What Ails The World's Biggest Gaming Platform?

It is the most powerful gaming platform in the world, and with more than 300 million users, the most widely owned as well, so why does computer gaming seem to be suffering from an inferiority complex?

With retail chains increasingly limiting their shelf space for PC games, and most mainstream media coverage of gaming directed at the splashier Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 multimedia consoles and family-centric Wii, PC gaming finds itself in a fight for the hearts and minds of gamers.

Leading the charge in that fight is the recently formed PC Gaming Alliance, a consortium of computer manufacturers, parts makers, retailers and game developers.

Christian Svensson, an executive at game developer Capcom and member of the alliance board of directors says that the purpose of the alliance, which was formed early last year, is to pin down hard numbers for game developers. How many people play games on their PC? What sort of PC do they have? What are the current trends?

"I joined to get a better understanding about the market and what's working for people," Svensson said. "The low hanging fruit for (Capcom) is to take our content and our brands and bring them to another platform."

Capcom, traditionally a developer with a focus on consoles, has recently started to bring more of their games like Resident Evil 5 and Street Fighter IV to the PC.

"We feel we can create an incredible and perhaps different experience than the PC has had before," he said. "The PC versions of Street Fighter IV and Devil May Cry 4 will be the definitive versions of the game."

But often the PC version of a game comes out after the console versions hit, something that in the long run can impact sales. That's because unlike with consoles, there is no single standard for the PCs that games may run on. It's the same issue that has for so long hampered mobile game sales.

"The beautiful thing about the PC is that it's a completely open platform," Svensson said. "Anyone can get any game to market. There are no boundaries.

"But that same thing cuts the other way, no guidance means no oversight."

So developers need to make sure that when they make a game it can play on a wide range of computers, from a high-end desktop to a cheap laptop, so they can sell to the larger chunk of that 300 million gamer market. And unlike with consoles, technology for PC gaming jumps forward every 12 to 18 months or so, making the sweet spot for game development a moving target.

Drew Johnston, Microsoft's group program manager for Windows gaming, says that another similarity between computers and cell phones is how prevalent they are.

"Most people in the U.S. and many other parts of the world have both a phone and a computer, so they're instantly part of those demographics, and an audience for developers," he said.

The key, both Johnston and Svensson agree, is to make it easier for gamers to get their games on PC.

That's what Microsoft tried to do when they launched Games for Windows – Live with the rollout of Windows Vista. But initially the program stalled.

Johnston says that's because gamers initially thought that Games for Windows – Live only worked on Vista and that initially gamers had to pay a subscription to play multiplayer games, something that Microsoft also requires with Xbox Live.

"What's right for the console isn't always right for the PC," Johnston said Microsoft came to realize.

Last July, Microsoft dropped the subscription fees for the PC version of live. Then, at the end of last year Microsoft revamped the service, tweaking it to work better for PC gamers and adding more robust anti-piracy measures.

Johnston describes the future of PC gaming as "growing and evolving" saying that it is as strong as it has ever been and leading the way in many new ideas, like digital distribution, online services and social gaming.

Perhaps most significantly, the alliance plans to soon announce a new set of PC system requirements that would be used to identify a PC gaming machine.

The idea, Svensson said, is to make PC gaming as seamless an experience as console gaming is.

It could also perhaps lead to a new renaissance in PC game design, reminding all of those millions of PC owners that their machines are just as capable at entertaining as is a console.

Well Played is a weekly opinion column about the big news of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.