In a year when PC gaming became more multifaceted and complicated than ever, it also popularized a genre—battle royale—with one of the simplest premises imaginable.
As ever, PC remains at the forefront of gaming. Whether it’s the platform’s longtime advantage in the hardware department, its role as a breeding ground for interesting indies that go on to become multiplatform hits, or attempts to solve the mind-boggling logistical problem of theoretically offering nearly Every Game Ever, PC leads so many dances that you’d need to be a human centipede to keep up.
This is part of our 2017 State Of series, a look at how the major consoles, PC, and other areas of interest are doing this year.
But in discussing PC gaming, we also have to consider that, unlike PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, PC is not a monolith. “PC” is a conglomeration of disparate platforms and moving pieces, from Steam’s algorithm-driven digital metropolis to Itch.io’s boundless mom ‘n’ pop shop, from grimy CSGO and PUBG skin gambling pits to equally questionable gray markets like G2A, from games that are their own platform like League of Legends to tiny freeware games that don’t have platforms at all.
A great year in PC gaming for one person can be an abysmal one for another. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss PC gaming on those terms. I can’t be 100 percent comprehensive here—I’d end up writing a book—so let’s go over the big ones.
Steam continues to balloon in all directions. While Valve hasn’t released an exact user count in a couple years, it’s safe to say the number still exceeds 100 million, and concurrent user counts just keep going up. The total number of games on Steam, too, is astronomical at this point, and the introduction of Steam Direct only opened the floodgates wider.
This has left Steam in an awkward spot. It’s tempting to say that Steam’s biggest problem is a near-constant influx of slipshod games that prey on hapless users, but while some games do, indeed, embrace scammy and spammy business models in hopes of rising to the top, few of them actually succeed. For most Steam users, the problem is that there are too many good games lining the digital shelves, and it’s easy for people to miss games they’d otherwise really love. Valve has tried to solve this problem with algorithms and curators, to mixed results:
While features like the Steam Discovery queue are apparently doing a better job than ever of resurfacing games that might’ve otherwise sank, digging up new games on Steam can still be a daunting prospect. There are sections within sections, menus within menus, and multiple pages that ostensibly serve similar purposes. Steam has evolved into a massive, bloated gut knot of markets, communities, ideas, and systems—some still in use, others directionless or vestigial—all layered on top of each other. It needs an overhaul.
Valve at least seemed to acknowledge some of Steam’s more virulent issues in 2017. In the first half of the year, it took aim at so-called “fake games”— hacked-together asset packs that made most of their money by exploiting Steam’s trading card market—by changing the rules around trading cards. This, however, helped give rise to trends like equally low-quality “achievement spam” games. These kinds games, Valve has admitted, gum up its algorithm, so it’s taken to removing hundreds of them from the service. Still, that seems like a temporary stop-gap, not a long-term solution to the problem.
Valve also acknowledged some of the toxicity that’s run rampant on Steam for years, though again in ways that only proved partially useful. In an attempt to discourage review bombs, it introduced a series of charts that pop up when a game has received an abnormally high volume of reviews in a brief timespan. It definitely hasn’t solved the problem, but users—including review bombers, unfortunately—are more aware now. Steam still doesn’t have a dedicated anti-harassment team, meaning that rules are enforced inconsistently at best, and users and developers alike often have to fend for themselves.
Origin sure does continue to exist! Electronic Arts’ service didn’t change much this year, but big games like Battlefield 1 and Sims 4 continued to chug along, and Star Wars Battlefront II launched with a small planet of loot box controversy in tow. Origin continues to regularly give away free games, which is cool, but it remains pretty thin, feature-wise. No longer trying to be a viable Steam competitor, it’s basically just EA’s e(a)cosystem these days. Also still in existence: Ubisoft’s Uplay.
A handful of exceptions aside, smaller games tend to struggle on Steam these days. Itch.io, while only a fraction of a fraction of Steam’s size, promotes less traditional games than Steam while offering developers more flexibility to release games as they please. This year, Itch.io upgraded its app and, adopting a philosophy opposite Steam’s, became more focused on curation than ever. It also helped host the Epistle 3 game jam, meaning that Itch now has more (unofficial) Half-Life games than Steam. However, it also had to contend with an outbreak of scam games.
Blizzard’s Battle.net is home to multiple juggernauts including World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. This year, it also gained its first non-Blizzard game, Destiny 2, and a host of social features. On the whole, Battle.net’s doing better than ever, though it hasn’t been without its controversies like Destiny 2 launch weirdness and Overwatch’s toxicity issues.
More so than ever, Discord became PC players’ go-to social platform in 2017. It also gave the boot to a bunch of white supremacists, which was cool, though that problem is ongoing, to say the least.
Game Jolt, like Itch, highlighted smaller games and offered new tools to help developers flesh them out and form communities around them.
GOG continued tweaking and improving its DRM-free alternative to Steam—even offering players the option of receiving GOG copies of some of their Steam games free of charge—while Humble assembled more bundles and hosted a small (and in some cases DRM-free) store of its own. Humble had an especially eventful year, which it kicked off with a bundle that raised money for civil rights groups and capped off by getting acquired by IGN. It remains to be seen how the latter will affect the platform’s direction in the future.
