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GamesIndustry.biz: Year of the PC

Is the console transition period a time for PCs to shine?

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer a day after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

Given the excitement of the last few years in the console market, it's easy to forget that not all gaming platforms go through hardware transitions of this nature. Unlike the console platforms, which remain static for four to five years before a massive upheaval upsets the delicate balance of software development and publishing business for a year or two - a sort of videogames industry El Nino, in a sense - the PC platform evolves in tiny steps over the course of many years, with users upgrading their systems gradually, albeit not necessarily inexpensively.

As such, while the full power of the next-gen consoles is still a matter for some debate, there's no question about one thing - by the time developers are testing the limits of the PS3 and the Xbox 360, countless people will already own PC systems whose sheer number-crunching and pixel-pushing prowess leaves the consoles in the dust. Another factor is also worthy of consideration; if you assume any system within a broad range of the sort of power we see on the Xbox 360 now to be "next-gen", then by far the platform with the largest next-gen installed base is not Microsoft's beige box at all. It's the PC; the vast range and huge number of compatible platforms, ranging from home-built systems to mass-produced Dell desktops and fantastically high-end Alienware machines, and from hefty desktop replacement laptops to Apple's hugely popular (and PC compatible) MacBook Pro range of slimline beauties.

Those simple facts set the stage for 2007 to be an interesting year for PC gaming. Unlike console developers, PC developers have no transition period to struggle with - they are used to aiming at a moving target in terms of PC specifications, after all - and unlike publishing on a console, PC games are not subject to the whim of a single platform holder who can delay launches or provide insufficient hardware, rendering your product commercially inviable in a single swoop. In a year when the console market is likely to suffer a significant hangover from the uncertainty which defined 2006, the PC - laden as it is with disparate hardware and software configurations, intense difficulty in calculating installed base or potential market figures, and the ages-old problems of drivers, patches and so on - looks like a rock of stability, and a bloody good platform to invest in.

It's not surprising, then, that some of the biggest titles of the next 12 months are headed to the PC platform - either exclusively, or at the very least, as a key platform in the strategy for the game. Some publishers are more focused than others - Electronic Arts and THQ, in particular, have made it very clear that the PC is core to their thinking. For both publishers, the PC represents an opportunity not only to get some extremely solid titles onto the market in a year when the console space will still be in upheaval; it also represents a chance to improve their reputation with hardcore gamers. Both firms suffered, fairly or unfairly, from shovelware reputations in the past; THQ has been focused on improving this for several years, with wonderful results, and EA seems determined to follow in its footsteps. The PC, a platform whose astonishingly varied demographic and huge installed base among non-gamers can often reward experimental approaches, offers a fantastic opportunity to do just that.

Hence EA's astonishingly strong PC line-up for the year - a release schedule which is arguably more impressive, creatively, than anything the industry's publishing behemoth has planned for the console platforms. Crytek's visually stunning Crysis and Will Wright's supremely imaginative Spore headline the list, of course, and both are games which any publisher would love to have in their portfolio. In EA's case, they nestle alongside the likes of Command And Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, Medal of Honor Airborne and co-publishing duties on Hellgate London - another three of the most exciting games for the PC platform in the coming year. THQ, meanwhile, shows no sign of dropping its commitment to the PC, and plans to follow up an astonishingly strong 2006 (Company of Heroes was a particular highlight) with games like Supreme Commander and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in 2007.

Combined with the fantastic titles coming from other publishers (Microsoft and Ubisoft deserve honourable mentions), it's clear that no other platform can rival the PC in the coming year - and that's even before we begin to consider the MMOG market, where World of Warcraft's 7.5 million players are giddy with anticipation for the first expansion pack, Burning Crusade, and the rest of the market is waiting to see what happens with hugely promising games like Sony Online Entertainment's Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and NCsoft's Tabula Rasa.

The transition period is, in many ways, the PC's time to shine. While the console industry struggles to get systems on the market and build installed bases to a commercially viable point, and while console developers battle to get to grips with new technology after developing for a fixed platform for five years, the PC can play host to the kind of polished, mature and expansive games which the new console platforms simply haven't been around for long enough to receive. The Xbox 360 may be going strong (and of all the systems, its line-up for 2007 is the closest in quality to the PC), the PS3 may be just about here at last and the Wii may have entertained your family all through Christmas - but if you're looking for the next-generation in 2007, the chances are that it's staring you in the face as you read this editorial.

On an entirely different note, we hope that all our readers had an enjoyable Christmas, and wish you a very happy and prosperous New Year. Here's hoping you've returned to work in January filled with the kind of enthusiasm, creativity and business nous which will help to make 2007 into a fantastic year for the videogames medium.

For more views on the industry and to keep up to date with news relevant to the games business, read GamesIndustry.biz. You can sign up to the newsletter and receive the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial directly each Thursday afternoon.

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GamesIndustry International is the world's leading games industry website, incorporating GamesIndustry.biz and IndustryGamers.com.