Friday, November 20, 2009

But...I'm a PC Gamer

The other day, Attack of the Show's segment "The Loop" asked the question, "Is PC gaming dead?" It's a very troubling question for me, I am a PC gamer. There are a lot of different issues involved, but I'm going to try and tackle a lot of them in this article. (SPOILER!!!--PC Games RULE!!!)

(In this article I use the phrase "command console" to mean the in-game command entry system, as differentiated by just "console," which refers to console gaming systems such as the Xbox 360 or PS3. Hopefully context will make the intended meanings apparent)

This all has to do with Infinity Ward's release of Modern Warfare 2 for PC. Instead of offering more advanced functionality for the PC version as is standard, they released a total clone of the XBox 360 version. The biggest complaints were that Infinity Ward didn't include the ability to use a command console, and that it's online games are populated by a matchmaking system instead of by users joining dedicated servers.

A command console can be used to enter in cheats, bring up diagnostic info, and perform advanced tasks (in Max Payne 2 you can use the console to switch your character's "skin" out for another, among other things). Having a command console is cool, but not necessary. I myself don't use them much, not since Fallout 3, when I used a such a command to increase my character's walking speed. Made that game 10 times better.

A matchmaking system for online games is usually just a button, "Find game". Depending on how it's designed, players might be grouped by their locational proximity (for latency reasons), or by mix of experience (for fairer teams), etc. You can usually also join games with people in your friend list if you want. There is no real administrator in this system, which can cause problems.

In server-hosted online games, any group can create a static server, for which they set the rules. They can kick off and ban cheaters and troublemakers, they can use experimental maps or weapons, or even ensure the game is as "vanilla" as possible. These benefits are what make online gaming fun for me. A game like Team Fortress 2, for instance, has a steep learning curve. The first time you play, you have no clue what to do. You run around like an idiot, people call you (me) a retard, and you don't ever want to play again.

Lucky for me, I found a bunch of servers for Newbs. (HK Central and NewbsTF2) Lots of people, newbs and experienced alike play on these servers, because it's less for people who can't play well and more for people who have agreed to be civil. There is a forced awareness of the fact that the people on these servers may be new or are simply trying to figure things out, so it's a much more enjoyable and stress-free experience. Not that there aren't dicks on these servers, but it's not the norm and rudeness is heavily discouraged

There is a learning curve involved with hosted server-based games. Lots of servers have tags in their names that a beginner might not understand. Some are clan tags, some denote rules, some are there as jokes. For me, I had to search the internet to find a comfortable place to play, as the servers I now use weren't listed in the game itself that I saw, so I had to enter them in manually. The concept was difficult for me to grasp at first, and I'm sure many others have had and will have the same problems, but ultimately I have found the extra effort to be worth it.

The bottom line on server vs matchmaking really is that both are possible, so why not have both? They aren't mutually exclusive, so why not make everyone happy?

Okay, those points aside, do I think PC gaming is defined by console commands or how I join online games? No.

For all I care, all PC games can be identical to Xbox or PS3 games. Make no mistake--the norm with PC games is greater than the norm with consoles. I like have the command console as an option, and I obviously prefer static gaming servers. I also like that PC games have much more mods and total conversions--community made levels and stories. Some are as good as or better than the games they were made for (Minerva: Metastasis for Half Life 2 is every bit as good as Half Life 2 itself). PC games have trainers and tools for hacking saved games. Consoles have saved games you can download and I'm sure some games' saves can be hacked, but it's much more prevalent on PCs. PC games can also reach resolutions above full HD (1920x1080), 2560x1600 being the highest PC resolution I've seen (I doubt it's even noticeable, but it's there). All these things are good, but that's not why I'm a PC gamer.

Why am I a PC gamer?

For starters, I can play most PC games with my choice of controls: keyboard and mouse, Xbox 360 controller, joystick where applicable, or some other awesome 3rd party PC controller. I'm constantly arguing this point with console gamers, but I firmly believe that shooters are better with a mouse and keyboard. I don't even see how this can be argued. The control a mouse can give you over speed and accuracy is immense. Sure, I grew up playing games on a computer, but I own a PS3, most of my PS3 games are shooters, and while it's acceptable to play a shooter with a controller it's just not the same. Quick note, the PS3 supports keyboard and mouse, however, most of it's games don't. I don't know about the Xbox. There are workarounds and third party gadgets that try to better integrate keyboard and mouse into console gaming, but console games well favor the controller.

PC games have the graphics and scope of console games, because many of the major console games are available on the PC, but they also have the added option of portability. I have a year-old laptop, it can play all of my favorite games, and I can take it anywhere. Yeah, I doubt it can play Crysis--it was stuttering a bit with Prototype, but my next laptop will be able to play anything out today.

