space.

Availability isn’t the only thing driving piracy, though…DRM plays a role in both piracy and the decline of PC gaming.

4.  DRM

The DRM-piracy cycle is a vicious one.  Game makers are incorporating more sophisticated and draconian DRM schemes because people are pirating games, and people are pirating games because of more sophisticated and draconian DRM schemes.  On the developer/publisher side, incorporating DRM makes sense as they are trying to protect their investments.  However, no DRM scheme has ever prevented people from pirating games. Regardless of the complexity or method, people are still finding a way to bypass the oppressive security included with games, causing ridiculous DRM schemes to only affect paying customers while doing nothing to curb piracy.  Causing the illegal, “stolen” version of your software to function better than the versions customers pay for certainly isn’t helping convince people to drop money on retail PC games instead of just downloading them.  In addition, DRM adds to the cost of development and causes losses from people refusing to purchase DRM-laden games.

There are other, more subtle reasons why large release PC gaming has been declining, but I feel that these four are the major factors.  Some publishers seem to be catching on to the fact that extensive DRM only hurts their bottom line.  Producing higher quality, more original games is a better way to increase sales rather than DRM schemes that affect paying customers and do nothing to slow piracy.  The gaming industry and the gamers they make games for have some serious soul searching to do…publishers need to be willing to trust their customers, while pirates need to be willing to support developers for their hard work and efforts when they actually deliver a quality product.

Join us tomorrow for a look at why even though large release PC game sales are slumping, gaming culture on the PC is actually thriving.