Sunday, December 21, 2008

The death of PC gaming and the rise of the netbook

WARNING: The following post may contain technical terms that you will have to Google.  If you think your computer is run by magic faeries and a pinch of gold dust, you might want to skip this one.

I love games.  I play both computer (Windows PC) and video games (Wii and PS3), and I have done ever since my family had a computer (1996 or thereabouts).  However, there is a definite trend in the games industry away from computers, and towards console games.  To me, this seems a bit odd; most people already own computers, many computers are as powerful, if not more so, than current-generation consoles (especially the Wii), and wouldn't you think it would be cheaper and easier to consolidate one's games into one system, the computer?

Console game sales far outpace sales of computer games.  The Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, quotes statistics that support this claim: in 2007, console game sales accounted for $8.64 billion, while computer games accounted for a comparatively measly $910 million.

I think that there are a few reasons for this decline in PC gaming vis-à-vis console gaming.  The first is that dreaded and sick thing known as "Recommended System Requirements."

I remember trying to convince my parents to let me get a console when I was 12.  My main argument centered around the statement "there are no system requirements!  It always runs!"  This is my biggest beef with computer games, and I think it may have led to the downfall of the platform.  Console games, besides the fairly obvious "this game runs on this system" sticker on the front cover, have no system requirements.  It's either on such-and-such a system (and at full quality), or it's not.  

PC games, in contrast, come with a rather cryptic message on the bottom of the box that has a list of the "minimum requirements" (ie whether or not you can load the menu screen) and the "recommended requirements" (ie whether or not you can actually run the game).  You have to actually know what kind of processor you have, how much RAM you have, what video card you have, and what speeds they all run at.  You have to actually know how your computer works!  Oh noes!

In my experience with computer games, I have bought a game, taken it home, and installed it, only to find that that it either doesn't run at all or that it runs at such low quality as to make it virtually unplayable countless times.

Console games?  No problem.  Go to the store, buy the game that says "I run on your console!", pop the disc in, and bingo!, you're playing within five minutes.  No long installs (well, not until recently, anyway), no system requirements, no pain.

The second reason that I believe computer games are on their way out has to do with hardware.  Video game consoles have pretty much the same hardware, no matter what version of a platform you buy (yes, there are occasional updates, but for the most part they consist of nothing more than a new DVD drive, or a slightly faster processor).  PCs, on the other hand, are constantly being updated.  New graphics cards (arguably the single most important factor in how a computer runs a game) come out almost monthly; Intel and AMD (the two major processor manufacturers) release new processors regularly; new standards of RAM (random access memory, the stuff that stores data temporarily, as opposed to the hard drive, which stores things permanently) come out yearly.  The only thing that doesn't seem to change constantly in a computer is the hard drive.

Like all Apple products, PCs are obsolete almost the moment you buy them.  Because of the lack of a standard of hardware - a benchmark PC - games can, and do, vary over the entire spectrum of system requirements.  The prime example of this is a game called Crysis (pronounced like crisis).  Gamers love to poke fun at Crysis (in the way that school kids poke fun at the bully, but are secretly afraid and awed by him).  Crysis is consistently described as about two years ahead of current hardware and continues, a year after its release, to be the golden standard of extreme graphics on the PC, an amazing feat.

However, I have never seen a PC that could run Crysis at the highest settings.  They do exist, but they cost $5000 and up.

Who wants to constantly have to burn money on a computer to make sure that it can run the latest games?  Not I.  And, it seems, not the 38% of American households that own a video games console.

The third reason that "hardcore" PC games are going to die (which finally explains the title of this post) is that the world is transitioning away from big, powerful computers to small, portable, less powerful computers.  The "netbook" is a term coined fairly recently for the new category of computers with low-power processors and screens under 12" across.

I am typing this on a laptop, and although it's a huge 17" desktop replacement, the very fact that I own a laptop and not a more powerful desktop is an admission to the fact that I value portability more than power.

It is no coincidence that a "niche product" like the netbook exploded into the mainstream in the biggest year for video game console sales ever.  This is the point at which computers and games go their separate ways.  Video game consoles have and will continue to evolve into sophisticated multimedia centers, with games at their cores, while computers will evolve into more portable devices that center around interaction via the internet.

Indeed, some netbooks already blur the lines between the internet and a desktop environment.  Google recently announced a project, called Native Client, that would run x86 code (the types of programs that you run on your computer) inside your browser, which is presently limited to things like Flash or JavaScript.

