The modern gaming industry is a behemoth that generated an estimated $135 billion in revenue last year (according to TechJury), with a gaming community of more than 2.5 billion people from all over the world. It wasn’t always mainstream, though — the industry started as a niche market that targeted students, nerds, and individuals willing to put up with atrocious load times and horrendous graphics because they were enchanted by the medium.
I was one such nerdy kid who was introduced to gaming via a Commodore 64 that featured games with 16-color graphics, 320 x 200 resolution and chiptune sound effects. My next computer, the Amiga 2000, upgraded this experience many times over, thanks to its 4,096 colors, 640 x 256 resolution and far better audio quality. Then, in the 1990s, I got my first PC with an Intel
Pentium processor, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Those older computer games had only one goal: to entertain and excite. Early computer games were a special art form that could awe you with presentation, jog your brain with puzzles, immerse you in their world with engaging stories or simply help you hone your reflexes as you blasted dozens of baddies off the screen.
Fast-forward to the present, and this concept of PC gaming is crumbling. As an avid Steam user with over 400 games under my belt, I find it increasingly hard to find new titles that could provide the same level of fun as the older ones. And that’s not because of a lack of visual or audio fidelity — modern games look and sound realistic and breathtaking. Nor is it because of the amount of content — unlike older games, modern titles provide hundreds of hours of in-game activities to keep you invested.
The reason is that the gaming industry has become far more focused on generating large profits than creating good products. When you stop caring about quality and focus on money-making mechanics, games lose their most important purpose and become shiny, but ultimately shallow and often half-baked, gambling simulators.
If you look at the chart below, you can see that PC gaming isn’t even the biggest revenue maker anymore — in 2019, it constitutes a projected 25% of the industry’s total and is constantly overshadowed by mobile games. Console games are also going through a market-share decline. I don’t see this declining trend for PC gaming slowing any time soon, unless something changes drastically.
Here are reasons why:
Many modern PC games are derivative
Once a particular game becomes an overwhelming success, the market is flooded with marginally different clones that try to mimic what the successful game did right. This happened when Minecraft took off (clones list), as well as after the success of PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds’ (also known as PUBG) success. Remember Fortnite? Its battle royale mode is basically the most popular PUBG clone aimed at younger audiences, which overshadowed PUBG in both sales and reception.
And the list goes on. While there are still some genuinely good clones out there, ultimately, derivation is the bane of innovation. Why come up with new, original mechanics and game worlds, when old ones are selling just fine? But there’s another type of game that is more derivative than anything else — franchises. Take Battlefield, for example. The series, first released in 2002 by the mega publisher Electronic Arts
now spans 11 games and 12 expansion packs. All these games take the same shooter concept and upgrade it marginally, without modifying the gaming experience in any significant way. While understandable from a business perspective, from the gamer perspective it’s a predictable and stale environment with little diversity — many games are simply variations of mechanics carried over from existing blockbusters.
Many modern PC games are repetitive
In gaming, this term is known as “grinding.” It basically means going through the same motions numerous times before you can advance the story or improve your character. This concept was first introduced in MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games) as a mechanic that would force the player to play a game for longer periods, leading to a prolonged subscription (the majority of MMORPGs, aka MMOs, used to be subscription-based).
In non-MMO games, though, grinding has a more sinister purpose. It artificially slows the player in to push him to spend real-life currency to speed things up. A good example of this is Assassin’s Creed: Origins. You can opt to buy (with real money) experience booster packs to skip dozens upon dozens of repetitive tasks (quests) you need to complete before you can advance the story. This trend continued even more aggressively in the next installment, Assasin’s Creed: Odyssey.
The result is a tedious game that is frustrating to play, while also teaching a very dangerous lesson to young players: Success should be bought, not earned. While Ubisoft, the series publisher, defends itself by saying that users aren’t forced to purchase the boosters, in reality, not purchasing them means not being able to enjoy the game at a reasonable pace, so in a way, gamers have been cornered by the developer. If this practice continues, gaming will become increasingly expensive and unjust toward those who refuse to spend hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars on microtransactions that do nothing except enable unhindered game play.
Many modern PC games are shackled by politically correct storytelling
As an art form, games have one thing in common with films and books: artistic freedom. In order to tell a riveting tale of hardship, personal growth, adventure — you name it — writers often need to be able to do so from both sides. This sometimes means including the perspective of the villain, or exploring more controversial topics from a different angle, which may or may not align with public perception and values. For example, given a proper context (satire, irony), games such as those of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise provide perfectly valid environment for players to have fun blowing up digital cars and fighting fellow miscreants, while providing a “show-don’t-tell” perspective on the level of depravity and dysfunction of modern society.
