PC gaming and the mainstream

Has PC gaming failed to keep up with the mainstream? We take a look at where the PC is and where it may need to go.

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15 minutes & 59 seconds read time

PC gaming and the mainstream -

Since its inception decades ago, the video gaming industry has become a force to be reckoned with that is growing stronger and bigger every day. It has developed from its humble beginnings to a legitimate multi billion dollar world wide industry, forcing itself into the company of entertainment mediums such as film and television for mainstream appeal and success despite the reluctance from some corners of the private sector, media and government. Hell, we've reached the stage now where
some B-/C+ grade movies are starting to base themselves on videogames on a semi regular basis and not just the other way around. However, if you scratch beneath the surface of this industry and its success at least in its more recent years, two distinct stories can be and are being told - the story of the PC gaming industry, and the story of the console gaming industry. Collectively, they tell a story of constant evolution and adapting, but individually, they tell it in two very different ways.

The PC gamer and the console gamer are much alike - they both enjoy the same basic activity and in a lot of instances they even like the same games due to multi platform releases. However, each respective industry is in a different place in the gaming world as they both try and adapt to the changing environment around them, and to each other. On one hand, the PC gaming industry is seemingly faced with more obstacles and challenges than ever thanks in part to standards set by its console
cousin, while the console gaming industry is seemingly on the offensive, engulfing any and every feature either new or made popular by PC gaming to further its cause. It is arguable that the two are in somewhat of a fight to the death as they both grasp for as much of an audience as they can, although it is also clear that neither are going anywhere any time soon. In reality, they will coexist and continue to gradually evolve on their way to becoming the ultimate gaming and multimedia solution for enthusiast
and casual gamers alike, although one definitely has more to go and more to do to achieve this than the other, and that's the PC.

Lets face it, the PC as a gaming platform has its problems when it comes to mainstream sustainability. PC hardware can be expensive and confusing to keep on top of. Piracy is a far bigger issue for PC game companies than it is for console game companies due in part to the fact the PC audience is typically more technology savvy, not to mention most methods of creation and channels of distribution for piracy are only accessible on a PC. Crashes and interruptions when gaming on a PC are generally more likely than on a console, and finally, the typical environment you find surrounding a household PC tends to be less relaxing and comfortable than the environment you'd typically find a household gaming console. However, the PC gaming platform has its advantages too, and perhaps the greatest advantage besides the potential for better graphics, better execution of some genres, better online support and better patch/add on support is the fact the PC platform itself is easily the most
flexible gaming platform in existence. The problem is, what good is flexibility if it goes unused? The PC has been left in the console's dust when it comes to catering for the casual and mainstream gamer, and for it to survive against the gaming consoles of today and the future, it may need to start utilizing its natural flexibility for the sake of attracting back some of the mainstream it has let slip past.

"Wait, we should try to attract more n00bs?"

PC gaming has lasted quite a while so far being, at times, about as user friendly as a MiG-15 pilot's manual translated into Klingon, but to think it can continue surviving like this in today's gaming world is foolish. Gone are the days where the PC was the only platform a gamer could experience quality first person shooter and real time strategy action - both of these once PC only genres have made their way onto the consoles of today which have grown in hardware power considerably in recent
years and, as such, gamers who enjoy these genres no longer have to weather the issues that can often be associated with firing up a PC game. Although it is arguable the flexible mouse and keyboard setup will always suit genres like FPS and RTS better than any control pad, that is not a view shared as passionately by casual gamers as it is by most enthusiast PC gamers, and it doesn't take a marketing genius to know which out numbers the other. At the present time, MMORPG's and other online only games
have taken over the "PC exclusive genre" crown, but this won't last forever, that is for sure, particularly now that consoles are starting to focus on once PC only peripherals. PC gaming needs to be proactive in making sure genre exclusivity isn't the platform's major draw card, as it will always only be a temporary one.

