March 16, 2004

Platforms in Play

by peterb

I play video games, on average, maybe an hour a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but on average probably 1/24th of my adult life is spent playing videogames. That's quite a lot.

I have a love of the game medium that is wide and deep. For the past many years, I've played games both on the PC (Windows and Mac) and more or less every console in vogue. I spend time and money on gaming as a hobby. And lately I notice that a greater percentage of my playing time is devoted to games on a console, as compared to games on the PC.

Why is that?

Although it's popular for people to blame cost, that's not really a major factor for me. I've got my PC. I've got my consoles. They're all paid for. I'm asking "What are the feelings that make me reach for the console rather than the PC when I'm in a gaming mood?"

For one thing, there's the comfort factor. I sit at a desk in front of a computer all day long. Perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind is the feeling that sitting at a desk in front of a computer in my leisure time too is wrong somehow -- playing a game is psychologically transformed into work. This holiday season, when I had a huge stack of games that I hadn't made progress in, I had a brief period where I was actually feeling guilty that I wasn't playing enough games. When games are work instead of fun, I'm less likely to play them.

I can play a console game from the couch, sitting well back from the monitor, which is an attractive, large TV. Friends can play or watch at the same time in the same room, which makes the console experience a bit more social, comparatively speaking. If I'm playing Project Gotham Racing 2, I can play standing up (everyone knows that if you lean when turning left, the car turns faster, right? Just like how you can steer the ball when bowling.)

Lastly, there's the "just works" factor. This weekend while preparing my review of The Battle for Wesnoth, I decided to fire up Warlords III to refresh my memory of it. Same hardware configuration as when I used to play it, same disc, but now, presumably because of some magic Windows update, the game no longer works -- it crashes after a few minutes. I spent about 2 hours downloading various driver updates and trying different configurations, but in the end I was foiled. Congratulations! This is what it's like to play games on the PC. Get used to it.

When I want to play a game on the PS2 or Xbox, I walk up to it, hit the power button, put the disc in the drive, and I'm playing in a minute or so. No fuss. No wondering if there will be some subtle incompatibility between the game and my sound card. It all just works.

Perhaps this is just another example of how specialization brings convenience. If you really want to, you can make toast by sticking a piece of bread on a spit and holding it above a flame, or by putting it in the oven for the right amount of time. Everyone has an oven. Everyone has a stove. But everyone also has a toaster. You don't hear people saying "Hey, don't use that toaster -- this Viking range is much more powerful!" Yet people make that argument about PC games versus console games all the time.



Are there downsides to leaning towards console games? Sure. Although it's no longer fair to characterize all console games as "less intricate" than all PC games (I played Knights of the Old Republic for a good 60 hours, for example, and found it involving and enjoyable), it is true that there's a certain class of games that are less likely to break through to the console world, due to the ergonomics of controlling them (I don't expect to see Europa Universalis II on a console any time soon, just to pick one example -- real time strategy games which require fine mouse control might make up the lion's share of this class). And because the cost of entry for developers to the console market is higher, great little games like Chromatron and Escape Velocity aren't likely to appear on them. I'm glad those great little games exist (especially because I can play them on the couch, on my laptop). I think there is a nostalgia factor for those of us who are a bit older who remember sitting in front of our Apple ]['s (or whatever) knowing that the game we were playing was written by one person, who was maybe just like us, and wouldn't that be cool to do for a living?

Castle Wolfenstein

Castle Wolfenstein

You can't maintain that illusion with consoles; obviously any commercial console project is a serious undertaking by a comparatively large team. There's no Bill Budge or Nasir or Dani Bunten producing all aspects of the game themselves. But that's also true of large commercial PC games. Castle Wolfenstein, arguably the best game of its era, was written by Silas Warner. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was created by a huge team of coders, artists, designers, and producers. There are thousands of great, independent, small scale games written by unique individuals today. You (and I) never get to hear about most of them. So if you're going to spend money on the product of a faceless multinational conglomerate, why not at least spend money on the product that reliably works?

A year ago I would have said that a PC was the better choice for online gaming, but frankly the Xbox Live user experience has so far exceeded my expectations that I no longer hold that opinion. I've drunk the Kool-aid. Here's my money; a few bucks a month to pay for a voice-enabled rendezvous service that lets me play with my friends rather than a bunch of rude 13 year olds is well worth it.

Will I keep playing PC games? Sure, especially the smaller, independent ones. But the sharp dividing line of quality that used to exist between PC and console games no longer exists. As time goes on, I find that the ergonomic advantages of consoles overwhelm PC games for all games except those with the quirkiest user interfaces. I'm already choosing to play most game available for both PC and Xbox in their Xbox form.

Toast, you see, should be made in a toaster.

