The State Of PC Gaming In 2016

 Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.

2016 was yet another year that showed PC gaming is, in many ways, on the forefront of gaming. So many of gaming’s most popular trends—the proliferation of Early Access on consoles (for better or worse), survival game elements in everything, multiplatform mods, esports, and virtual reality—all started on PC. Even as it inspired other platforms, PC gaming itself evolved this year, both making big strides and taking ugly spills.

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This is part of our 2016 “State of” series, a look at how the major consoles, VR platforms, and PC are doing this year.

Steam cools

Last year, the story of PC gaming was inextricably intertwined with the story of Valve’s ubiquitous platform, Steam. This year, those ties loosened.

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Nearly 40 percent of all games on Steam were released this year, approximately 40,000 of which are Warhammer-branded. The rush has turned Valve’s once-reliable storefront into a madhouse. Where Steam’s glut of sub-par games was a concern at the end of last year, it’s now grown into a full-blown avalanche. Slapdash games push down good ones, to the point that some people have banded together to try and keep crappy games off Steam.

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The modern Steam ecosystem is also riddled with holes that scammers and other shady types can slip through. The best example is this year’s Digital Homicide fiasco, which saw a shovelware developer sue 100 Steam users for $18 million and subpoena Valve for their information, at which point Valve booted them and all their games from the service. It was all painfully avoidable, but Steam has evolved into an environment where users and developers are actively hostile toward one another. It’s a toxic relationship that Valve allows to fester until somebody sues, and that can only mean bad things for the future.

The updates Valve did make to Steam this year were underwhelming. The big front page revamp included a handful of quality of life improvements, but ultimately it didn’t address the problems chewing holes in Steam’s core. Requiring developers to post accurate screenshots is a solid baby step, but stuff like this is overdue, verging on too-little, too-late. Meanwhile, cornerstone features for helping people find good games, like Steam Curators, continue to languish without strong direction or purpose.

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Increasingly, the biggest and best (not necessarily the same thing) PC games are finding homes away from Steam. This year’s multiplayer sensation, Overwatch, joins the likes of World of Warcraft and Hearthstone on Blizzard’s Battle.net, while EA confines the Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 to Origin. Microsoft has decided to dip a giant toe back into PC gaming’s lucrative waters, but you won’t find games like Gears of War 4 or Forza Horizon 3 on Steam. Companies such as Bethesda and Ubisoft are still playing ball with Valve, but they’re increasingly using their own clients for mods, achievements, and community.

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Then, of course, you’ve got behemoths like League of Legends, Minecraft, and World of Tanks, some of the biggest games on Earth, which aren’t on Steam either. Other games, especially F2P ones, are following their example, and why wouldn’t they? Valve takes 30 percent of profits from each game sold on Steam. Publishers didn’t fly into Valve’s web because they wanted to. They did it because there was no other viable path. Now there are many.

On the indie side of things, it also makes less and less sense to rely on Steam. Where once getting onto Steam’s front page meant you’d hit the jackpot, it’s no longer a guarantee of sales. I’ve spoken to developers whose multi-year passion projects have failed to gain traction on Steam despite being extremely good games. As Steam becomes more and more overrun with games, it makes sense for small developers and publishers to focus on platforms where they stand to make waves and pull in more of the profits. This year saw indie developers and publishers turning to places like Itch.io, GOG (which has been very overtly trying to court Steam users), and their own personal stores. Steam remains many developers’ best bet for large-scale exposure, but it’s hard to say it’s a particularly good one these days.

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Of course, Steam still played host to many of the year’s best games, especially in the strategy department. It also helped turn lesser-known games like farming/rejection sim Stardew Valley into mega-hits. Steam still has a massive audience, and there’s no denying that it can propel games into the spotlight. Valve also continued to update two of the biggest games out there, Counter-Strike and DOTA 2, with the latter recently getting its most status-quo-shattering update in a decade. But times are changing, and Steam is losing ground as the center of the PC gaming world.

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PC ports improve… sorta

PC ports were also a mix of good and bad. While PC got the best versions of big-budget games like Overwatch, Watch Dogs 2, and Battlefield 1, other ports floundered. High-profile games like Dishonored 2, Mafia III, Hitman, and No Man’s Sky launched with technical issues that ranged from irritating to crippling. It’s encouraging to see some developers legitimately trying to include options in PC ports, but for every step forward, it feels like other developers take a couple steps back.

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In general, though, things are trending in a good direction. Companies like Microsoft, with their Xbox Play Anywhere program, are finally acknowledging that PC and consoles can work together, rather than against each other. So far, that’s meant more games for us, though in time it could also mean more proprietary PC games and platforms. Here’s hoping for more of the former, less of the latter.

With PC ports comes piracy, and this year saw companies continue to try to crack down and pirates continuing to, well, pirate. Big publishers like EA, Ubisoft, Square Enix, and Bethesda affixed anti-piracy tech Denuvo to their ports at a much higher rate than in previous years. Once considered nearly uncrackable, Denuvo fell down a few notches this year, with games like Inside, Doom, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and Rise of the Tomb Raider opened up by dedicated hackers.

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VR pushes hardware

On the hardware side of things, PC continued its march toward Biggest Bestness, but with an increased focus on entry level hardware and configurations for folks curious about virtual reality. Valve and Oculus jostled for VR superiority in hardware and software, with the latter company even going so far as to cut exclusive deals with some developers.