If you need further proof that increasing PC gaming's mainstream appeal will benefit all including the hardcore/enthusiast demographic, look no further than the biggest gaming related Internet event in recent times; the release of the GTA IV trailer. GTA IV will be released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 only, and while this is hardly surprising given that almost every GTA before it has seen delayed release on the PC, wouldn't it be nice for a company like Rockstar to see the PC
platform as an equal to the next gen consoles? For games like Gears of War and Halo 2 to be released on the PC closer to the original console release date rather than the date of their console successors? to see some other companies than just EASports focus on the PC sports gaming market with quality exceeding blatant ports? to see more major titles specifically optimized for the PC? Stuff like this will only happen when the PC can prove it can sell next generation games as well as
any console, and this will always be a struggle if the mainstream gamer doesn't feel that PC gaming's strengths outweighs its weaknesses, as there simply aren't enough raw numbers and diversity amongst the current user base that go to their PC before anything else for their gaming fix. Perhaps the PC can continue to exist for a long time as a genre specialist platform - after all, it has arguably always been this way to a degree - but with revenues on the console growing rapidly in comparison to revenues
on the PC outside of MMO's, sooner or later you've got to think even the once untouchable PC friendly genres like the first person shooter will start to see less and less attention on its original platform if the consoles continue their growth into this and other PC original genres. It's all about diversifying and expanding what attracts people to the PC for gaming beyond its current state which in turn will attract more diversity and quality in PC games.

It's not like the PC doesn't already have a mainstream presence - after all, there are more household PC's in the world than any of the consoles - but in most cases people are not looking at their PC as a primary gaming device. In some situations this will be unavoidable, and it's simply not realistic to think the PC can win everybody over, but in other situations it is avoidable and addressable hassles associated with PC gaming that are turning some gamers off. It's all fine and well
for a PC gamer to sit back and say "console gamers aren't serious gamers, otherwise they'd already be on the PC", but the reality is a growing number of console gamers are becoming far more serious about their gaming, spending big bucks in getting all the latest hardware from home theatre grade speakers and HDTV's to the consoles and games themselves, not to mention other accessories like online subscription services and HD-DVD drives. The console world itself has gradually become
much more sophisticated and "hardcore" while still maintaining a casual, "pick up and play" persona for the occasional gamer. In fact, the consoles have been doing more or less exactly what they needed to do to take the gaming world over and it's about time the PC at least tried to do the same by proactively working on its weaknesses.

PC gaming and the mainstream -

So what are some of these weaknesses that the PC can work on? First of all, lets take a brief look at PC hardware. Although the way in which most PC hardware is produced, marketed and designed won't be influenced by the one segment of the PC user base that is gamers, there is one aspect to PC hardware that almost solely relies on the PC gamer and that is the mainstream 3D graphics card. Now, there are only two major providers for gamers in Nvidia and ATi, and the arrival of unified drivers has made part of
the equation far easier to deal with than it used to be, but if you look at the state of 3D cards available today - even as an expert - you'd be hard pressed to know where each and every chip revision ranks in the chain of command without some usually extensive research. With names like X1400SE, X1600SE, X1600 Pro, X1600XT, X1900XT, X1900XTX, X1800XL, X1900GTO, X1950 Pro and X1950XTX available amongst others from just ATi's last generation alone it isn't hard to see why some gamers
get confused when it comes to making a 3D card purchasing decision, and the list I provided there doesn't include any of the 3rd party video card maker variations involving overclocks out of the box, not to mention some model numbers aren't better than others simply because their 4 digit number is bigger. Talk about confusing - whatever happened to the days of the Voodoo 2000, 3000 and 3500 representing the low, mid and high end markets? Do we really need the low, low-mid-low, mid-low, mid, mid-high-mid,
mid-high, high, ultra high etc covered in the same chip generation? It may not seem like a big deal to the savvy PC gamers out there, but this can be extremely off putting to someone building their own PC or upgrading their existing PC who isn't overly familiar with the everyday happenings of the PC hardware world. There is no way this much market flooding and inconsistent model name calling is healthy for PC gaming.

When you look past the hardware and at the games themselves, PC gaming has barely evolved in the past decade when it comes to how the Operating System (Windows in 99% of cases) interacts with the user in the installation and management of installed games. The process of installing a game has never been overly complex but it has never been a unified process across catalogues of games, ultimately creating more hassle than what is probably necessary. Once a game is actually installed, Windows has traditionally treated
it like any application without any unity - outside of videocard driver settings there are no universal settings that a game can access to configure itself, it's basically up to the user to rummage through the option menus of each game to configure settings that make it suitable for the PC it is on and for less experiences users, this may involve going back and forth between the game and settings panel to find an acceptable balance, possibly even consulting Internet forums/message boards for help on how
to achieve the best results before getting serious with the game itself......all the while a console gamer with the same game is probably already up to level 3 by now. And lets not even get started on stability issues related to specific PC configurations - this has become far less of a problem than it used to be in PC gaming but the damage has been done in the mainstream. Ask any gamer who doesn't typically game on a PC what is preventing them from doing so and game stability and reliability will almost
always top the list of concerns.

