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PC gaming and the mainstream

By: Nathan Davison | Editorials in Gaming | Posted: Apr 16, 2007 4:00 am

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.

Logitech MX 1000 mouse


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