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VR, however, still remains a tiny, expensive niche in PC gaming, one with a big “wow” factor but not a lot of meat on its bones. There are a handful of cool games and apps, but nothing that I’d consider a system-seller. Tech demos and proofs-of-concept outnumber complete experiences. If VR is, indeed, The Future, then The Future still needs a little more time in the oven.

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Esports, esports, esports!

PC gaming and esports remain integral to one another’s continued existence, even as esports continued to expand onto other platforms. Increasingly, PC games are being developed with an eye toward becoming a major esport, whether it’s Overwatch with Blizzard’s newly announced Overwatch League or something like Quake Champions, a modern evolution of a classic series.

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The competitive side of big games increasingly informs both their design and their culture. People learn strats and metas from pros they follow, some of whom have become bona fide celebrities. Even if the Next Big Esport refrain is starting to grow a little tired, I doubt it’s going away anytime soon.

The future

2016 saw PC gaming take strides into the mainstream, something that came with nearly as many drawbacks as upsides. There are more PC games than ever, but a lot of them aren’t great. Big publishers care about the platform again, but some release sub-par ports and lock down their games. VR became the talk of the town, but it didn’t quite deliver. Next year will likely bring more mainstream expansion. But no matter how much things change, at least there will always be more Warhammer games.

Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

alexeddy
Papacheeks26

I disagree with the headline 100%. There are so many things that actually makes PC the worst place to play. The only thing that comes to mind are some of the better ports we got this year with Hitman, Rise of the Tomb Raider. Then theres cross play with games like Rocket League, Gears, and maybe include street fighter even though currently it’s a mixed bag with the rushed security updates.

Add on that Oculous got shitty along with both Vibe, and I guess lump PS VR in there with having tons of hardware exclusive VR expierences that hammper quality expierences.

Sure VIVE has tons of expierences, but a lot of them are tech demo’s and actually shit, they feel like a game that’s half done which a majority are since there’s early access.

And dont even get me started on early access which has had less success stories than most things.

Regardless of the console refresh we are starting to get, there still more consistant expierences on console currentlt than PC. The big ones for PC are Overwatch and such. But for every overwatch game there’s destiny, GTA V online, Gears, Halo, FFXV(minus some tech issues and chapter 13), Uncharted, Ratchet and clank, Forza among tons of JRPG’S that either will never be on PC or wont come till a much later date.

Don even get me started on how Batman:arkham knight, Mortal Komabt XL are finally decent ports now. Both were redone, and even now the netcode on MK XL is still somewhat shit.

Also add how Batman:AK still doesnt look or run as good as its console counter part, and thats after it was forced to be taken off steam, then re-released.

I guess if you look at the indie scene, I say yes PC has been amazing this year. But outside a few games that are platform games like World of tanks, LOL, DOTA, Global offensive. There’s very little that I can honestly say where PC has been the best place to play. If anything console has been more consistant.

Dishonored 2 still has performance issues, Microsoft’s Playanywhere initiative was complete shit outside of gears of war 4, and killer instinct. Blizzard is the only consistant thing I can think of, even then they have done a shit job with content for Overwatch and heroes of the storm. Seems to be the game they care about the most currently is Heartstone. Overwatch seems to have it’s focus comapny wise on league play and not just servicing the game in a timely manner for content.

Then you have games that actually were great, but were panned like titanfall 2.

I would agree games like Battlefield 1 and such helped put PC in a good light, as would overwatch becauase of it’s success. But outside of a few games, there is very little I could reccomend.

It sucks that the best expierence I’v had on pc is when I bought cheap games that I had already played. Gears of war 4 is my favorite expierence on PC so far this year, mainly because of horde mode. But even then as a package it sucks because of the limitations on PC with cross play.

Something they are now looking into for competitive cross play, but still player wise it’s a barren wastland looking for PC players on windows 10.

To me console has been the most consistent in it’s price, games library, and over all hassle free minus some bugs in games or games not performing well(lasdt guardian). Even PSN flash sales were better this year than steam. I had to look at GMG, and cdkeys.com for deals close to the flash sales psn were giving.

Then when you talk about excietment for the platform how can you hands down not say console especially PS4 after making E3 announcements that were full of games tons of people want to play, on top of having PSX which just sweetens the pot.

Then compare it to the low key snorefest that is blizzcon. Like it was really weak this year, and something that just shows PC needs something like PSX or E3 with valve, blizzard, EA, Bethesda showing off their plans for PC going forward.

I feel great that I decided to buy a RX 480 instead of supporting console refreshes which I think are a step in the wrong direction. But then when I want to play Dishonored 2, or Forza, among many others I have to deal with either Microsoft’s shit store/ xbox on pc interface, or games that just dont run well.

So far on PC it’s been a mixed bag. Console isn’t without it’s fair share, but I feel the experiences are more standardized so at least there’s more consistency.

But I have had too many good experiences on my console with games like Ratchet and clank, uncharted 4, gravity rush remastered, FFXV(minus chapter 13), street fighter v, gears of war 4(pc), and even playing the multiple demo’s of Ni-oh to care about my pc.

Plus not to mention smaller games, and smaller JRPG’s that have released throughout the year which did not get any mentions.