|How Video Games Killed Desktop PC Computing|
|Articles - Opinion & Editorials|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Wednesday, 30 March 2011|
How Video Games Killed Desktop PC Computing
After publishing more than a few editorial articles foretelling the decline of the enthusiast desktop computer platform, you might think I'm the pessimistic sort. In reality, I'm quite cautious with my decision making and try to keep every option in mind. There is a blinding bias that is suffered when someone completely believes or disbelieves their position and none other, so there's comfort in keeping towards the middle ground on any particular topic. By demanding proof before taking up a side, my position is based more on factual evidence and less on opinion. It's a relatively safe way of thinking, because it usually rules out many of the risks associated with general uncertainty. The point I make with this introduction is to alert readers that the editorial message this article delivers has been carefully weighted by facts, and should taken with serious consideration.
I'm not sharing this with you to create the element of drama for the sake of promoting a story, although if it helps spread the message I'm onboard. This isn't a book or movie I'm discussing; it's my business, and unfortunately the balance of this website rests with the future of a topic I'm struggling to accept as sustainable: enthusiast desktop computers. If you're not up to speed on this topic, I've already published several related pieces that should be required reading: Fears and Predictions and Statistical Obituary. If you haven't already read those two article, you should. Since we're talking about the desktop PC platform as it pertains to hardware enthusiasts, you might also consider Killed By Overclocking and Saved By Overclocking as well. Collectively, these articles all help to form the bigger picture of what I'll be explaining in this article.
What I'm discussing in this article isn't the sudden and untimely death of an entire platform, but rather a tipping point within the industry. I'm referring to PCs made just for gaming, overclocking, or any other recreational enjoyment. The desktop computer platform as a whole will be around for many years to come, but the landscape of enthusiast hardware will change. Just as there are professional installations of DOS-based computers still in service, there too will remain Windows-based desktop computers within the office space for quite some time. This topic focuses on the enthusiast desktop hardware market segment, and its inability to continue growth into the mobile age.
How Fear Became Reality
Some time shortly after attending the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January, my exposure to "the next wave of technology" led me to have a true moment of clarity. I've been hard at work trying to find a positive direction within this industry, primarily because Benchmark Reviews is a desktop hardware-centric media outlet. Considering how notebook computers have been outselling desktop counterparts for over three years already, and that netbooks, tablets, and a myriad of mobile devices have piled onto this effect, it's not easy to remain faithful to a shrinking platform. But the writing is on the wall, and the future of this market segment is no longer a mystery. It seems clear to me that enthusiast hardware for the desktop computer platform has seen it's glory days, and is well into its golden years.
For many of our readers, that last statement might be passed off as opinion. Sadly, there will always be people who refuse to believe in something until after it has becomes undeniable to argue. I'm a little more calculated since I operate a corporation centered on sales and service of this platform, in addition to my experiences with this website. Nevertheless, I've already published statistical facts that backed my initial pessimistic feelings, but that wasn't enough for some of you. I knew that to really convince my readers, my message would needed to be solid. For those who still remain tethered to this industry, consider this editorial a friendly forewarning.
For more than two years now (2009-2011) our enthusiastic visitors have participated in a heated discussion on this topic, and it's taken just as long for the industry to finally make up its mind and choose a clear direction. Simply claiming that this new direction excludes desktop computers would be too easy, and not entirely accurate. To read the writing on the wall, you have to understand the language. This story begins with corporate profits, more specifically profit margins and sustainable product sales. It begins with the leaders of our beloved enthusiast desktop industry, then includes the leading top-tier system builders and resellers, and finally it ends with us.
Make Money or Make Change
This year Intel Corporation introduced its Sandy Bridge processor architecture. The new Core i3/i5/i7 desktop processors have revolutionized computing by delivering more performance in a smaller package, as a direct result of using less energy per transistor than ever before. It's a great processor, which Intel has made available to the mainstream consumer market. The catch: it was originally designed with the notebook platform in mind, proving that desktops come second in consideration. Next came the dual-GPU battle between AMD's Radeon HD 6990 and NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 590, which many gamers expected to be necessary hardware in order to play EA's Crysis 2 video game. This is where the enthusiast-fueled desktop hardware industry turns sour.
First, Intel suffered a major setback after the otherwise positive launch of their Sandy Bridge motherboard platform. As it turned out, a minor defect in the chip forced each of their motherboard partners to suffer untold production cost expenses after the entire first series manufactured on B2 stepping were recalled. For many companies this caused a significant impact on their profit margin for the quarter, and the impact had a trickle-down effect. Advertising budgets were slashed, which reduced the brands visibility. Added customer service expenses replacement product costs strained budgets, causing project delays and restricted their ability to finance future development. Without marketing efforts and advertising to promote new products, a brand name disappears from consumer radar and sales wane. As a direct result of decreased brand visibility, fewer consumers will be interested in new products which leads to a decline in sales. Once the consumer market shrinks and sales decline, that company must make changes to its product line just to stay in business. Products available to the remaining user base will utimately depend on what the manufacturer can afford to produce.