Additional Resources

This is what we talk about when we talk about games:

Posted by peterb at March 16, 2004 04:11 PM | Bookmark This

Amen. "It just works" applies both to the (ha) installation process (put in the disk), and the whole XBox live shebang. Frame rates are predictable and generally smooth, since there's only one platform. And frankly, at the end of the day the last thing I want to do is still be using a mouse.

Plus of course, the surround sound system is out there, not in here :).

I do miss my improved targeting precision with the mouse, but I seem to be getting better at it on the console.

Posted by Eric Tilton at March 16, 2004 05:46 PM

Wow. Reading the comments in the Brad Wardell article you linked to was interesting. I'd forgotten just how angry some people get about the fact that others might prefer a different gaming system. Dozens of screaming rants about how stupid and terrible and childish consoles were, and how PC games were for intelligent people who could handle the complexity, etc, etc.

The best bit were the posters who tore Wardell apart for daring to say anything bad about PC games, declaring that he obviously didn't know anything about gaming at all. 'Cause, y'know, why would a professional PC game developer know anything about PC gaming?

More on topic, I'm in the same boat. I've been meaning to upgrade my gaming PC so it plays the whizzy new games for the last two years or so, and I've never gotten around to it. Every time I think about it, I end up spending the money on XBox or Gamecube games that I can actually play now instead of going through all the irritation of setting up and maintaining a new PC. I might finally get around to upgrading when Half-Life 2 comes out, but I bet I'll actually just wait for the XBox version. It won't be as shiny as the PC one and it won't have the community support from mods, but it'll just work.

Posted by Nat Lanza at March 16, 2004 06:08 PM

Another issue that Wardell's article mentioned which I think is pretty important is patches.

When I go into the store and buy a PC game these days, I have no expectation that it'll actually work out of the box, no matter what drivers I have on my PC.

I expect I'll have to download and install some number of patches to fix all the bugs the game shipped with. If the game came out recently, there might not even be a patch yet. If I'm unlucky, there might never be a patch.

Consider Temple of Elemental Evil -- it's a good game, but it was largely unplayable for weeks after release because it shipped with so many hideous bugs. A patch eventually came out, but it didn't fix all the issues. A second patch might have come out later, but by that point I'd stopped paying attention and just decided not to buy the game.

I don't want to be an auxiliary QA tester for the game developer. I'd like finished product, and I generally can't get that with PC games because of the expectation that everyone will just download patches.

This isn't to say that console games never ship with bugs (KOTOR, for example, has some unfortunate game-corruption bugs in the XBox version), but it's a lot less frequent. When I buy a game for my XBox or Gamecube, I can pretty much assume that it'll actually function as designed.

That's pretty powerful motivation for me. I spend enough time debugging programs at work. I don't want to do it during my leisure time.

Posted by Nat Lanza at March 16, 2004 06:15 PM

Part of it's expectations (although I have the distinct impression that it's possible to download patches via XBox Live if the game's already setup for downloadable content); but part of it is everyone has the same box. I do OpenGL hackery on OS X, and it's definitely easier when you know you only have one OpenGL driver to deal with, but oh, what blissful notion to know that if it works on your debug machine you'll never ever ever hear from your QA department that there's this one weird configuration with two monitors and a chinchilla where everything is drawing at 45 degree angles.

OK, OK, I made up the chinchilla.

Posted by Eric Tilton at March 16, 2004 07:27 PM

I meant to say something about mouse targeting, but "control schemes" probably deserves its own article.

The thing that fascinated me about the comments on Wardell's article is the vituperative feeling expressed by some that games on consoles were _by definition_ less sophisticated than games on PCs. Which is stupid; a console is just a PC with less that can go wrong.

(I agree that games on consoles _have tended to be_ less sophisticated, but that is a marketing decision, not anything intrinsic to the technology. At least as of this generation).

Posted by peterb at March 16, 2004 07:48 PM

Brad Wardell's article is flawed in several ways. the main one being that PC gaming exploded in popularity when game consoles were already well-established, technologically more advanced, and cheaper than the PCs of the age. These days the technological gap is reversed and the price gap narrowed, yet people predict the decline of PC gaming. Most of his points were far more valid in 1990 than they are today, and the market flourished. It's quite odd. He is also totally wrong with the "difficulty in getting published" issue; you are far less likely to get published on a console unless you have a good track record. So maybe the average budget of PC games will drop a little but most developers won't be able to make that migration.

Sophistication of console games is limited by technology too. (Although I won't doubt that marketing can play its part.) Developers regularly complain about the amount of memory available to them on the X-Box, meaning they have to make numerous small areas instead of large sprawling ones, for example. And you already touched on the controller issue.

The gaming market is in trouble at the moment, but the developers who suffer the most are not the few who will be able to migrate to consoles. Instead, the industry is just going to have to mature in certain ways - such as using more shared code, and ending the abysmal reliance on patches rather than quality control - and adapt to the future.

Posted by Ben Sizer at March 17, 2004 08:31 AM

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