GTA has been heavily criticized for its level of violence and irreverent approach to various topics, simply because those criticizing merely scratched the surface and didn’t want to understand the broader context. Such a backlash, often created and amplified by dubious online gaming websites, makes publishers fear bad publicity. This forces them to limit creators’ freedom, regardless of the context.
One of the more current examples is EA’s Battlefield V. In a game that at first aimed to depict World War II faithfully, a conflict in which Nazi Germany played a considerable role, words like “Nazi,” “white man” or “Jew” are censored in the game chat, Nazi iconography was left out, and dozens of historical inaccuracies were added, all in an effort to avoid offending anyone. It should be obvious that including Nazi iconography in this game is not to promote Nazism, but to authentically display the soldiers’ uniforms and events as they unfolded during the war. However, those offended are often unable or unwilling to understand this, so it becomes a publisher’s responsibility to “put out fires before they happen.” In Battlefield V’s case, it meant twisting the story almost beyond recognition to fit the least offensive narrative. This also forced the publisher to defend its position against its core audience — the players — or face repercussions from the very same media outlets it sought to appease. The result: Game sales were so abysmal, they caused one of the biggest drops in stock price in EA’s history. But this trend is likely to continue, increasing its choke-hold on artistic freedom. Without it, games we play increasingly resemble cookie-cutter scenarios and tell unimaginative stories that do little more than tick socially acceptable checkmarks.
Many modern PC games are simply glorified gambling machines
I’ll use EA as an example yet again, because this publisher seems to be doing everything in its power to abuse its user base. The year is 2017 and the game is Star Wars Battlefront II, a multiplayer action shooter. Players who already paid $60 to $80 for the title now have an “option” to spend even more money on items that are, essentially, necessary to remain competitive in-game. Not only that — when they pay for these items, they never know what they’re going to get. It could be a “cosmetic item,” such as a new uniform color for their character, or an upgrade that will make them superior to other players in an online battle, forcing them to “pay up” to have a fair challenge.
These “surprise mechanics” (as EA’s representatives are labeling it) are nothing short of pulling the lever on a slot machine to get a favorable result. Lights light up, music starts playing, and your dopamine levels spike — you got a shiny new item! This compulsion loop is a building block of any addiction, and as researchers from New Zealand and Australia said in the Nature Human Behaviour journal, “loot boxes are psychologically akin to gambling.”
Now remember that these games are mostly played by young, impressionable audiences, who are being exposed to these schemes day in, day out. Preying on these young adults as they spend hundreds and even tens of thousands of dollars, EA is raking in the big money, so it’s understandable it wants to keep it that way. The publisher claims it’s not addiction — it’s perfectly fine, because it’s just “passion that our players have and the joy they get from our game.” Of all the problems addressed above, this one may have a silver lining: Global regulators are slowly catching on to the damaging potential of these mechanics and are cracking down on publishers. It is a slow process, but hopefully one that will ban loot boxes altogether, or at least limit sales to contain them to 18-plus audiences.
Many modern PC games are turning into mobile games
Although last on my list of grievances, this is the most significant and obvious one.
The mobile-game industry is the fastest-growing game-market segment. All of the traits outlined above — derivative, shallow, repetitive and addictive — are the hallmarks of 98% of mobile games. These are made with a casual gamer in mind, one who doesn’t have time — or the desire — to get immersed in an intricate world, to care about the character he’s playing, or to appreciate a good, complex story. The mobile gamer has little time before her bus arrives, and to pass it, she plays titles that are simple to grasp and repetitive, so they don’t require a lot of effort. They are also addictive, so she keeps coming back.
The loot-box mechanic is essential for mobile games. Most of them are free-to-play, so aside from displaying ads, it’s the only source of revenue. This is not the case with PC games, which sometimes make over a billion dollars in yearly sales — more than enough to finance the next release, as well as cover ongoing expenses. However, this isn’t what investors want to hear. They need constant annual sales growth and publishers are all too keen to please them by copying the business model and mechanics of their mobile counterparts. This effort could backfire, however — PC gamers are less and less incentivized to purchase soulless, dumbed-down mobile-game clones. As demonstrated in the chart above, the result is already here: a slow but steady loss of ground for a market segment that is losing its charm and its audience along with it.
Finally, not everything is lost. The lack of appeal and frustration caused by unsatisfying games create a void filled by studios that understand the needs of players and are keen on scratching that gamer itch by creating rich, memorable experiences that provide a strong narrative, interesting protagonists and immersive stories, or simply fun mechanics without microtransactions ruining the experience. These newcomers will set the record straight and reap the long-term benefits as gamers get pushed toward them by uncaring publishers who only understand short-term profit, without being able to assess big-picture trends. Until then, hang in there. Cyberpunk 2077 is just around the corner.
Jurica Dujmovic is a MarketWatch columnist.