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Friday, September 28, 2007

On PC Mythbusting

I wasn't going to write about this article on Extreme Tech which takes to task five complaints about PC gaming but the darn thing keeps arriving in my feeds. It's not a bad article, but ... well it annoys me and I have a headache. So there.

And I know someone may read this and once again accuse me of being some kind of console fanboy. Remember, if you are that person, that most of my gaming experience has been on PC's, that I've gamed on PC's for just about the same amount of time PC's have been in existence, that I've spent hours (and won money) and hours modding and mapping PC games in my spare time and I've finished Half-Life no fewer than four times on three different computers.

So - if you are that person - you should probably know that I'm actually more of a PC fanboy than you are.

That said, I don't think assuming the world of PC gaming will always be the same and that the outlook always cheery is such a good idea. And if anything, this article makes me more worried than less.

The opening salvo is that PC gaming is actually not too expensive. As evidence, the article points to another ET piece, Get Your Girlfriend To Build Her Own PC. That article shoved a 8800 GTS into that box. The list price (and I'm going by the article's number here ... so don't berate me with eQuote specials) of that card is $395.

In other words, one component of the computer is in the same ballpark of a brand new console. As comfort, the author reminds us that for just about $800 more - Dell might throw in a monitor.

Look, I know decent gaming computers can be had for $1,000. I've refused to spend more than a grand for a new computer ever since I got a Mac Mini and realized it just wasn't necessary in this day and age. When hardware was new and rare - you could see yourself buying $2,000 laptop to run a word processor and play a few games ... but these days a $800 box has five times the power of those antiques. In fact, if you aren't a gamer - it's hard to find things that will seriously task a modern computer of any price. Take up non-linear editing or perhaps 3-D modelling, otherwise that $400 Dell special will do fine.

In general, though, PC gamers don't buy into the budget mindset. Nobody posts the specs of their computer as their sigquote to show how little they spent. The market for budget gaming computers is essentially non-existent as Dell, HP, Alienware, and everyone else proves every time they release a $8,000 model.

And the reason is simple - no company is going to get far marketing an $800 gaming computer that won't be able to play games in a couple of years. That's where the expense of PC gaming lies ... in the upkeep. And a real problem is that the inverse is true of consoles. As developers learn how to cram more stuff into yesteryear's console, the games get better and better looking. Meanwhile, Crysis (or heck, even Stranglehold) has many people looking for a new card.

One that might cost about the same as a 360.

Then there is this bit:

After the cost of entry, PC gaming is actually a better deal than consoles. For starters, top-tier PC games cost $50, while console games have bumped up the price to $60. And while you can hardly ever find good deals on hot new console games, new PC games are discounted in many retail stores all the time. Just today, I saw the brand-spanking-new triple-A game World in Conflict is on sale at Frys for $40. Older games are available on digital download services and in stores for often $20 or $30. Digital download systems abound. In fact, the best deal in gaming anywhere is the PC-only GameTap. For $10 a month, you can play almost 1,000 full games (and the list grows rapidly), including pixel-perfect emulated retro arcade games, console games, and PC games—many a year or two old and some even very new.

I hate to break it to Extreme Tech, but I think many publishers would actually consider the above to be a bad thing. Piracy is far more rampant on the PC side of things, after market retailers help push prices down and things have gotten to the point where it's a fiscal risk to launch a major title on only the PC. It's even gotten into design, as many PC gamers will tell you about the "console-fication" of their favorite game or franchise. Hard to crow about the versatility of having a keyboard and mouse when titles need to be streamlined and shrunk down for a gamepad and tighter memory footprint.

Myth #2 is something I can get a little more behind, that PC games are nothing but bug fixes and patchwork. I've never bought into that wholesale, although there have been times when I wanted to hit Windows with a hammer - heck, I've had PC problems of epic proportions. However, console games can crash just as easy as PC games (I nearly threw Champions Of Norrath out the window). I like PC games because I have a sense of control - if something is wrong, I can poke around and try to fix it.

That said, if you remove this particular myth from the general forum flame bait it usually is - there's something to be said about the general ease of playing on a console. You're free from installation worries, hardware requirement concerns, updating your drivers, etc. Console gamers don't have to check the back of the box to see if they can play the game or download a demo just to see if the game will float on their $800 budget box. So the problem with Myth #2 may depend on how Myth #1 is playing out.

However, consider I don't know a 360 owner who hasn't returned their console at least once ... I don't think anyone should assume consoles are inherently less annoying.

The third point of the article is that PC games do and that they aren't falling behind console sales. The problem with this particular argument is that there's fifteen different ways to talk about it. The article points out that while compared to all consoles, PC sales seem week - 6:1 in fact. But he points out that it isn't fair to compare PC's as a single platform and then lump all the consoles together. OK. But then he kinda loses me when he insists there are nine major game platforms. Nine? What - we're still counting Jaguar sales here? Right now, I'd say there are two - Nintendo and everyone else. A real cynic might say there are three game platforms in general right now: Nintendo, everyone else, and World of Warcraft.

Look, PC gaming isn't going to die next year or anything. The PC gaming market isn't dying anytime soon. That's not to say that the console market isn't flexing it's muscles and starting to encroach into PC gaming space. Tried and true PC genres like First Person Shooters are more and more the domain of console development. MMO's are probably next. Casual gaming is already a battlefront. This is one of those myths which always gets reduced into the same inane dialogue of "which console is winning". It's barely even a valid question in the first place - but when your PC shooter is being designed around the constraints of the 360 ... something is going on and it has everything to do with a changing marketplace.

The fourth talking point is that Xbox Live trumps everything in PC gaming and that PC online matchmaking is a mess. You know, I'm willing to grant this one. Well, partially. I think the PC online world is something of a mess, but I agree with the article that Xfire and Steam go a long way to fix that. More to the point, I agree with the article that Games For Windows Live is a joke and that is completely on Microsoft's front door. Let's face it, when it comes to helping out PC gaming - Microsoft is doing a pretty poor job. So while I've knocked Valve and Steam in the past - at least someone is stepping up to the plate, because it sure isn't anyone in Redmond.

The final argument is a kind of mishmash of points about copy protection, DRM, etc. Let's just be honest here - copy protection on the PC sucks only as much as the publisher allows it to suck. Sometimes it sucks quite a lot, sometimes it doesn't. The real point here isn't that copy protection is a pain in the ass, but that piracy is so bad on the PC platform than anyone would consider releasing a game with some of the protection schemes we've seen, some that have made even loading the game a bear (or just outright impossible).

PC gamers can complain about it all they want, and poke fun at the occasional disc scratch which ruins a console's day, but that simple distinction is the prime force driving marketshare to consoles.

OK, rant off.

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