The PC Games Business and Why Things Don't Have to Get Better

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Commodore SuperPET: Photo by Bill LoguidiceCommodore SuperPET: Photo by Bill LoguidiceGamasutra has another interesting "Analyze This", this time on "The Current State of the PC Game Business". While prior to the Nintendo Entertainment System's (NES) ascension, it was common and logical to believe that computers would negate the need for a dedicated game machine, since the late 80's the trend has fully reversed where it became fashionable to say that console gaming will kill off PC gaming. While that hasn't happened and will never happen, the "Analyze This" feature does have comments from analysts that indicate that PC gaming has become and will remain a large niche in light of console dominance, which is frankly hard to argue against.

While perhaps not as bold of a statement as it once could have been, I will agree that PC gaming will never again overtake console gaming and will remain nothing more than a third or fourth option in terms of mass market/mainstream development and sales. It's actually unfair to the PC to make the comparison, because the PC is a tremendous general purpose device, while a console is primarily designed to play games. Yes, the newer the console, the more stuff it seems to be able to do - play movies, music, display photos, etc. - but it's primarily thought of and primarily used as a game player. Someone looks at a PC and does not immediately think "game machine". They think "word processor", "e-mail", "Internet", "IM", etc., or simply "COMPUTER", all likely well before they think "game machine" (save for the hardest of hardcore).

In any case, it's not the PC's fault it is what it is. In my case, I long ago gave up using my PC as a primary or even a consistent game playing device. I got tired of the upgrades, I got tired of the installations and compatibility issues, and frankly I just go tired period even after a lot of that was fixed. After long since starting my post-college career, I've been using computers in my job (yes, mostly non-technical stuff) for 8 hours+ per day staring at a monitor (or monitors). This doesn't count my time at home on the Internet, checking e-mail or paying bills, nor does it count time I spend researching and writing my book or any other writing I may do. So 10 - 12+ hours a day on a computer - even different computers - makes it unappealing to think of spending even another hour doing something like playing games on the same type of thing. In my youth I would have thought nothing of that and probably relished it, but things evolve. That's where my consoles come in.

With my consoles, I get to sit on the sofa with an often wireless controller, with a big screen widescreen HDTV, surround sound, etc. Very comfortable, very enveloping. I know that when I take the disc and put it in the machine, it will immediately work with almost zero chance of crashing. The controller is standardized, so no configuration there either. In short, I get a different look from the all-day PC and comfort and convenience to boot (and before you say setting up a PC game is a one-time thing, probably, but you still have to do it at least once).

While it's true that I can either hook my PC up to a TV (some of my TV's have DVI or VGA connectors) or get a dedicated TV PC, that's not to say it's a good native resolution for either the TV or the computer, and I still have to worry about the sound. While I can hook up my PC to surround sound speakers, I'm not going to run wire in my office, and the high-end wireless option I have in my living room that does double-duty as the TV/movie surround sound, is simply not a practical option as another purchase (yes, there are cheaper PC-centric options, but again, is it really worth it to devote myself to two high-end game environments?). So yeah, while this is all doable on the PC, will I bother to set it all up and still have to deal with other issues associated with a typical PC? Nope. Do I play games on my PC? Absolutely, but only very specific types under very specific circumstances these days (Civ IV, Half-Life 2, Neverwinter Nights). Other priorities take up my time and if I just want to play, I just go to a game device - a console - that's purely made for it. And again, while my wife and I can huddle around the PC monitor, it's far easier for us to lounge on the sofa with the wireless controllers and play games meant for the big screen with default multiplayer options. Same goes for online stuff, particularly on Xbox Live, where it all just works and is consistent (though a lot of this functionality will be brought over by Microsoft after Vista releases, it still won't be the same).

As long as PC configurations remain a moving target - and not doing so would go against their very natures - the five year plus stability of a console would be hard to compete against. You buy a game now, it will always work on that console, you buy a game in six years (assuming that they're still making games for it), it will still work on that same console. It's the no-hassle solution. PC's can't and never have been able to say that after the 8-bit computing era ended (and even then that was only in select cases, like with the Commodore 64 (C-64)).

If given a choice of only ONE game machine, I'd surely pick a good PC over anything for the pure versatility and unlimited functionality. But also like any convergence device - and a PC really is the ultimate convergence device, isn't it, since it can be just about anything, serve almost any function? - it doesn't do any one specific thing as well as a dedicated device could. It's like me having a great Windows Mobile Cell Phone. It's an awesome general purpose handheld device and for instance works wonderfully as an MP3 player, but its primary function is as a cell phone to me, so that limits how useful it is to me as a music player (or Web browser or e-mail device, game machine, etc.); I need to make sure I have enough battery power after heavy "other" usage to still make and receive calls!