This has been happening for longer than you might think, with overwhelming evidence to be found everywhere you look. Xerox and IBM were the first major names in computing to jump ship and branch out many decades ago, quickly followed by Intel and others. When these companies discovered that their mainstay product segment could no longer sustain growth, they expanded into adjacent markets to help increase revenue. We're seeing this happen in today's computing climate, as well. Intel and AMD continue to drive desktop processors, but they've invested as much or more towards server and mobile computing market segments. NVIDIA recently announced their Tegra 2 mobile GPU, which offers the ability to play console-quality video games on a mobile phone. At some point in the not so distant future the desktop market segment will belong to professional workers and niche users, and companies that make enthusiast hardware will be forced to scale back their product offerings to include only the most profitable segments.
The next big setback came with Crysis 2, the video game that would change it all... or at least that's what we were fed to believe by Electronic Arts. For those of you who aren't in constant contact with the marketing arm of AMD and NVIDIA, you might not know that very few video game titles are made exclusively for the PC platform. Nearly all video games developed over the past four years have been designed for consoles first and foremost, and then later released for PC. Electronic Arts' Crysis game series had been one of the few holdouts; at least until Crysis 2 was launched as a DirectX 9 video game earlier this month on console gaming systems. Unfortunately, a DirectX 11 version is not expected for the PC platform, making the marketing efforts of NVIDIA and AMD moot.
All of these companies want you to believe that their ten-core processor or triple-GPU graphics card is what you really need to reach that next level. But what is that next level? For the past ten years I've used my computer for gaming, browsing the web, media playback, email messaging, documents, and editing images. With the exception of solid state drives, I'm confident my computer manages these tasks with the same speed it did many years ago. Sure, the processor and video card have grown to scale with applications and games, but that's really the point I'm making here: applications and gamers are no longer growing in their demand for resources. Without demand, supply cannot exist.
Enough Has Been Enough
Benchmark results aside, desktop processors have been providing overkill performance for the bulk of real-world applications since the Y2K scare. Sure, there are a few CPU-intensive applications that need the extra cycles such as 3D modeling or CAD/CAM programs, but for the longest time these applications were merely starved for graphics processing power that didn't exist like it does today. The same is true for PC video games, which used to make up for weak graphics power by using the CPU. Over the past few years nearly all modern GPUs have surpassed the computer power of CPUs with relative ease, giving consumer more than enough processing power to reach 'that next level' on a budget.
So, to recap the situation, consumers continue to replace their desktop PC platform with notebooks, netbooks, tablets, and mobile phones. These transitions have caused a decline in the number of desktop user, and thus fewer consumers in the segment. Desktop component manufacturers are finding it hard to profit in an economic climate that prohibits enthusiast spending, but they're also being squeezed by the resistance to constant hardware upgrades. Software developers are making their programs more accessible to low-power platforms, in addition to Cloud-computing solutions. PC video games are essentially the desktop platform's last stand, and now that battle is looking bleak.
All of these events will create a divide in the desktop user space. System builders will see less dramatic change within the 'professional' desktop segment, while manufacturers of enthusiast-grade desktop hardware will be hit hardest. I suspect that graphics card manufacturers will be among the first of these companies to streamline their product offerings to cope with a shrinking user base, and will eventually offer a fraction of the discrete video card models they now produce. They'll eventually concentrate their efforts towards mobile graphics, and what remains of the desktop segment will likely be integrated graphics or task-specific video cards for the graphics professional. The desktop platform may live on well past the age of enthusiast desktops, but only in professional environments.
When it comes to video games, people are primarily playing them on game consoles followed by personal computers and then mobile phones. Excusing the small yet growing number of mobile phone gamers, we can focus on the battle between console and PC. Microsoft, the makers of the Windows O/S, hedged their bets back in November 2005 when they launched the Xbox 360 video game console. One year later Sony began selling their PlayStation 3 gaming console, also based on DirectX 9 graphics API. For nearly six year now the PC industry has slowly lost gamers to console platforms, and it's about to get much worse.
Since the current (7th) generation of home gaming consoles currently use DirectX 9-compatible graphics processors, many people believe that when Sony unveils their PlayStation4 platform a year or more from now it will utilize modern DirectX 11 graphics. This is probably true, just as it could be accurate to predict that game developers will then begin to produce more DirectX 11 games as a direct result. But sadly, with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction: those gamers who befriended the desktop PC platform to enjoy DirectX 11 games will no longer have a reason to continue using it. The end of an era is near, so enjoy it while you still can.
Only time will tell how accurate my predictions have been, but feel free to leave your comments below.