Doom changed everything. Doom showed the entire world that the PC was not only a serious gaming platform, but that it was the gaming platform for people serious about computer games. It wasn’t easy either; NES users simply had to get the cartridge the right-way up, but PC users had to deal with DOS, and freeing up enough base memory, and sound card IRQs. To play games on a PC meant becoming a self-taught computer technician. In other words, PC gaming made a whole generation of geeks.
In theory, I’ve had the same PC for almost 20 years now. Sure, I’ve changed the mainboard 15 times, the processor 12 times and the case 10 times, but it’s the same PC. That’s one of the huge advantages of owning a PC – you can stay up-to-date by replacing individual components rather than buying a complete new machine every couple of years.
Console owners don’t have that luxury because, without trying to be insulting, console owners can’t handle different configurations of the same platform. Sega killed its console business by introducing CD and 32-bit upgrades for the Megadrive, proving that consoles must be kept as simple as possible. This stagnation of console hardware restricts development and progress of the industry, leaving it to the flexible PC to trail-blaze new ways of playing games – until now.
Take, for example, online gaming. PCs have been chucking aggressive TCP packets at each other across the Internet since the early 90’s, yet the marketing power of Sony and Microsoft have not only developed upon these ideas, but have also developed a viable marketing strategy around online gaming – put simply, they are charging a monthly subscription to deliver what PC gamers have been doing for free since Doom TCP.
For fans of alternative universes, what if the PC never made it as a games platform in the 90s? How would the gaming industry look now? Would we be all playing games in Tekken-style 3D polygons still? The PC has driven hardware and development techniques in gaming, so it stands to reason that the 3D revolution would have been slow to pick up in the absence of our favourite x86. Hell, without the PC showing people how computer games should look, we might have had to endure the pixellated nightmare of the Atari Jaguar as the dominant console of the 90’s.
Taken a step further, what if the PC was removed from the scene right now? Would it make a difference to future game development? Strangely, no. You see, the PC has hosted the most influential games of the past 20 years, from Half-Life and Command and Conquer to World of Warcraft and The Sims. Consoles have always played second-fiddle, eventually hosting their own ports of these great games as well as their own classics, but it was always the PC boasting the next-generation of games because it was the only platform powerful and flexible enough to.
This has now changed. There has been a role-reversal, and consoles are starting to drive next-gen game development instead. Online gaming is a given with all consoles now – the PC has done its job of proving that online gaming does work. Controllers are evolving past the mouse and gamepad except, ironically, on the PC. Hardware is becoming less important with gamers, partly because of new ways of playing (the Wii, despite lacking HD graphics, has arguably beaten the heavyweight XboX 360 and PS3 solely because of that magic word, “gameplay”) and partly because gaming performance can be quite satisfactory on modest hardware if used correctly, making our quad-core SLI’d gaming rigs obsolete in a “sledgehammer and walnut” kind of way.
The game industry itself favours consoles. New PC releases are not as numerous as other formats, and the developers seem to release only the biggest games for the PC. Equally, PC games never hold their price on the used market, whereas Xbox 360 games can retain a good fraction of their price up to 18 months after release.
Is it because PC games can be pirated easier than console games? A quick search on any torrent site offers more games on the PS3, 360 and the DS than the PC, so this cannot be the reason. More likely is that the number of console users far exceeds PC gamers, therefore console games are more sought-after during the lifetime of the platform.
This all may seem rather negative for the PC as a gaming machine, but not so; if the PC gaming platform is more powerful, more flexible (let’s not forget that there isn’t a restrictive “app marketplace” for the PC) and is now less mainstream than the other formats, it should result in a better quality of gamers and gaming titles, especially for hardcore online gaming. If only the biggest games make it to the PC marketplace as well as the massive amounts of browser and indie games we currently enjoy, it does mean that we do not have to put-up with the mountain of marketed-but-rubbish titles cropping up daily on the consoles. PC gaming is a matter of quality, not quantity.
For those who enjoy the feel of a joystick in the palm, let’s not forget that the PC can emulate almost every console ever released, opening up a library of hundreds of thousands of games to a player. Even the Wii is emulated via a Gamecube emulator called Dolphin. Wait – a platform that can emulate a current console? And let’s not forget that the (Direct)Xbox 360 is a dumbed-down PC in all but name.
The future of PC gaming will be comparable to a laser; bright, focused, narrow, and wielded by nerds. We will see the games that are important, but they will not originate from the PC market. Consoles will be the darlings of the industry, but PC gaming will dominate the independent and hardcore gaming scene. The PC is not for the amateur gamer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.