By the way, if you still disagree with me about the time and place for consoles versus PC's, you're welcome to come to my house and take the time to configure a television PC for me that is just as "perfect" for games as a console that I won't have to replace until at least 2011 and still plays all the hottest games without issue. I'll be waiting...

Finally, I also feel liberated by long ago giving up having to have a killer PC gaming rig. I now buy new computers only when I feel less productive on the current system, not because I get poor frame rates on the latest games. This also allows me to look at other form factors that interest me, like Tablet PC's or even Mac's, without having to worry about running the latest games. I can use it for productivity and occasional fun stuff. The more functions you can remove from a convergence or general purpose devices reason for existence, the more freedom you have to pick the best device for your particular needs. Ultimately, I feel this is why PC gaming has to continue to take a backseat to consoles. You'll still have your niche high-end bleeding edge games, and lots of more casual or targeted stuff, as well as everything in between, but it's better to NOT have it be the premiere gaming platform when there are dedicated options out there. That holds true for lots of convergence or general purpose devices, and is why things like iPod's are so successful at what they were originally designed for and any additions are incremental and logical extensions.

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Matt Barton
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Consoles vs. Computers

Well, everyone knows my opinion on the old console vs. computer debate. I've always claimed that computer gaming offers a more authentic gaming experience than a console. Why do I say this? Mostly just because vague words like "authentic" tend to make people blow gaskets, which is always a fun thing to see. ;-)

Really, though, I've never been too keen on consoles. Most of them try their best to lock you in as much as possible and do everything they can to prevent "unauthorized" use. A console just seems too much like a money sucking device. Everything you want to do with it involves pulling out your wallet or slapping down your plastic. Bleh. The argument I always hear is that a game console gives you great hardware at a very low price (compared to computers). This may be so, but it doesn't take many $60 games before you realize you've been flummoxed.

Computers, on the other hand, require a much steeper initial investment, but you can do so much more stuff with them for next to nothing (including playing many more games). Even if you were a true legal eagle and never touched abandonware and the like, you could still spend all your time playing great freeware games. You could also get great creative tools and make your own games, music, whatever. Plus, companies like The Adventure Company and GameTap offer incredible diversity in games for pennies on the dollar.

For me, there really is no choice. The only thing you can really say in favor of a console is that you don't have to spend as much money upfront and get a more unified experience. Plus, there are the occassional exclusives that you'll miss out on or have to wait a long time to get on your PC (particularly if you want to be legal about it). These factors don't move me.

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Bill Loguidice
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Why it's not an either/or thing, but helps to optimize both...

I was developing a long-ish reply on my home computer last night, but got distracted and didn't finish. Instead of waiting until tonight to respond, I'll just respond now at work in a more summary fashion...

Again, I agree - and I think no one can dispute it - that the PC is the best possible game machine (amongst other best possible things) - but it doesn't mean it's the ideal game machine, if that makes sense. As Mark correctly pointed out and I hinted at in the editorial, not since the days of mid-life 8-bit computers and select early 16-bits did we have truly plug and play gaming in computing. This split has meant that computers were free to become almost infinitely configurable, updatable and expandable, but also be more of a challenge/complex to work with, while consoles were allowed to remain plug and play and NOT have to become computers anymore (remember when that used to be a selling point for a console pre-NES?).

There's a reason why the PC is no longer the premiere game platform - meaning for the latest and greatest mainstream stuff (except where it favors the platform's setup, like monitor, mouse and keyboard). The overall experience is more comfortable and is almost always bigger and more enveloping in the living room rather than the office (to use broad designations). Again, that's not a bad thing, as the PC still does all the other stuff that it does, still has the games more or less (more if you don't rely on boxed or "pro" stuff). The bigger point of the editorial though was not to pick one over the other - we don't have to as most people can have at least one computer and one console - it was to merely state that we don't need to be all gloom and doom about the PC games market. It is what it is, has been and will no doubt continue to be. It can't beat out consoles at what they do. Consoles also can't do what PC's can do. Each can encroach on the other's territory to a certain degree, but each has its very specific and useful place. Since there are in fact the options of consoles and they're supremely well supported, we are actually less restricted on our PC's and can let them more fully reach their potential as computing devices, not just game devices. Ironically, as computing devices they require less maintenance and upkeep than as game devices. That's liberating, that's freedom, that's thanks to the power of the console market, something that PC game fans don't have to lament about that their favored platform is no longer thought of first for games.

