Gaming consoles going nowhere

A recent piece by Alex St. John, an ex-Microsoft worker who was deeply involved in making Windows the preferred platform for gaming back in the 90's and had his fingers in Direct-X and other technologies has predicted the demise of console gaming systems and the rise of PC gaming in the future. Some of you may remember as I do when he wrote a regular ranting but interesting column in the back of Boot magazine, destined to become Maximum PC.

Contrary to how you may interpret my title, and regardless of what you might read in discussions on Slashdot, I completely disagree for a few simple reasons.

First off, there's the fact that this has been predicted before and not been true. Back when Microsoft introduced the X-box gaming platform, it was trying to prove that PC gaming was as good or better than existing consoles for the same price and so the X-box was basically off-the-shelf PC parts assembled with some extra Copyright protection features to make it usable as a gaming system. It had a PC gaming video card, and a PC hard drive, a PC CPU and a PC-like motherboard with PC-standard USB and a PC-like disc drive, PC-style RAM and unfortunately for Microsoft, PC-like cost to build.

Microsoft lost a tonne of money making and delivering the X-box. When they brought out their quite famous second-generation system, the 360, they even completely ceased sales and support on their original system (unlike Sony with the PSOne and PS2). Although it played games reasonably well, and was a pretty good platform and system, and despite how they'd wooed PC game developers with Direct-X compatibility and an Intel CPU, the system simply wasn't a profitable way to do gaming (for Microsoft). As a testament to this truth, he 360 no longer bears almost any resemblance to its first generation's PC roots using a custom external power brick, a custom PowerPC-based CPU (as their competitors Nintendo and Sony do), and a completely overhauled memory and video architecture. The PC-branded-as-a-console was a financial disaster, and is gone.

So why would someone suddenly believe that a PC as a gaming system would now be more successful? More importantly, what really makes consoles successful? One of the big factors in a gaming console is stability. A game developer making a game for the PC targets a random point in the future, and doesn't know what PCs will be able to do. Their game may require huge new $1000 video cards to run (Crysis) or may look terrible (no comment). Users can't be certain of what they'll need to play the games, although the devout frequently lay out the price of a PS3 for a new video card regularly to keep up.

Console game designers have a fixed target. For example, the CPU and HD video card and DVD drive and unified RAM of the X-Box 360, or the Cell processor, HD video card, hard drive, Blu-ray disc, segregated RAM and motion sensitive controller of the PS3, or the CPU, SD video and motion sensing and pointer-like controller of the Wii. They pick a platform, know exactly what they're able to do and are able to perfectly test what the user's experience will be, and then attempt to deliver their game to that audience, knowing mostly what the audience's experience will be like, and not worrying about different capabilities of different 360s, PS3s, or different Wii systems being a problem like PC game developers do.

Now sure, there are advantages to PC game development, such as the constantly higher ceiling of power the systems have for you to work with as a developer. 512MB of RAM one year, 1GB the next, 2GB the next, and so on. There are PC game systems that support up to three video cards now running in parallel for unimaginable graphics power. But consider for a moment which horse you'd place your bets with -- those willing to keep their systems up to date constantly to play the newest games (not to mention dealing with Windows problems, viruses, etc.), or the number able to pick up a Wii controller and play any game they buy with no fuss.

I'm not saying the PC gaming market is going to cease to exist at all, in fact I think it will thrive, but it will become more and more of a niche market as online Java and Flash games take over the low-end and high-end games are only accessible to the most devout gamers while the bulk of games will continue to be produced for gaming consoles of various types.

No comments: