PC games, also known as computer games or personal computer games, are video games played on a personal computer rather than a dedicated video game console or arcade machine. Their defining characteristics include a more diverse and user determined gaming hardware and software, and a generally greater capacity in input, processing, and video output.
In high-end PC gaming, a PC will generally have far more processing resources at its disposal than other gaming systems. Game developers can use this to improve the visual fidelity of their game relative to other platforms, but even if they do not, games running on PC are likely to benefit from higher screen resolution, higher framerate, and anti-aliasing. Increased draw distance is also common in open worldgames.
Better hardware also increases the potential fidelity of a PC game’s rules and simulation. PC games often support more players or NPCs than equivalents on other platforms and game designs which depend on the simulation of large numbers of tokens (e.g. Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft) are rarely seen anywhere else.
The PC also supports greater input fidelity thanks to its compatibility with a wide array of peripherals. The most common forms of input are the mouse/keyboard combination and gamepads, though touchscreens and motion controllers are also available. The mouse in particular lends players of first-person shooter and real-time strategy games on PC great speed and accuracy.
The defining characteristic of the PC platform is the absence of centralized control; all other gaming platforms (except Android devices, to an extent) are owned and administered by a single group.
The advantages of openness include:
- Reduced software cost
- Prices are kept down by competition and the absence of platform-holder fees. Games and services are cheaper at every level, and many are free.
- Increased flexibility
- PC games decades old can be played on modern systems, through emulation software if need be. Conversely, newer games can often be run on older systems by reducing the games’ fidelity and/or scale.
- Increased innovation
- One does not need to ask for permission to release or update a PC game or to modify an existing one, and the platform’s hardware and software are constantly evolving. These factors make PC the centre of both hardware and software innovation. By comparison, closed platforms tend to remain much the same throughout their lifespan.
But there are also disadvantages, including:
- Increased complexity
- A PC is a general-purpose tool. Its inner workings are exposed to the owner, and misconfiguration can create enormous problems. Hardware compatibility issues are also possible. Game development is complicated by the wide variety of hardware configurations; developers may be forced to limit their design to run with sub-optimum PC hardware in order to reach a larger PC market, or add a range graphical and other settings to adjust for playability on individual machines, requiring increased development, test, and customer support resources.
- Increased hardware cost
- PC components are generally sold individually for profit (even if one buys a pre-built machine), whereas the hardware of closed platforms is mass-produced as a single unit and often sold at a smaller profit, or even a loss (with the intention of making profit instead in online service fees and developer kit profits).
- Reduced security
- It is difficult, and in most situations ultimately impossible, to control the way in which PC hardware and software is used. This leads to far more software piracy and cheating than closed platforms suffer from.
The openness of the PC platform allows players to edit their games and distribute the results over the Internet as “mods”. A healthy mod community greatly increases a game’s longevity and the most popular mods have driven purchases of their parent game to record heights. It is common for professional developers to release the tools they use to create their games (and sometimes even source code) in order to encourage modding, but if a game is popular enough mods generally arise even without official support.
Mods can compete with official downloadable content however, or even outright redistribute it, and their ability to extend the lifespan of a game can work against its developers’ plans for regular sequels. As game technology has become more complex, it has also become harder to distribute development tools to the public.
Modding has a different connotation on consoles which are typically restricted much more heavily. As publicly released development tools are rare, console mods usually refer to hardware alterations designed to remove restrictions.
Although the PC platform is almost completely decentralized at a hardware level, there are two dominant software forces: the Microsoft Windows operating system and the Steam distribution service.
Microsoft introduced an operating environment named Windows on November 20, 1985 as an add-on to DOS in response to the growing interest in graphical user interfaces (GUIs). Microsoft Windows came to dominate the world’s personal computer market with over 90% market share, overtaking Mac OS, which had been introduced in 1984.
Valve does not release any sales figures on its Steam service, instead it only provides the data to companies with games on Steam, which they cannot release without permission due to signing a non-disclosure agreement with Valve. However, Stardock, the previous owner of competing platform Impulse, estimated that, as of 2009, Steam had a 70% share of the digital distribution market for video games. In early 2011, Forbes reported that Steam sales constituted 50–70% of the $4 billion market for downloaded PC games and that Steam offered game producers gross margins of 70% of purchase price, compared with 30% at retail. In 2011, Steam served over 780 petabytes of information, double what it had delivered in 2010.
Digital distribution services
PC games are sold predominantly through the Internet, with buyers downloading their new purchase directly to their computer. This approach allows smaller independent developers to compete with large publisher-backed games and avoids the speed and capacity limits of the optical discs which most other gaming platforms rely on.
Valve Corporation released the Steam platform for Windows computers in 2004 as a means to distribute Valve-developed video games such as Half-Life 2. It would later see release on the Mac OS X operating system in 2010 and was released on Linux in 2012 as well. By 2011, it controlled 70% of the market for downloadable PC games, with a userbase of about 40 million accounts. Origin, a new version of the Electronic Arts online store, was released in 2011 in order to compete with Steam and other digital distribution platforms on the PC. The period between 2004 and now saw the rise of many digital distribution services on PC, such as Amazon Digital Services, GameStop, GFWL, EA Store, Direct2Drive, GOG.com, and GamersGate.
Digital distribution also slashes the cost of circulation, eliminates stock shortages, allows games to be released worldwide at no additional cost, and allows niche audiences to be reached with ease. However, most digital distribution systems create ownership and customer rights issues by storing access rights on distributor-owned computers. Games confer with these computers over the Internet before launching. This raises the prospect of purchases being lost if the distributor goes out of business or chooses to lock the buyer’s account, and prevents resale (the ethics of which are a matter of debate).