Some may argue that games like World of Warcraft, which have an exclusively PC (and Mac) audience and are extremely popular, disprove this theory.  As much as I am inclined to dismiss these people as n00bs, they have a point.  WoW and other Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) have a tremendous audience on the computer.  However, new MMOs, like Bioware's the Old Republic, a Star Wars-themed MMO which has received a huge amount of hype, will be available on consoles as well as computers.  As internet connection speeds increase and MMOs become more hardware-intensive, the limiting factor of the graphics of PC MMOs like WoW will cease to be connection bandwidth and will become the actual video hardware of the machines they are played on.

Computers and consoles are headed in fundamentally different directions and only one can take gaming with it.  At the moment, it would appear that consoles have it mostly wrapped up.  Of course, what does it matter to Microsoft and Sony, the companies that make both our computers and our consoles if we have to buy one of each?


Nora said...

You're not talking about all gaming, though, you're talking about the kind of gaming that self-identified "gamers" do. There are plenty of people who play games like Bejeweled and The Sims who would never buy a console system. The money that's going to be made in the gaming industry in the future is going to be largely in people like this-- the casual gamers who buy Solitare games that come with 8,000 different solitares. They're often the ones who buy Wiis and they're also the ones who'll sink Paypal payments to get the full version of addictive flash games.

Which isn't to say that you aren't right, just that you're leaving out casual gamers. It's something a lot of more hardcore gamers do, but casual gamers definitely help keep money flowing into the video game industry.

Evan said...

You're right, and this post is about self-identified gamers, however, the fact that the Wii has such a huge casual gaming audience is evidence that even casual gamers are beginning to move to consoles, simply because they offer more possibilities.

As it stands, some laptops, like the Macbook Air, would probably strain under a big flash game or a higher-level casual game. I think the market is moving in the direction of more portability at the expense of computing power, and so games (outside the "normal" Windows suite like Solitaire and Free Cell) will continue to migrate to consoles.

Flash games and card games and such will always be found on computers, but larger games, even the casual games market, will, I think, eventually move onto consoles.

Kelsey Atherton said...

I don't think the console market ignores puzzle gamers or casual games - all the download services that I've seen for consoles, as well as ones like Steam for PCs, include cheap casual games and puzzle games - not to say that casual gaming will migrate entirely to consoles, but it won't be confined to PCs either. They've been working on making a Sims for consoles for the better part of a decade now, and I think it will stick eventually.

Of course, the Sims has remained on PCs for so long because that system has the best control input for it - the mouse/keyboard combo is incredible for many games, and my self-identified-gamer genre of Real-Time-Strategy has been so far impossible to transfer over to consoles because of the way it's control schemes work. Shooters have adapted to control pads faster than most genres, and so losing the tight control of a mouse/keyboard there isn't as big an impact. I imagine that to get RTS's or good Sims games on the console, they will have to borrow the control configuration of a computer. I give it a generation or two before consoles come with standard gamepads and come variant of a keyboard/mouse, at which point my dislike of gaming on consoles ends.

Also - while I think the console/netbook division is good and important, I think it overlooks the phones/internet/mobile gaming that we are seeing right now in development for iPhones and less high-end devices. This is not so much a computer/console division, but a change in how we envision computers and the internet working together. If most/all meaningful applications are run straight fro mthe internet, operating systems become all but meaningless, internet access becomes the sole role for a computer, and what is accessible online to a specific platform matters far more than available software. This is the direction I see things going, where small internet-accessing phone-like devices replace computers for most of their tasks, while consoles take over gaming. The upshot? re-emergence of typewriters

Nora said...

It's entirely possible that we're starting to see the beginning of computers being phased out in general, not just as gaming devices but as devices for communication and accessing the web. With software suites such as Google Docs on the rise I think the we'll be putting much of our lives online in the ether and accessing it from our mobile phones-- iPhones, Blackberries, whatever ends up taking over the market, from our consoles, from our work computers, our home computers and our netbooks.

I definitely don't think a computer like a Macbook Air would strain under a big flash game-- a quick Google search found that it can play both The Sims 2 and World of Warcraft decently. To assume that the market is heading toward more portability at the expense of more computing power is to ignore Moore's Law. We're going to keep getting more and more powerful small devices (this is happening in consoles as well-- if you don't believe me, look at a Nintendo DS screen and compare it to the graphical quality of an N64).

In talking about my original casual gaming thing I totally ignored platforms like the iPhone/iTouch, which are another *huge* casual gaming market. (The iPod had potential for this too, but Song Summoners didn't seem to do that great.)

Kelsey Atherton said...

thinking out loud here - I don't have the research data to prove it, but I wonder if PC gaming isn't so much declining as console gaming is booming. If we could see growth for both, but very slow growth for PCs and the massive growth one expects for consoles, it might prove only that PCs are gaming devices at capacity, while consoles have been able to expand>

not that this contradicts anything - I just like PCs as my gaming engine, and think that others do as well.