In addition, it's not as hard to play PC games as many people would have you believe. Keep your drivers updated, that solves most of the problems I've had. However, the difficult part to me is knowing whether or not your computer can play a game. Here's Crysis' processor requirements (via Steam):

2.8 GHz or faster (XP) or 3.2 GHz or faster * (Vista)

And follow the asterisk for this:

* Supported Processors: Intel Pentium 4 2.8 GHz (3.2 GHz for Vista) or faster, Intel Core 2.0 GHz (2.2 GHz for Vista) or faster, AMD Athlon 2800+ (3200+ for Vista) or faster.

How many people know the brand of their processor, much less if it's dual core, what it's GHz are, etc.? PC Gamers know this info and that's probably it.

That brings us to the major advantages console gaming has over PCs: the ability to not know shit about what's inside.

PCs offer customization, more control options, and (potential) portability. Consoles offer ease of use, and the ability to not know anything about the technology being used. All these things considered I would still prefer PC gaming, but I haven't even said the main reason I'm a PC gamer yet.

The reason is this: Backwards compatibility. On my computer, I can play any PC game I own. I can fire up ScummVM for those cool old Lucasarts games, or DosBox if I want to go really far back (I don't). What's more, I can fit every game I've ever played on my laptop's hard drive. And I can play current games as well.

You know what, it's not just backwards compatibility, it's deeper than that. PC gaming doesn't bring any insurmountable downside, it just requires a semi-constant awareness of what's under the hood, which I maintain anyway as a sort of hobby. What it does bring is my life. This same device holds all my music, which I can play in the background while gaming (and I can control the music during any game using Winamp's global hotkeys). It holds all my writing, all my movies (ok, need an external drive for all my videos), and a lot of my books. I don't own a DVD player, I use...guess what?...a PC, with S-Video out.

What's more, I already own a PC. Nearly everyone does. All my grandparents have computers, for Pete's sake, so if your a gamer, why not buy a good computer and cut out the additional systems?

Sure, the God of War games will probably always be around somewhere, maybe re-released for the newest console as they were for the PS3. And the Halo games will probably be resurrected as well, because there will always be money in nostalgia. I won't have to wait for developers to catch up in order to fire up the Max Payne series, though. It's here, it's with me. It will always be with me. On CD if not on Steam. If I can run 28-year-old MS-DOS on a virtual machine today, I see no reason why I won't be able to run Windows 7 on a virtual machine in 28 more years. That's real security.

All that said, I do own a PS3. I don't balk at buying games for a console, however if a game is available for PC, that's what I get it for. And in response to the question posed by others, is PC gaming dying? It may be dwindling, it may be taking the back seat, but it has advantages it will continue to have for years to come.

Steam has helped a lot. It brought not only a great service but a focal point for the PC community. While browsing it's forums, I'm surprised to see that it's community isn't just older people sticking with what they know, people who remember playing Wolfenstein 3D in MS-DOS. It's a lot of kids. It's a lot of hardcore gamers. It's me. I don't see this community going anywhere.

I don't see PC gaming going away.


P.S. - I realize I'm always talking up Steam. They don't pay me any money, I have no connections to their service past the fact that I use it a lot, and it really seems to be a good thing for PC gaming as a whole.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Steam Powered?

I haven't talked about Steam, the amazing service/store for PC games in a while, and without looking at my archives none of the previous articles I've written may have survived the latest redesign.

So for those that don't know, or do know but just love hearing about it, Steam is a program that you install to your computer. It is the brainchild of Valve Corporation, the creators of the Half Life franchise and the Left 4 Dead (soon to be) franchise. I'm a big fan of their games, and am awaiting the release of Half Life, Episode 3 with baited breath.

So what's so great about Steam?

You buy a game on Steam and, unless the manufacturers are clueless and forbid it, you can download and install that game an unlimited number of times, on an unlimited number of computers. Instead of restricting installs, Steam chooses to use verification as it's primary DRM. You can play any of your games on any computer, so long as you are logged in to the Steam application on that computer. You cannot be logged in on more than one computer at once. You can also verify your installs while logged in, and go into "offline mode," allowing you to play games without a constant connection to the internet.

This is so great I can't even begin to tell you. Sure, a lot of games install their own DRM along with the Steam installs, but I haven't had any problems with this DRM keeping me from playing on multiple computers or disrupting my system in any noticeable way. Some games, like Crysis (link requires birthdate entry) have a 5 machine activation limit. This may not be a problem for some people, but I like to go back and play old games all the time. Max Payne and Max Payne 2 are the most frequently played, and they are 8 and 6 years old, respectively. I can't tell you how many of my machines they've been installed on. No wait, I can...8. And over the next 6 years that number will triple, because as computers get better and cheaper faster I will be upgrading more frequently.