League of Legends continued to operate as its own island—or continent, given the game’s 100 million-plus player base. Epic’s Fortnite, which has become hugely popular in recent months thanks to the addition of a battle royale mode, is also keeping to itself, rather than throwing in with Steam or other such service.
The Sketchy Stuff
PC is an open platform, which leaves it open not just to rapid turnarounds on new ideas, but also, shall we say, creative (and sometimes downright exploitative) business ventures. These things, too, are part of the fabric of PC gaming.
Despite Valve’s 2016 crackdown on the $2.3 billion CSGO “skin betting” industry, where people treated CSGO skins as a currency with which to gamble, people have found other, equally sketchy ways to make hundreds of thousands of dollars off skins in games like CSGO and, more recently, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
Notorious gray market G2A, an unregulated site that allows people to resell game keys from places like Steam, also had quite a year, which began with a disastrous Reddit AMA in which the site got verbally torn to shreds. Then, in response to criticisms that its security was too lax and open to fraud, G2A banned a user who was participating in the AMA. It was not a popular decision. G2A then partnered with Gearbox in April, only for Gearbox to call the whole thing off after days of intense criticism. Despite all this, G2A continues to be a major force in PC gaming, sponsoring prominent YouTubers and continuing to be the go-to site for game key resale on PC.
While some industry insiders still view VR as The Future, the future seems mired in the present, for now. Both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift got price drops, but they’re nowhere near being household fixtures. Big-name series like Fallout, Doom, and LA Noire made their VR debuts while companies like EVE Online publisher CCP dropped out of VR entirely. All the while, HTC, Valve, and Oculus announced new technology and hardware, building to a future that’s yet to fully arrive.
More games than ever were released on Steam in 2017, but one was head and shoulders above the rest.
It is Divinity: Original Sin 2.
Oh fine, it’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (but also Divinity is extremely good, and you should play it). While the battle royale genre has existed for a few years thanks to mods and games like H1Z1: King of the Kill, PUBG turned it into a phenomenon in 2017. The core conceit is so beautifully simple that, in hindsight, it was destined for success: 100 people land on an island, one person leaves. That’s it. Everything else is up to players. On its own, PUBG sold more than 20 million units before even exiting Early Access, and it inspired multiple other games to add battle royale modes, the most successful of which is Fortnite’s. With PUBG’s 1.0 launch nearing, it’s safe to say that battle royale has plenty of steam left in it before it hits a saturation point.
While PUBG made more noise than just about any other game on PC, Overwatch wasn’t far behind. Blizzard’s game had a steady stream of new heroes, maps, and patches, as well as the launch of Overwatch League, the publisher’s biggest esports investment yet. Other long-running multiplayer games like League of Legends, CSGO, DOTA 2, Path of Exile, Payday 2, Ark: Survival Evolved, and Warframe continued to serve updates to their millions of players as well. For many players, those individual games were PC gaming. They might have checked out another game here or there, but most of their time and mind-share was devoted to one of PC gaming’s modern monoliths. Increasingly, that’s the nature of the beast.
Of course, tons of excellent smaller games came out, too. Let’s run through just a handful. Castlevania-inspired roguelike Dead Cells made a strong first impression on Steam. The Norwood Suite was a strange, endlessly captivating place to visit. XCOM 2: War of the Chosen changed the game so much that it might as well have been XCOM 3. Total War: Warhammer 2 turned the long-running Total War strategy series on its head. Torment: Tides of Numenera (mostly) proved a worthy spiritual successor to one of the greatest PC RPGs of all time. Thimbleweed Park was a charming adventure from one of the genre’s legends. Night In The Woods told a unique story about small town life, alienation, and young adulthood. And Cuphead was the Dark Souls of itself.
It seems like developers are giving a lot more attention to the PC versions of their multiplatform games than in previous years. Prey, for instance, ran surprisingly well even on extremely low-end hardware like my dinky Microsoft Surface, while PC got the best version of Destiny 2. Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Wolfenstein 2 were also both winners.
A handful of ports, however, hearkened back to the not-so-good old days when publishers treated PC like an afterthought. Nier Automata, despite popularity on PC, still badly needs a patch to resolve a mess of technical issues, while World of Final Fantasy’s PC port was barebones as they come.
PC gaming’s 2018 will probably resemble its 2017, just as 2017 resembled 2016. Barring a catastrophe, Steam will still be the biggest storefront on the block, while mainstays like League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Overwatch will keep their colossal player bases coming back with consistent updates. All the while, smaller games will struggle in their shadows, with a few achieving mainstream success, others finding reliable niche audiences, and the vast majority fading into obscurity.
One wonders what’ll become of PUBG. While it’s easily the breakout PC success story of the year, the road to 1.0 has been a bumpy one. If the game doesn’t address pernicious issues like glitches and cheaters sufficiently, I could see a competitor—and PUBG will have many next year, mark my words—scooping up a lot of its audience. After all, PUBG already did something similar to H1Z1: King of the Kill.
PC gaming is a wildly complex series of vaguely intertwining ecosystems, a foundation that somehow stands strong despite being riddled with cracks that great games can easily slip through. Expect 2018 to exemplify that more than ever, for better and worse.
Update - 12:00 PM, 12/18/17: Added brief entries for Humble and GOG.