Steam Deck has killed PC Gaming
It was almost four years ago when I said that PC Gaming was going to die. The state of the PC Gaming scene, both as an industry but also as users with PC Gaming machines, was in shambles. Once a place where technology drove and pushed forward, a decade and half later it has been leap-frogged by mobile devices and next-generation consoles. What was a platform cheap to be introduced now has a higher entry barrier.
Once mainstream appealing, PC Gaming has become a niche for rich people.
“The end of the PC Gaming” era it’s difficult to understand when the concept itself is so broad, so we will narrow it as the market focus to push state-of-the-art video games on PC. That golden era has ended, and as consumers, we should accept it and move on.
This era has ended after a 30-year long run since Wolfenstein 3D. Toaster-grade indies, freemium and esports games will be all what’s left. There are multiple reasons for this.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
For those unaware, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a movie that homages the Golden age of American animation. That era lasted for almost three decades (1928~1960), to fell from grace once television became massively adopted. The TV replaced cinemas, as people started to come less to them where animations could be experienced.
We can say the same about PC Gaming and mobile phones, but this is not the only culprit.
You may have witnessed several attempts to make the PC Gaming industry the place for next-gen experiences: VR Headsets, Steam Controller, Ray-Tracing, 4K HDR Monitors, you name it. All of these have struggled and failed the mainstream adoption by multiple reasons, like price, availability, or support.
The recently announced Steam Deck confirms that PC Gaming is dead, but is not the device to blame. It’s the result the current state of the entertainment industry. It’s just an eye opener, a epitaph of what’s has been a declining market share since 10 years ago. It has been a fact that fanboys cannot fathom, probably because they still look for validation over their three grand battlestations full of lights when of someone tells them nobody cares anymore.
Tthe Steam Deck is not a PC, it’s a mobile console, a portable game machine, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the obvious.
Culprit one: Price
The first on the list are the people to blame for price hikes: the miners.
If you didn’t know, in a nutshell, “miners” are groups of people that buy graphics cards to profit from calculating whatever novel cryptocurrency there is: Dogecoin, ZCash, Monero, Ethereum, you name it. These GPUs are kept “mining” the virtual money 24/7, making profits from computational workloads, until they die or can be replaced for faster GPUs.
The problem has been always supply and demand (Economics 101). Since these people buy them from every channel possible, even directly from warehouses or manufaturers, gamers are left with what’s left from enthusiast models or low-end GPUs, models that offer negative ROI for miners.
This is when the market starves. People re-sell used ones at an overprice as the market doesn’t compete in price anymore, and scalpers make more than what they bought the card for. The few inventory a retailer gets its sold fast and even higher, so they hike the price too.
Graphic cards prices have skyrocketed. There are also other pieces of hardware that are nowhere to be found, or expensive has hell.
This became worse when the market accepted the higher prices due to the high demand. NVIDIA took note and now releases graphic cards at ludicrous prices, with AMD following suit. OEM, distributors and retailers become eager for bigger margins. The actual chip shortage and the import tariffs has only made things worse in the short term.
The mid-range graphic card has been extinguished. Once mainstream appealing, PC Gaming has become a niche for rich people. No wonder LTT build videos give more anxiety than awe these days.
Culprit two: Mobile
The second culprit are smartphones and iPads. When publishers, the ones that have the money, decide to invest in the development of a game, they don’t do it for the passion the studio has, or the vision the developers share. They invest to double their money.
Since mobile devices have become the new mainstream, the development focus is on mobile. Games like Call of Duty Mobile or Arena of Valor get more attention, and reciprocate with billions of dollars in revenue. The mobile market triples the PC Gaming revenue worldwide, and represents more than half the total market.
That’s why you see publishers betting a lot of mobile games, and putting all efforts on mobile-first experiences, leaving consoles and PCs as a second-class citizens or not even considering them unless they cannot grow more on the mobile market.
Apple, Google, Samsung and others manufacturers are who benefit the most. The gain more resources to invest in mobile technology and keep that market growing. The less people spend on PC hardware, the less OEM manufacturers receive, and the less they keep investing on it. If nobody buys LG smartphones…
No matter how much you hate Blizzard for the timeless gem “Do you guys not have phones?”, that question alone sums the current state of the industry. Look into Asus and Razer, companies with PC gaming roots, selling their new smartphones. They’re not dumb.
Consider that the only AAA game exclusive to hit the PC platform in the last 10 years is Half-Life Alyx. It’s not that you can make money selling a PC game, but it’s clear as day that is more profitable to invest somewhere else. 20 years ago, it was the console market.
To put it harshly, the smartphones are a priority for today and tomorrow. The PC market is lucky to get any scraps left. Blame unregulated predatory mechanics and exploitative monetized services all you like.