RE: The cost of consoles versus PC's, again you can't compare the two. Even if you got a $100 console or a $600 console, you still can't compare it to a $500 or $2500 PC. They're different devices. Yes, in theory, you can buy a computer once and get all the games you want by just paying for an Internet connection, but that's not what most people do. Most people do in fact actually buy games, be they digital, subscription or boxed. In most cases on consoles (and certainly when the 360, PS3 and Wii come to dominance), you have the same exact situation. You even have magazines you can subscribe to with a disc filled with demos each month, just like on the PC, for those without connections. And what about renting games? Most rental setups don't offer PC game rentals. There's a reason for that. Regardless, costs balance out over the two, it's affordable to own at least one of each, and both types have very different roles. Think different, as they say. To me, true gamers just want access to as many games as possible, as many different types of games as possible, as many different game experiences as possible. That's the need for at least one PC and console, and why neither one is going away anytime soon.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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Matt Barton
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The fine line between computer and console

Well, I remember all the hubbub over Microsoft's first Xbox console and the fact that some models had a harddrive (gasp!) Plenty of console purists were predicting doom for the unit because one of the sacred rules of consoles had been broken. You do have to admit, though, that the Xbox was much closer to a "compu-sole" than most (all?) of its predecessors. Of course, it didn't come with a mouse or keyboard...

One thing is for sure. The age-old tradition of computers being a haven for illegal game trading and consoles being bastions of copyright protection is fast passing into legend. Largely, the internet seems responsible for that. Now it's easier than ever for console owners to hack their boxes, buy and install "mod chips" and the like, and just in general use their console in "unauthorized" ways. True, it might be somewhat more difficult than doing the same thing on a computer, but intense competition in the "gray market" seems to be driving down prices and vamping up quality. Of course, proportionately very few console owners would ever even dream about modding their console, but, then again, I'm not convinced that more than 25% or so of PC owners have ever actually bought a piece of software that didn't come with their computer (they're content to surf the net and tinker with the software that came on it).

Nevertheless, the perceived threat causes companies like Sony have to dedicate more and more money to fighting a "war" that probably only involves what...5% of their market at most? Nevertheless, the costs wrack up not only the price of the console but also the licensing fees and, subsequently, the games. There's also the cumbersome copy protection that was never needed before, so now console users are getting to experience those, er, "delights."

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Bill Loguidice
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Protection affects all technology...

Well, every Xbox came standard with a roughly 8GB hard drive. It's the Xbox 360 where it's unfortunately optional. But yes, a hard drive with the first Xbox was one of the console sacred cows and caused quite a bit of debate. Now people expect it (PS3 will have one, Wii will not, instead using Flash memory). You can hook up a mouse and keyboard to a PS2 to play select games, but support is spotty. Mice were of course made available for past consoles, including Genesis/Sega CD, Super NES, CD-i, PS1 and Dreamcast (the latter of which also got a keyboard, and of course also supported mouse/keyboard in select games). So yes, there has been and will continue to be plenty of overlap, even after the console converted to a computer boom of the pre-NES era (let's not forget either that a hobby developer kit was available for the PS1 that turned that into a computer and there's rumored to be a full-fledged Linux add-on setup for the PS3, etc.). The bottom line is though, you're talking a single, stable base platform for the entire lifetime of the console, which is something that can never be said on the PC side (and we wouldn't want it that way). And yes, EVERYTHING is plug and play on the console. Everything simply works. Also, while copy protection and lock out chips are present in the console world and it does add costs, similar measures have always been in effect on the computer side. That's not a console versus PC thing, that's a technology thing, prevalent throughout nearly every electronic device we can think of.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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Matt Barton
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Game Consoles serving as computers

I've always been surprised that more console makers haven't tried harder to push these computer-add-ons. I know it was huge back in the C-64's day (Why buy a game machine when you could have a computer?"). Surely you could attach a keyboard and mouse to an Xbox 360 and have enough power left over to do Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. I realize such options might taint the already tainted image of the Xbox as a computer-in-disguise (as if that's a bad thing), but it seems like an ideal solution for many families. I'd think this would especially be viable with the high prevalance of high-definition screens capable of very nice resolutions (hard to see fine text on a tube).

Then again, I guess any family that can afford an Xbox 360 and a high-def screen has plenty left over for a dedicated computer.

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Bill Loguidice
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Videogame Consoles as Computers

I think that's an important point, that is it really benefiting anyone to turn a console, let alone an Xbox 360, into a spare computer? It would no doubt have to be watered down - after all, you can't expect every target display to be hi-def - and worse, you take away time from the machine being used for its primary puropse, games. It's one thing to watch a movie or listen to music on the thing, it's something else entirely to word process or e-mail on it. After a point, it becomes too intrusive to its core functionality. That's also the flip-side of the argument of using a PC as the primary game system. After all, it's difficult for the computer to multi-task while you're playing a high powered game on it.