Now, in all fairness, Microsoft are making ground on the area of PC gaming user friendliness with Windows Vista thanks to the "Game Explorer", which aims to make game installation and management hassle free, "WinSAT" which aims to make the OS and games more aware of the system it is being played on specs wise, and the "Games for Windows" initiative, which aims to create some standardization and unity in the PC gaming catalogue. However, these are really just first steps
reacting to the neglect that has left the PC so far behind the ease-of-play standards consoles have set in the first place. Even with Microsoft apparently awaking from their slumber and realizing they are more or less in charge of PC gaming when it comes to standards and how games interact with systems, it is still going to be up to developers and publishers to agree that these are features worthy of implementing in their games and this may not be as easy a sale as it would seem - for example,
for a game to be "Games for Windows" certified, it has to support the Xbox 360 controller out of the box, which is great for the plethora of ports or games originally built for the Xbox 360, but it's probably going to be nothing more than a hassle to accomplish for the more PC faithful companies, like 1C and Battlefront for instance, who tend to produce command happy RTS war sims based on realism. I can't imagine a game like Theatre of War working terribly well with a 12 button control pad. On
top of this, these are mainly Vista related advancements, and in the real world Windows XP is still a better OS for gaming and will likely be for some time - probably until games stop supporting DirectX 9, which could be well into 2008 as most Xbox 360 ports to the PC natively suit DX9 more than DX10, and unfortunately for Microsoft, most game companies are interested in selling their games and not Vista, which means they will likely spend more time with DX9 in their games until Vista is eventually
the standard Windows OS, or until Microsoft cave on their "DX10 for Vista only" stance.

Ideally, PC gaming has to start looking at "tray-n-play" gameplay seriously, and it is really something that should have been on the agenda years ago. For those not familiar with the saying, "tray-n-play" gaming is basically the experience you get with consoles - you pop open the disc tray and play right away. Now, it's not in my interest to lay the blame on one party, but this is something Microsoft should have been focusing on in Windows well before Vista, which is only
touting slightly simpler gaming and not the complete package, which is to be expected as it is a process that will take time to mature and develop. Naturally, Microsoft were probably skeptical themselves about how they should approach gaming on the PC with direct interest in the console market since 2000 and that may explain the reluctance to really focus on how they can make PC gaming more attractive in Windows, but hopefully Vista is a sign they do accept the PC's potential. If anything, Microsoft should
really want nothing more than to push the PC into the forefront of the next generation gaming scene now that they have their console department running smoothly, as generating significant revenue from two of the four major platforms would surely be better than just one of the three should PC gaming fall off the face of the earth. Microsoft may not own the PC gaming industry like they do the Xbox 360 industry, but they supply the OS to the vast, vast majority of PC gamers and that's the next best thing.

Looking well into the future, the possibility of sharing discs between Microsoft's latest console and latest OS poses as an interesting concept that could basically be the PC's final frontier. It is hard to imagine now, but with consoles gradually becoming more and more advanced and hopefully PC's becoming more and more suitable for mass gaming, it seems conceivable that down the track Microsoft could totally unify their console and PC gaming interests into one multi-platform format - after all, they are theoretically
in a position to at least attempt such a feat. Naturally, this is a very radical change that has many barriers in the way, and it could perhaps suggest too much "console-izing" on the PC's behalf effectively eliminating much of what brings gamers to the PC in the first place, but it would certainly usher in a new age for PC gaming and its gamers, not to mention a hybrid platform so big it would probably reign supreme over all gaming itself. In the mean time, features such as "Live
Anywhere" (which aims to bring Xbox 360 and PC gamers online together competing in the same games) will promote unity between the two platforms and who knows, it may even help promote the advantages of PC gaming directly to the Xbox 360 audience, but once again the impact of such a feature is really up to developers and publishers and whether or not they view it as a worthy feature for their games.

