ESA Figures Prove What We've Suspected For Years: Classic PC Gaming is Dying

The ESA has released its yearly report on the state of gaming in 2012 and it shows significantly different trends than what we saw in years past. For this year's report, the ESA updated its questionnaire to reflect the growth of tablets and smartphones as gaming devices, rather than screening respondents based on their possession of a handheld, console, or dedicated PC. Thanks to these changes, the number of citizens 18 and under classified as gamers skyrocketed. The average gamer age also fell, from 37 in 2011 to 30 in 2012.

One of the heartwarming changes over the last seven years are the number of parents who say they play games with their children because it's fun for everyone. 66% was a pretty good figure in 2005, but the 90% response rate for 2012 is even better. Games aren't just fun -- they're seen as a way to connect across generations and boundaries. The number of parents who say that playing is one way to monitor content has held steady while other response rates have increased. Games can be a way to frame or discuss mature topics as well, though we've thankfully been spared the idea of a Sam and Max "Very Special Episode."

The ESA report also breaks down games by genre, with data on which categories are more popular for video games vs. PC games. We omitted a few categories to make the graph smaller, but this constitutes the majority of the data, including the most interesting differences.

Strategy and role-playing games were big wins for the PC space, with 'casual' growth largely driven by services like Zynga and Facebook. PC gaming is still largely solitary -- note the 0.1% share for 'Family Entertainment' on PC, compared to 11% on consoles. Sports games are also a non-starter on the PC, though that's partly due to viability; most of the large franchises have abandoned the PC or release poorly ported schlock. 'Action' games aren't a clear category given that we've already broken out role-playing, shooters, and RPGs -- this may refer to twitch-style gaming, or it could be a category for Kinect Sports, Wii Fit, and other titles that rely on motion control.

Here's the not-so-happy portion for those of us who prefer PC gaming.

For years, PC enthusiasts have argued that NPD data that showed slumping PC game sales was wrong because it failed to include digital transactions. In 2009, Gartner updated its criteria to include all of those channels. This is the result. Total unit sales, including digital sales, slumped 11.7 million units from 2010 to 2011 -- and 9 million of those units came from the PC business. The PC video game business is half the size it was in 2009. In 2011, PC game revenue actually increased slightly compared to 2010, up to $700M dollars. In 2011, it plummeted to $450M. Again, that's digital and retail both.

The steep decline in unit sales (including digital) has gone mostly unnoticed because of skyrocket growth in the casual sector. Denialists will point to this and shriek that it disproves my point. Whether or not that's actually true depends on whether you consider Angry Birds an effective replacement for Civilization V.

No, Civilization V isn't going anywhere, but Civilization is a 20 year-old brand-name with an established fan base. It's the other, less famous games that vanish, and perhaps more importantly, the games that never get made because investors won't back them that become the casualities of war. The affect isn't limited to PCs; major developers are shifting focus as well. Check out EA's Q3 lineup, courtesy of Kotaku:

Through the end of its Q4, EA is releasing 9 PC / console titles, and 25 social, mobile, and free-to-play games. That's not just because they take fewer resources and have smaller dev teams, it's part of an industry-wide trend to capitalize on mobile and tablet gaming as much as humanly possible. Casual games exploded on the PC due to Internet access, but in the long run, PCs will just be one small way to access titles that stretch across multiple platforms.

Will there be a Civilization or SimCity in the brave new world? Sure. And if we're really lucky, they won't be touch-optimized browser games that were ported for keyboard and mouse.
Tags:  Nvidia, AMD, Sony, Gaming, Xbox, GPU, video, PC, PS3