By John Walker on February 18th, 2013 at 10:00 pm.
Those remarks seemingly made by Bungie yesterday, that no one plays FPS games with a mouse and keyboard any more, have led to some pretty silly debate. But it’s hard to get more peculiar than an article that recently appeared on Ars Technica. Titled, “Sorry to say it, but keyboard and mouse are losing the FPS market”, it not only rather helpfully highlights all the most common misconceptions about the PC’s place in the market, but rather brilliantly provides some compelling data to show just how significant a player the PC actually is. Let’s take a look.
The article states,
“But [Jason Jones – Bungie dude’s] general point is clear: keyboard-and-mouse players are getting less and less important, from a business perspective, in the console-dominated first-person shooter market that Halo spawned. On this point, it’s really hard to argue with Jones.”
We know two things for sure:
1) As a rule, for cross-platform releases, console games sell more copies than PC games.
2) We don’t know how many copies of PC games are sold.
The first of these is generally where people fall into the silly trap when it comes to the PC. The PC, as a gaming platform, is stronger than ever. Just the enormous success of digital distribution is evidence of this, let alone the explosion in the indie community over the last decade, the vast fortunes being made through bundles, and the fact that if PC versions weren’t profitable, then every major publisher wouldn’t be putting their biggest titles onto the platform. Meanwhile consoles have become a phenomenon, something found in almost every home, pushing gaming into the mainstream alongside film. Consoles are way more popular than PCs for gamers these days, the PS3 and 360 having created a market that we’ve never seen before. The PC hasn’t gotten smaller – it’s just the rest of the gaming industry has gotten bigger around it. PC has never stopped being a significant factor, but consoles have become a more significant one. It’s the confusion here that causes us to grind our teeth every time someone types the d-word on the subject.
Of course, the second of those known things makes the discussion incredibly difficult to move forward in any useful direction. Steam is obviously astonishingly successful. Occupying an estimated 70% of the industry, it still proves profitable for the rest who make up the remaining 30% to run their own distribution channels. While we can see the transparently explained profits of the bundles, and indeed see the tens of millions that have been raised for PC-only Kickstarter ventures, we still don’t have any real idea of the scale of things. But I’ve heard from publishers that they estimate PC to represent about 10% of their overall sales of cross-platform games, and when that’s 10% of hundreds of millions of dollars, you can see why they’d make sure they’re keeping their thumbs in that pie. And of course that’s completely ignoring the games that are uniquely for PC, such as the forthcoming SimCity, the major MMOs, most RTS games, and so many more besides. Whatever the real numbers are, the PC is big business.
It’s mean to pick on the very lovely Kyle Orland, but he’s provided the perfect springboard for me to write this. In the Ars article, he says,
“Let’s start with the current best-selling franchise in all of gaming: Call of Duty. The best console-specific data I could find for the series of late was first-month sales statistics for Black Ops released by NPD back in 2010. Apparently the game sold 8 million copies on the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined and less than 400,000 on the PC. Even if the unreported digital sales on the PC were ten times as strong as those at retail, and assuming that PC piracy added another 50 percent on top of legitimate downloads, that would still mean there were roughly four console players using a controller for every three playing the PC version in the game’s first month. That adds up to a deficit of millions of people for the mouse-and-keyboard crowd, and one that’s likely compounded by other Call of Duty games.”
Obviously Orland’s maths here is entirely fictional. But let’s play long with it. It’s critical to understand that the stated 400,000 really is just those sold at retail, into a PC market in the US and UK that’s strongly dominated by online sales (either by design or necessity, since finding a PC copy of a game in a shop is quite the trial). It’s reasonable to imagine it represents just a fraction of the real sales, so let’s go along with the guesses. Without piracy, we’ve got the PC representing, er, half the sales of the consoles combined. So that would be a roughly even split, a third each. (I’m sure that’s not realistic, but hey, these are the numbers being used to prove the PC is irrelevant to shooters!) Tack on our piracy and we’ve now got a huge majority of FPS players choosing the PC over either the 360 or the PS3. Even allow the two consoles to be added together, to truly get a representation of the methods of controls, and the estimate here is that 3 out of every 7 players is on mouse/keyboard. 43%. Almost half. And that’s despite everything mentioned above regarding the mainstream explosion of the console. Good grief, the PC is a massive force in FPS, and the Bungie comments couldn’t be more wrong! I’d say with this information, it’s pretty damned hard not to argue with Jones.
Orland continues with Battlefield 3. 8 million on the consoles, “just” 3.1m on the PC. So, once again, barely any difference between the PC and either console, and again, a massive portion of sales going to the keyboard brigade. But it seems we’re being told that the only sensible message for EA to take from this is that should just write off 28% of their overall sales of the game, and abandon this lost cause. Next is BioShock. A million on PC. 2.2m on consoles. Yup, same again then. And apparently both Left 4 Deads selling 5 million on PC, and 6 million on both consoles, means “the PC version lost out yet again.”
I’m bemused by this! Outselling either console by a couple of million (assuming an even split) is a failure. It’s proof that Jason Jones is correct to say that no one plays on mouse/keyboard any more (if indeed he actually said that). It’s… huh? Things get rather more ridiculous when it’s attempted to demonstrate that platform specific games are doing so much worse on PC, because only 70,000 were playing TF2 yesterday, but Halo 4 had 75,000. Um, Team Fortress 2 (as well as being a cross-platform game, but never mind) came out on PC five and a half years ago. Halo 4 came out three months ago. And the PC’s TF2 is still basically matching it for concurrent players?! Orland then goes even more bonkers, and compares an average day on Steam for Counter-Strike and CS:GO with the launch days of Gears Of War 2 and 3.
“Yes, these games are “third-person” shooters,” he adds in parentheses, “and may have dropped off significantly post launch, but the data argues a similar point.” The point that this is a hatchet job against PC? Counter-Strike has 100,000 on an average day, and Gears Of War only managed triple that on its launch day, and has dropped off significantly – and that argues a similar point? Buh!
The article concludes by stating that this is proof that the PC has been overtaken by consoles for FPS. Um, everyone already knew that. What with the Call Of Duty franchises on consoles shifting more boxes than DHL. The argument made at the beginning was that the PC is getting “less and less important”. But the figures dredged for this argument seemed to only demonstrate it to be on par with either console, and representing a massively larger force in the industry than even we had assumed. This data argues that not only is the mouse/keyboard offering a third of all FPS controls, but in fact demonstrates far more longevity as a way to play than the console can offer.
So yes, Orland’s closing arguments are completely true. “The PC is no longer automatically the most lucrative platform for a serious first-person shooter.” But no one had suggested otherwise, nor suggested otherwise for many years. Activision’s billions from CoD haven’t left anyone in any doubt about where the FPS makes the most money. That wasn’t the argument being made by Jones, it wasn’t the contention people had taken with his words, and it certainly doesn’t demonstrate some terrible decline for the PC that means it’s no longer a significant factor in the FPS market. If Bungie wants to sacrifice 30% of the total money it could make from Destiny, it’s welcome to. PC gamers have coped without a number of series that would have made publishers vastly more rich if they’d not been so stupid as to be console only. They’ll carry on doing so. But let’s stop pretending that the PC’s in some sort of trouble, or that nonsense like Jones’s statement carries any validity. It’s very, very easy to argue with his words, as rather helpfully the numbers found by Ars so neatly demonstrate. The PC certainly isn’t “losing the market”.