So, we've got user friendly aspects covered, but what about the companies that make gamers? How can PC gaming help promote more mainstream attention from them other than just increasing the user base they can sell to? I'm sure there are a bevy of subtle and more technical ways PC gaming could be made more attractive to developers, but how about something more obvious - making porting so easy it would make economical sense in almost all instances to do it? "Port" can be a four letter word on
the PC as it usually suggests games with menus not designed for mouse control and textures not designed for the high resolutions of PC gaming amongst other short comings, but the console world is catching up in graphical prowess and stuff like menus not being designed for mouse usage was always just laziness which would hopefully be made redundant in a more mainstream responsive PC market. Basically, this comes back to Microsoft and again they are making some ground, thanks to "XNA" - a game development
tool set that works across Windows and the Xbox 360 alike designed so minimal work would be needed to make an XNA game cross platform. At this stage, XNA is still immature but it is a step in the right direction. If Microsoft can make porting games designed for their latest console over to their latest PC OS an easier task, it would go a long, long way in attracting mainstream attention.

Ultimately, developers and publishers are happy when their paying audience is happy. If it's simply a case of less gamers and less companies being intimidated away from the PC, then progress is being made, but this won't happen by itself, real changes need to be made in an active manner. As I said earlier, it's all about diversifying and expanding what attracts people to the PC for gaming beyond its current state which in turn will attract more diversity and quality in PC games. PC gaming will always
have its enthusiasts both buying and making games, but the potential is there for more than this. Unfortunately, there are problems that help create an anti-mainstream attitude with PC gaming which are not easy to offer any one solution for, like piracy and complexities in PC hardware, but there are enough workable issues to look at now that should help make a real difference in how the average person and an average game company views the PC. It will not happen over night, but as the old saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day.

PC gaming and the mainstream -

The future of PC gaming

The PC is a great gaming platform for many reasons, and its flexibility is perhaps the greatest of all. Naturally, a lot of the PC gaming faithful, whether it be the gamers or developers, may tend to resist any significant change in PC gaming that moulds the experience to be more like that of a console, but if the PC is really as great as some including myself think it is, it shouldn't have any problems adapting to the evolving standards of mainstream gaming set by the
console world while still catering for the enthusiast crowd, it's just with so many stakeholders involved with the PC market, so far no one entity has stepped forward and done what is necessary. Microsoft are the obvious choice to take a shot at attempting some real widespread influencing action, but all involved should play their part - stuff like Nvidia going out of their way to bring
a popular Xbox 360 game in Lost Planet across to the PC
is a good example of this, even if the idea of a game being exclusive to a certain 3D chip maker does seem somewhat scary should it ever get to that.

The reality is, the console model for marketing and maintaining a gaming platform is working for developers and gamers alike, while the PC's current muddled model lags behind, only really excelling as much as consoles in a select few game genres. It is likely the PC would remain in tact as we know it today for quite a while without any significant change in philosophy, but I believe the PC can do a better job of expanding its borders without limiting those who already live in them - it has the
technology and capabilities to bump heads with any console, it just needs the audience to reach that next level. And who knows, if something isn't done about making the PC a more attractive platform, maybe it won't remain as it is for as long as we'd think, as the console market is not going to relax with its pursuit in becoming more like PC's - after all, browsing the Internet and using keyboards on consoles is on the horizon. What's next, World of Warcraft 360? It's only a matter of time.

2007 is an exciting year for PC gaming with the usual assortment of new hardware, a new Direct X to explore and an unusual amount of anticipated games already out or on the horizon, but for the long term health of the platform it only makes sense if measures can be taken to attract more people, which in turn will attract more developers and more attention from the mainstream - this is a concept that has been almost vehemently ignored by the decision makers in the PC gaming world for too long. I'm a PC gamer
at heart and I enjoy the unique features gaming on such a versatile platform can bring, but it is getting to the point now where I struggle to convince people I know that buying the latest videocard is even an option compared to the latest console. I love quirky obscure adventure titles and low budget WWII RTS's as much as the next PC gamer, but I think this platform can be more than just a haven for niche genres and 2nd class ports with only the occasional major PC only blockbuster release - whether the industry
itself agrees and does what is necessary to make it happen is yet to be seen. At the very least, it's going to be an interesting next few years for PC gaming beyond just the usual hardware and game releases.

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Nathan founded Hardware Avenue and 3DAvenue in 2000 and 2003 respectively, both of which merged with TweakTown to create TTGamer in 2007. Nathan can be usually found composing articles and reviews from the PC gaming and hardware world, but has been known to venture into the realms of console gaming as well (but he insists he doesn't enjoy it as much!). As a senior gaming editor, Nathan's responsibilities are much the same as they were with 3DA; reviews, articles and ideas.

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