There are some of us old enough to remember when the first you heard of a new release was seeing it on the shelf in Dixons (or Boots, or all the bizarre places that used to stock games back in the days of yore) or stumbling across it on a cover-mounted 3.5-inch floppy disc.
Back in those days, when we had returned from the mines and our masters had finished thrashing us, there was no internet. This meant there was no Google image search, no preview embargoes and no teaser trailers. If we were lucky, and pa had rewarded us with a ‘magazine’ (a type of static, unsearchable internet that we printed onto sheets of wood pulp), we may have had a few tiny printed halftone screenshots to scour over. Oh, the treasures that were teased by trawling through those back-page Special Reserve listings. ‘Twas a time of wonder, really.
Nowadays, them there millennials, with their fidget spinners and dabbing, have probably watched a complete playthrough in streamed 4k and threatened a developer’s mother on Twitter before a game has even been released. But despite all our technical wonders, such as live-streamed social media racism and instantaneously organised street riots over the procurement of cartoon-branded sauce, gamers are still from time to time treated to the delight that we used to refer to as “a surprise”.
And the PC remains the best place to find them.
DayZ arguably marked the moment where much of the modern games business finally stood up and paid attention to the financial feasibility of the unmarketed hit. UK trade magazine MCV named the game as the best-selling title of Christmas 2013, an award that had officially been handed to EA’s FIFA 14, which had sold strongest on what we used to call the High Street.
“It’s not finished and had no marketing” the paper cried, in awe that such success (1m sales and £20m made in its first month) could be attained without a tightly orchestrated awareness campaign. Indeed, it demonstrates how far the industry has moved on in just four short years; at the time it was a genuine shock, yet now DayZ’s success is barely enough to raise an eyebrow (unlike the highly eyebrow-raising fact that here and now in 2017 the game has still not had a full release and the console versions, announced in 2014, are still MIA).
Perhaps a better example of the modern PC surprise phenomenon, however, is Minecraft. Its origins stretch back all the way to 2009, when now millionaire madman Markus Persson released an early build on an indie development forum. The game was an instant hit, and the success it had enjoyed among bedroom coders was mirrored by the wider public as the newly formed Mojang released enhanced builds into the wild. It, too, sold 1m copies in its first month (in beta). This all culminated, of course, in Microsoft’s 2014 acquisition of Mojang and its game for an incredible $2.5bn. But as much as the sum may have seemed daft to many at the time, the game has grown to become one of the industry’s biggest brands. It’s available on every platform, is used in schools and commands space in the toy aisles. As of February this year the game had sold over 122m copies. That’s one copy for every 60 people on the planet.
Of a similar vein but less well known is fellow block-title Roblox. Creator David Baszucki first started dabbling with demos of his new sandbox game in 2004, before releasing a PC build in 2006. Ten years later, Roblox hit 30m monthly active users and by earlier this year that number had hit 48m, with creators making anything up to $50k per month selling their in-game wares. All in all Roblox has enjoyed 330 per cent year-on-year growth.
If you’re talking big numbers, however, you can look no further than League of Legends. Born of a partnership between two Californian university students who liked a StarCraft mod called DotA, LoL was quietly released in 2009. Its early popularity was mainly among the young, as its free-to-play nature meant even those unable to procure illicit funds from their parents were able to get involved. Bolstered by a surge of popularity across Asia, the player numbers soon grew to astonishing levels. By 2011 it had 11.5m monthly active users, 4.2m daily users and 1.3m concurrent players. By the following year that had grown to 32m MAUs and 12m DAUs. In 2014 developer Riot announced 67m MAUs and 27m DAUs. In 2016 it hit 100m MAUs.
It's wrong, however, to focus only on the biggest players, as surprise success on the PC comes in all shapes and sizes.
Like both DayZ and League of Legends, Facepunch Studios found surprise success with roots in the mod scene. Garry’s Mod was initially released for free as a mod for Half-Life 2 before rolled out as a standalone release in 2006. The sandbox physics title allowed users to quite literally design their own fun, and the Source Engine kit has seen the birth of unfathomable volumes of user created content. As of 2016 the game had sold 10m copies but, more impressively, still today regularly sits in the top 10 or 20 most played games on Steam. At the time of writing it was being played by more people than Fallout 4, Arma 3, Skyrim, Civilization VI and The Witcher 3.
There is, in fact, an endless list of games that have appeared from virtually nowhere only to go on and post seven-figure sales numbers. Toby Fox used the GameMaker development kit to create Undertale, which hit PC in 2015. The RPG eschewed flashy graphics in favour of solid writing and good humour, and has gone on to sell over 3m copies on Steam. It also arrived on PS4 and Vita in August.
Also enjoying success on consoles is Stardew Valley. Made by Eric Barone, the love-letter to the Harvest Moon series won a dedicated fanbase thanks to the attention and care shown by its developer throughout its Steam Greenlight phase. By the time it was released, its fanbase was already secure, and word of mouth helped it to 400k sales in its first two weeks and 1m in two months. It was among the top 25 sellers on Steam in 2016, and total PC sales are nearing 2m.
In fact, PC’s freedom from the walled gardens employed in the console space makes it ideal for surprise releases. In August Mike Bithell, who has become one of the UK’s most recognisable and widely liked indie developers, both announced and released bite-sized narrative adventure Subsurface Circular on the same day. And just this week, the creator of smartphone puzzle hit Drop7 released a brand new browser game called Paperclips. It went from release to being the most talked about game on the internet in a matter of hours.
None of which even touches on what is looking to be the defining game of 2017. Yes, it’s a PC game. Yes, it has its roots in the mod scene and yes, it came from nowhere.
Brendan Greene (who uses the gamertag ‘PlayerUnknown’ first became a name among certain dedicated corners of the PC games fraternity when he created a popular Battle Royale mod for DayZ. Battle Royale, as the name suggests, takes inspiration from the Japanese film of the same name. The genre sees a number of players dumped into a server with nothing. Finding whatever tools and equipment they can (the focus typically being on firepower), the contestants must fight to finish. The last one standing wins.
So popular was his template that he was hired by Daybreak, for whom he created the King of the Hill mode for DayZ-clone H1Z1. So successful had Greene’s template been that he was again hired for a new project, and so was born Bluehole’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
By the time PUBG was released in March 2017 there was already a dedicated playerbase waiting for it, but the scope of its ballooning beyond its 80,000-strong closed beta has surprised everyone. The game made $11m in its first three days and hit 1m copies sold within two weeks. By the time it hit 2m sales in May the majority of the games press was still only waking up to the phenomenon. By June it had hit 4m unit sales and made $100m.
In September it smashed Steam’s all-time concurrent user record, beating the 1.29m previously posted by Dota 2. Shortly afterwards it hit 1.5m and most recently smashed the 2m mark. Its total sales in just over six months? Over 15m units sold. It’s a juggernaut, the likes of which we rarely see – and the nature of which you’ll only ever get on PC.
It’s easy to get nostalgic about a perceived loss of innocence in video games. And it’s probably true to say that anything we might have lost has been made up for by everything we’ve gained. It’s certainly true, however, that in an age of flashy reveals, finely-tuned marketing campaigns and pre-order incentives, the PC remains the best option for the gamer who sits down fancying simply ‘something different’. Steam’s approach to quality control, which seems to extend as far as simply checking whether the exe. will launch, brings with it its own complications. As does the ability for anyone to upload anything anywhere and share it globally. But the reward for tolerating this anarchy is the occasional joy of a diamond emerging from the rough, and this dynamism is a key part of why the PC remains the most vibrant gaming space there is.