Unlike the other gaming platforms we've been evaluating here at the end of the year, the PC's been around for decades. Recently, the PC's long legacy of openness and customisation has come into conflict with a mainstream that's finally — finally — realised just how big of a deal PC gaming actually is.
This is part of our 2015 "State of" series, a look at how the five major consoles (and PC) are doing this year.
By and large, the PC is in a great place. More PC games are coming out than ever, and most of them are even coming out at the same time as their console counterparts. As a result, the PC offers a front row seat to the industry's heaviest hitters and cleverest indies. On top of that, the PC's back catalogue is a formidable beast, a leviathan that even the most voracious players will never truly slay. New companies are polishing up and re-releasing classics like System Shock 2 and Baldur's Gate as well, so incompatibility issues — while still present — are becoming less of a problem. (However, nobody's been able to do that for No One Lives Forever yet, so actually I changed my mind; PC gaming is garbage.) You've also got more options than ever as to where you buy your games digitally, though Steam is pretty much a must.
"More," as a concept, is among the sharpest double-edged swords. This year saw more games released on Steam — the biggest PC gaming service by a mile — than ever, many of which were… not super great. It's a reflection of PC's renewed relevance in the eyes of game-makers: everybody wants their game on services like Steam. While Valve has worked to improve tools that help people discover new games, plenty of high-quality stuff is still slipping through the cracks.
Moreover, programs like Steam Early Access see unfinished games make their way onto the service. Some, like dinosaur survival hit Ark: Survival Evolved, are great, but others launch in shoddy states and end up abandoned.
A handful of smaller games have still managed to rise to the top and become marquee PC attractions. In 2015, PC-first games like Ark: Survival Evolved, Cities: Skylines, Besiege, Undertale, and Darkest Dungeon go from relative obscurity to the top of the charts. They're all must-plays, and many of them continue to grow and evolve thanks to updates and dedicated communities.
The PC modding scene both flourished and faltered in 2015. User-created additions transformed big releases like Fallout 4, Grand Theft Auto V, The Witcher 3, and even Star Wars Battlefront. They also added fascinating flavour to smaller games like Cities: Skylines, Ark: Survival Evolved, and Besiege. Oh, and they continued to keep all-but-abandoned games like Left 4 Dead 2 from completely going under.
Unable to ignore the longevity user-created mods can provide, Valve and Bethesda teamed up to try to create a standardised system that would have users pay for some mods in Skyrim. The way Valve rolled out the system put the mod community into a state of uproar, and Valve ultimately sent the system back to the drawing board. While many breathed a sigh of relief, that false start has left the mod scene in an awkward place: mods are hard work, and some creators simply can't devote their free time — emphasis on free — to making them. This goes double for games like Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3, which have some amazing mods but don't provide players with much in the way of decent tools to create or manage them. More than ever, modding is a key piece of the PC puzzle, but it's currently in a bit of an awkward stage.
Several big game companies forged ahead with their own games/services separate from Steam's (almost) all-consuming Galactus ecosystem. DRM-free store GOG launched a full-blown Steam-like client called GOG Galaxy, and it fixed a lot of Steam's problems while still letting users play with their Steam friends. Mega-mum-'n'-pop indie shop Itch.io also quietly released its own client and continued to amass a collection of creative games. Blizzard's standalone games ecosystem had good success with games like Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and the Overwatch beta, even as World of Warcraft's subscriber numbers continued to decline. Oh, and a little company called Riot continued to improve their little biggest game on the planet, League of Legends.
Games technically came out on EA's Origin and Ubisoft's Uplay, but everyone mostly just held their noses and only used those services when they absolutely had to. (Uplay even shifted to a more Steam-centric way of doing things, linking directly to Steam accounts and letting players import friends — perhaps a concession to the fact that Steam users want to interact with Uplay as little as possible.)
Games like League of Legends also led the eSports charge, one of the most exciting, consistently evolving portions of the PC gaming world. Events for games like LoL, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike, Heroes of the Storm, and even lesser-known games like SMITE continued to grow and become more inextricably tied to their games of origin. Counter-Strike, for instance, offers special in-game items that are directly tied to eSports events and teams. These games and their cultures are becoming more and more sport-like — often in good ways, but that's also brought things like cheating and, er, drug scandals. Given these games' overall success, though, there's a good chance the upward trend will continue in 2016.
As ever, PC gaming is where you should go if you want power beyond power and 4K sight beyond 4K sight. The flipside of that hardware coin, however, is potential compatibility problems. While hardware manufacturers like Nvidia, Logitech, and AMD offer programs that keep your hardware updated with minimal muss and fuss, you still run the risk of finding the odd game that simply won't play nice with your rig. Nvidia has also continued to add (technically optional) GameWorks features to many of the biggest PC games, which is nice for Nvidia card owners but can be a headache for anyone who went with a different brand.
The frustrating side of PC gaming was epitomized by the Batman: Arkham Knight fiasco, in which Warner released a port so shoddily optimised that — after days of justified outrage from players — they ended up yanking it from Steam altogether. When they re-released it months later, it was still far from "fixed." On the upside, however, Valve finally implemented Steam refunds this year, a system that got its first big test (and justification) in the wake of Arkham Knight's botched release.
The future of PC gaming seems inextricably tied to hardware — and not just bigger and better graphics cards and monitors. Valve is pushing hard into the living room with Steam Machines and Steam Controllers, devices that aim to bridge the divide between pick-up-and-play console experiences and hyper-customisable PCs. I've tried out a Steam Machine and a Steam Controller — both show promise, but both still need lots of additional work.
According to most of the biggest #brands in gaming, 2016 will also be the year that virtual reality finally becomes a proper Thing. Barring delays or humanity collectively embracing a goggle-free outdoorsman lifestyle, both the Oculus Rift and Valve/HTC's Vive should release sometime next year. I've used both, and they're pretty cool. Are they so cool that people will shell out large sums of money and deal with slight head/neck discomfort, though? That's the big question, and next year will start (but probably not finish) answering it. Maybe VR will change gaming as we know it, or maybe we'll all just end up using it for porn.
In 2015, the PC is at the forefront of gaming. It's got the lead in terms of raw power, fresh new games, and experimental hardware. With all that newness, some growing pains are inevitable. The PC is a gaming platform in constant flux, and that's what makes it both exciting and occasionally frustrating.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.