Culprit three: Apple
The one on the top of performance chart right now is Apple and its M1 chip. The MacBook, iMac, Mac mini and iPad have incredible ARM chips that kicks around even the best Intel and AMD CPUs in the market at very competitive prices.
The only problem of this ecosystem is the graphic performance. Games on macOS are a subpar experience, considering these systems are not well known by their GPU power or an strong catalogue. Steam has somewhat fixed the latter problem, but still, if there is any AAA port from consoles, these demand a Windows PC with a capable GPU that currently doesn’t exist in the Mac sphere — at least, at time of writing. By the way, eGPU doesn’t work on M1 chips, so you’re grounded.
A macOS user won’t be too keen to buy another computer just to play games. Instead, it makes more sense to buy a console built to play games, as the experience is greater and cheaper than buying a secondary PC. Even a PS4 is a good alternative considering the shortage of next-gen consoles.
If you don’t believe Apple has all the fault, you’re right. Add to that the cheap laptops and prebuilts that have been sold like hot pancakes since the pandemic settled in and that barely have a capable GPU to move a card on FreeCell.
Culprit four: Consoles
Way before the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, it was the consoles the ones to play catch with the PC platform. Every console that launched was somewhat “behind” the rapid technology advancements on the PC. It was expected, as these aimed to be sold some hundred bucks below the price of a mid-range PC and had to be mass produced.
Then, Lisa Su played 4D chess and came offering a collaborative contract with Sony and Microsoft for their next consoles, and the end is history. Now it’s the PC platform the one who has to play catch. Consoles have ray-tracing and faster-storage for a fraction of the price of a similar equipped PC. The experience offered by these devices far outweight the PC, and exclusives titles have become the norm more than a decade ago.
We can only assume that titles taking advantage of these features will take years to be ported into the PC space, considering the slow adoption of SSDs at 5.5 GB per second and ray-tracing GPUs. Taking into account how much next-gen consoles cost, and how the few units fly off the shelves, it will take more than a lot of time, indeed.
It may make more sense to port old titles to PC to make a quick buck, like it happened with Death Stranding or Horizon: Zero Dawn, titles that were ported months and years after the novelty died.
Culprit five: Steam Deck
Valve is not a dumb company. It may have gotten valid criticisms over their failed hardware endeavors these last years, but they tend to create great products with few drawbacks — except for Steam Machines, which felt more than a response to Windows 8. The Steam Deck is one of these.
The media and fans have been eager to praise the Steam Deck as a device to “revitalize the PC Gaming” like it was the second coming of Christ. Only folks with two extra chromosomes would think that a mobile console would that.
Steam Deck is not a PC, is a well-thought tablet on x86 running Linux.
Think about it as an answer to Nintendo Switch, which has sold almost 85 million devices, with none of its drawbacks. Its the combination of a very capable APU and software openness what makes it attractive — it’s already compatible with all PC software, at least on paper. It’s expected that installing Windows 11 just pushes the boundary further.
It’s not a PC, you can’t upgrade anything except for shoving an microSD or adventuring with a M.2 2230 SSD. No graphics card, not CPU, no memory, everything is integrated, which is good from the form factor but not for everyone else. Well, upgrading means buying a better Steam Deck.
The lack of hardware variability will only initially benefit Valve and AMD, but I don’t think it will matter to the average Steam Deck user if they can get this device for the price it’s being advertised. The Steam Deck Hub, to be sold separately, is a clear signal that say “this is your new PC”.
If this gets widely adopted, we won’t be far away of OEMs jumping the bandwagon with their own HP Deck, Asus Deck, EVGA Deck, NVIDIA Deck, Intel Deck, pick a name and guess. They could even reuse that PCB to sell office/home all-in-ones computers and cheap laptops.
If this snowballs hard, OEMs will be perfectly fine investing more on Steam Decks PCB and components going around rather than classic PC hardware, like motherboards or graphic cards. These devices just have to sell more to shift the market.
PC Gaming? It’s dead Jim
To summarize, the PC gaming market has been steadily declining last decade, but the pandemic has accelerated its collapse into an elitist niche. It’s pricey to get in while there are better (and cheaper) alternatives. Consoles drive the technology thunder PC once had, and mobile devices will keep thriving in market share. Game on consoles or mobile, work on a laptop or iPad.
That’s why you will never see a title like Crysis ever again, but lukewarm indies, “esports games” and RTS that can run in toasters.
Investing in PC games is not as profitable as it was two decades ago, for the whole industry. The golden era of PC videogames already ended, and nostalgia is what remains.
PC Gaming is dead.