Thursday, January 27, 2011

Consoles vs PC is not a battle worth fighting

An ancient blog post under Video Games, Other Websites.
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There is an article that predicts that console gamers will begin dabbling in PC gaming which seems to have devolved into a PC vs Consoles battle. This is even less productive than beating our heads against a wall; at least with the head-beating you get a definite conclusion. In such an argument as PC vs Consoles, or Emacs vs Vi, neither side can ever be swayed, and neither side will ever give in. The debate is ridiculous already, and it will become completely pointless in the years to come: let me tell you why.

Here is the problem.

All of the arguments against PC and Consoles boil down to these two points:

  • Gaming on a PC is expensive and unreliable. You must research the components to make sure you are putting your money in the right place, and even then, there is no guarantee that a PC game will run properly, given the complicated interactions between the hardware, drivers, game, and operating system.
  • Consoles are underpowered, and severely limit the user’s freedom. Consoles sacrifice graphical quality and objects/actors/particles on-screen to maintain a game’s framerate on the console’s weaker hardware, online play is restricted because you’re unable to run dedicated servers, and it is impossible to run user-created mods or expansions on console games.

And here is the solution.

Clearly the answer lies in the space between these two complaints.

Open consoles up to third-party development

The only way consoles can continue improving in terms of gameplay is to allow more user-created content, or mods. Mods extend the life of a game by years, they fix annoyances and bugs that were left unfixed by the developers, and they allow you to tailor a game to your own taste. Did you hate the user interface in Oblivion? I know I did. 1MB and a drag-and-drop later, and the UI stops sucking. Bored of skirmishing the AI on the same old map? Give it five or ten minutes, and you have a whole new map to conquer. An example of the potential of user-created content on consoles is the huge success of the LittleBigPlanet series: imagine the open-endedness of LBP, and apply it to your favorite game.

The ability to run dedicated servers would be a necessary step in allowing user-created content (multiplayer mods being very popular). It would not only free console gamers from matchmaking, but would also open up your online play options: tailored servers for people who prefer to play in a particular way, clan servers to practice and scrim on, a cool multiplayer pirate mod running on the back of a modern warfare game. All of the advantages that PC gaming now has.

Standardise the PC’s minimum spec

On the other hand, the only way PC gaming can continue to grow is for user-friendliness to improve. No PC gamer will deny that it can be tricky and confusing to jump into PC gaming for the first time, and making this as simple and predictable as possible can only be good.

To this end, there needs to be an industry-wide agreement on the minimum required spec. Presently the spec changes depending on the requirements of each game, which means there is no standard for PC publishers and developers to work towards. Even one’s understanding of what the minimum required spec means differs between people. I and most others believe that it refers to the absolute weakest system that can run the game reliably, while others (like the people defending the buggy release of Black Ops on PC) believe that it refers to the weakest possible system on which the game can be expected to start up. Between these two definitions lies a gulf.

The standard minimum spec should be built with components that are cheap and easy to find. It should be a low- to medium-end rig, and a smooth framerate should be guaranteed for this build by all publishers, who will hold all developers accountable to it. I went into PCCG and planned such a machine in just a few minutes, and for under $450. Aside from the graphics card, this system is probably weaker than the computer most of you are sitting in front of; even the processor is outclassed by the quad cores that are now showing up in netbooks.

If you’re willing to get a weaker graphics card like a GT430, the price comes in at less than $380. I built a machine proportionally equal to this one four years ago (taking hardware improvements into account), and I spent those four years playing pretty much every new release successfully on medium quality (basically console quality), with the exception of games like GTA4, where the developer didn’t do their job properly. Both of these listed systems are DirectX 11-ready, too.

But while good performance is guaranteed on such a low-end system, PC gamers with strong systems should be able to boost the graphical detail, the objects and actors on screen, the physics, the particles and so on. This is called scalability, and games running on the Source engine do this beautifully, as do precious few other games. Total Annihilation is a golden oldie of the RTS genre that ran on pretty much any hardware back in its day, but they included a lot of options for future gamers. The most interesting was unit count: on release it allowed 400 units on a battlefield, then later patches increased it to 1000 as performance improved, and then 2000, all the way up to a 5000 unit patch.

How does this solve our PC vs Consoles problem?

Just as consoles are not tapping their true potential until they open up enough to run mods and user-created content, PCs are not tapping their true gaming potential as long as a game’s performance cannot be guaranteed on the setup you have. Simply put, consoles need to incorporate the advantages of PCs (freedom, third-party access), and PCs need to incorporate the advantages of consoles (scalability, ease of use).

What this means is that in the years to come, the dividing line between consoles and PCs will begin to dissolve as they each evolve to be more like the other. Programming games for the PC will become as predictable as programming for a console because the standardised minimum spec will allow everyone to design systems according to their budget that can be relied on to play new releases for years to come. Consoles will become more like specialised PCs in their operation because of the requirements of running and developing user-created content and open online services.

And when we get to this point, we no longer have PCs vs Consoles, but two kinds of PCs running specialised operating systems (which may even just be different versions of the same operating system, where the Xbox may be likely to run a modified version of Windows).

What is stopping us, then?

On the console side, what’s hindering our progress towards this brave new world is money. Microsoft makes a lot of money selling Live subscriptions, and game developers and publishers make a lot of money selling console DLC (which fewer people would buy if they had access to a wealth of free user-created content that is often better than what the DLC is trying to sell).

Many developers are also too lazy or not prepared enough to allow their games to be modded, such as DICE with Battlefield: Bad Company 2. There is also the idea that allowing the life of a game to be extended with community mods slows down sales of newer releases; after all, people are still playing the Project Reality mod for Battlefield 2. This idea is fundamentally wrong: people play those old mods because they are better than even the newest games. The Infiltration mod, which was released back in 2004 for the original Unreal Tournament which came out in 1999, is still more realistic than every single ‘infantry simulation’ game that has been released since, including the ArmAs and Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. If developers were to create a game that surpassed it, everyone would be all over it.

For the PC, its biggest hindrance is also its biggest strength: the decentralised nature of PC gaming. While a hardware producer like Sony or Nintendo can enforce a standard of quality on the games that are released for their console, there is no such enforcing body in the world of PC gaming. Various attempts are underway to get some standards in place (the PC Gaming Alliance, for example, as well as Valve’s own efforts when it comes to games built on the Source engine) but these rely on publishers and developers cooperating for their own good.

What’s certain in all this, though, is that just as the drive to play is strong in all people, the urge to create is stronger yet. All games are moving towards the common goal of greater freedom and more opportunities for creativity and emergent play. Hardware will move with them.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2016.