As a collector, though, I've always been intrigued by converting videogame consoles to computers, or using them as such. For every console where it was possible, I have acquired the option (and believe me, a huge percentage of pre-NES systems have the option). Half-assed is often the best way to describe the conversions with the added insult of only some setups actually having the ability to store stuff. Imagine that, a "computer" that loses everything after the power is off. In reality they were more "computer toys" than actual computers, though some became truly competitive with the right setup or even by default (like the Bally Astrocade or the ColecoVision Adam). Doing that to a console today would have no benefit other than for Web browsing (no doubt limited) on your TV, and you don't need an actual conversion to do that (see Dreamcast).

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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[ http://www.MythCore.com ]

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Matt Barton
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Computers as Game Machines

Hmm...Interesting points indeed, Bill. One thing I'm reminded of is the early 90s, when some computer manufacturers were really trumping up their game-playing abilities. We talk a lot about the "multimedia" features of the Amiga line, for instance, but I'm sure that was an afterthought. The main goal was to create a kick-ass gaming device that doubled as a reasonably-powered computer (I don't see much of a change in general paradigm from the C-64 to the Amiga line in terms of "why buy a game when you can own a computer?") Things started to blur a bit with the more expensive Amigas (A3000/A4000). The low-budget Amigas (A500 and A1200) always seemed to do the best in the market.

I think the console/computer debate probably became sharpest in the PC world. It wasn't at all unusual in the early 90s to see an IBM PC with monochrome graphics and no sound but a buzzer. It seemed to take IBM PCs a decade to catch up with other computers of the era, and even then the early attempts at serious "gaming rigs" involved a nightmare of incompatible cards and the like (a point raised by Mark).

In short, it makes sense to talk about a PC/console divide if you are comparing say, an IBM-PC equipped with Hercules CGA and an NES, but much less if you're comparing an Amiga 1200 with an SNES.

I think an interesting question would be just how powerful of a gaming PC you could build for the same price as an Xbox 360 or a Sony PS3. Would this gaming rig compare favorably with the game consoles?

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Bill Loguidice
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It depends what you mean by compare...

Where do you draw the line when comparing a PC with a console? I brought the price thing up earlier. Just because a loaded 360 is $499, does that mean you can immediately compare it to a similarly priced $499 PC? Probably not. What if you add in the cost of a display? What if that display does something else (like is the main television of the household)? What kind of games can you play on that $499 PC? What about the console exclusives? What about the PC exclusives? Will that $499 PC still play the "latest" games five years from now like the 360 would? Like I said, I believe you simply can't compare the two. Each is worth owning in its own right for different and yes, sometimes similar reasons.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[ My collection ]
[ http://www.MythCore.com ]

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Mark Vergeer
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Configuration drivers installing setting up......

On the old versatile home computer systems playing a game meant loading a tape or disk with commands like
load"",8,1 dload load bload and other variants without the need for configuring memory and other settings. Control devices were more or less standard digital joysticks or joypads.

Things sort of changed with the Amiga, the easy games booted directly from disk but with more advanced hd-compatible games installing became neccessary and sometimes quite a bit of configuring. Not all types of Amiga were able to play the same game - as different Kickstart and hardwareconfigurations could make things very complicated.

With the ms-dos PC there was a whole array of things you needed to take care of: CPU, graphics cards, sound cards, drivers, ems and xms memory configurations. Multiple boot options in the autoexec.bat and config.sys made possible with ms-dos 5.0 and up made running pc games a little easier. With the early Windows PC games things still were thoug, not all graphics cards allowed the use of the WING api. When directX became available not all graphics cards were compatible. But things have improved with windows-gaming. Stick in the cd-rom/dvd-rom run install. Make sure you have the latest directX compatible drivers and you're set to go albeit that the listed mimimum system specs usually are on the low side making a nice game experience not possible. Be sure the have a PC with a whole lot more then the mimimum specs. For the rest the windows XP gameing experience is more or less painless..... except for those horrible copy protection solutions that install rootkits on your systems or make cd/dvd burning software useless....

Both PC and console have it's advantages. If you have little time and you want to try out or play a game quickly whilst in couch-tater-position in front of the telly than a console is your choice. Depending on the genre real time strategy, first person shooters have the best control schemes when you use a mouse and keyboard.

Actually I am undecided, I want to be able to do both..... I have more than 1 pc and more than 1 console ;)

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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cdoty
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They *may* be right!

A year ago would've argued that the PC had the advantage of being able to play games purchased from the internet (Diner Dash, etc.) This advantage is available on the XBox 360 and will be available on the Wii. Granted, the games are controlled by Microsoft or Nintendo, but there will be plenty of games to choose from. And, in the PC market there are too many games to choose from. Most people are lucky to purchase and play 3 or 4 a year.

Another thing that hurts the PC market is that the low cost PCs being sold by Dell and others. They really aren't capable of playing the latest hard-core games. They are perfectly suited for the casual games, but can't play Half Life 2. This leaves the typical teenage male gamer out in the code, and 'pushes' them to a console, thereby isolating the hard core gamer from the PC market.

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