Here’s the crux of publishing games for PC right now:
“Whether it really is all about piracy, or it just becomes the domination of consoles, or […] the ubiquity of gaming: there’s a way to get gaming so many ways now that thinking about the PC as a disc-based platform may in fact be old.”
I imagine those are pretty tough words for some publishers to get through, but it’s true: CD-ROM was a buzzword in the mid-nineties, and so was “multimedia” along with so many other now defunct terms. HD is (slowly) catching on, UK regulator OFCOM are talking about deploying optical fibre at reduced cost using existing utility conduits, private companies are planning to do the same with sewers, and broadband has already just about killed off commercial piracy in some quarters.
Some people I know at publishers claim that there will always be a market for physical product, and they’re probably right: Bandwidth can be at a premium in rural areas compared to cities, and some people really do like having each piece of media as a physical object (For instance, I have friends whose ongoing music collections are MP3s, but who also collect vinyl). What we don’t know is how big or small a niche each type of physical product will become: but “smaller” is the safe bet for most.
As consoles tilt toward HD formats and net connections a generation at a time, as a platform the PC is taking the same steps in a much more organic way. With boxed product sales shrinking and digital distribution (including web-based games) growing, the PC is in a transitional state. Unless something seriously upsets broadband development, or causes Blu-Ray to catch on for PC in a big way, it seems doubtful it will eventually settle back on disc based formats.
(CC image of discarded internal CD-ROM and floppy drives by Jeff Kubina)