I'll bet in 6 years I will have gone through at least 3-5 more laptops and 6 more gaming PCs (I build them myself). I'll have used up all my activations. I can call Crysis's publisher and get the limit reset and start over, but is the game that good? I could just not humor their lame DRM and play much better or even slightly worse games that have no such restrictions. Or I could download a pirated version off the internet which has no restrictions. You see, one thing the video game industry fails to realize, is that no DRM has stopped a much-anticipated game from being made available illegally online before the game's official release date--therefore the legal copies are the only ones that are bound by the DRM. Understand that? THE PEOPLE PAYING FOR GAMES ARE THE ONLY ONES AFFECTED BY DRM. I own Crysis, it was fun, but faced with the decision again today I would not buy a game with a limited number of activations.

Steam does warn you of such DRM restrictions, but I wish they would prominently display a HUGE warning label on these games to warn potential customers, and to shame manufacturers out of the practice. Those occasional restrictions aside, Steam's service is really cool, and saves my ass from having to hunt down discs all the time. When I first heard about it I thought it was too good to be true, but nope, it really is that cool.

In addition to just being a store it is has forums and a social network in place, it helps you connect with online games, and it saves and displays stats. I don't have any friends that are big PC gamers. It was a big deal for me to start playing Team Fortress 2 online, with a bunch of strangers. Most people are cool about it, but that's a different situation than, say, Left 4 Dead. I'm considering buying Left 4 Dead and pre-ordering the sequel, I've played the first a little on Xbox 360, but I'm a little worried about playing in a close-quarter survival game with a bunch of strangers. How does it work? Should I use a headset? Are there rules of protocol and etiquette I should know?

Yeah I'm a n00b, what of it? No, seriously, what of it?


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Let's Dish

I'm someone who considers himself Libertarian leaning. I subscribe to's RSS feeds, along with a few other Libertarian blogs. Of course, I also subscribe to many Republican blogs, and Democrat blogs, and tech blogs, and entertainment blogs, etc. I don't read Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish regularly anymore (it's updated way too fast for me to keep up), but I followed it very closely coming up on the 2008 presidential election. I will admit Sullivan seemed to have it out for Sarah Palin, probably because, as a lot of people saw it, she was nominated from out of nowhere and stayed out of the press' reach for most of her candidacy.

In addition to maintaining a running list of all the verifiable lies she told (which I can't fault him for), Sullivan also frequently revisited one suspected lie that couldn't be verified without Palin's consent (by releasing her medical records)--Sullivan suspected that Palin's son Trig was not her child, but in fact he child of her (at the time) 17-year-old daughter Bristol Palin.

Today I saw (via my feed reader) that Reason editor Nick Gillespie reviewed two books about Sarah Palin in the Washington Post. I was reading Reason's excerpt of the review and was a little surprised to read this:

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, a self-identified conservative who calls his Daily Dish "the most popular one-man political blog site in the world," persistently claimed that Trig Palin, the governor's then-4-month-old baby with Down syndrome, was not Sarah's biological child and requested the full release of her obstetrical records, stopping just short of demanding he be sent the placenta for genetic testing. (If President Obama is hounded by a small group of reality-challenged "birthers," who doubt he was born in Hawaii, Palin is certainly the only politician to have given rise to what might be called "after-birthers," who doubt that she delivered her own children.)

Am I reading too much into that, or is he especially harsh toward Andrew Sullivan? As someone who likes Sullivan, and as someone who read his blog regularly as he was making the aforementioned claims, I'm a little disappointed by how that paragraph treated him. I have to wonder if Gillespie even read what Sullivan wrote about the matter, or if he's just been influenced by the way it was covered by others. First, let's address the actual argument, which I think Sullivan best laid out here.

To summarize the link, Palin announced her pregnancy at 7 months, when she didn't seem to be showing (the reporters she announced it to were shocked). A lot of pictures have popped up from around that time where she didn't seem to be showing, but one has showed up (the one at the top of the link) where she did look pregnant. Her campaign said she was using her wardrobe to cleverly disguise her pregnancy. I don't think it's at all hard to believe that she could have been pregnant and hidden it.

However, some other points come up that give way to doubt:

  • Here Sullivan says it was reported that Bristol missed 5-7 months of school for mono, coinciding with the later part of the pregnancy.

  • Palin flew 8000 miles in her last month of pregnancy, something prohibited by some airlines and recommended against by doctors. It can induce labor, and Palin knew in advance that the baby had Down syndrome, meaning it would probably have special needs. It seems odd that she would risk it.

  • Also, in the link claiming Bristol had mono, Sullivan says the flight attendants on Sarah's flight home didn't notice that Palin was pregnant.

  • On top of all this, at the end of October 2009, one of Sarah Palin's spokespersons said Palin's medical records would be released within the next week. They never were.

    Let me be clear: I don't have an opinion on who the mother of Trig Palin is. I don't have enough information, and I don't care. However, I can understand Sullivan's doubts.

    That said, I don't remember Sullivan ever flat-out stating that that Trig wasn't carried by Sarah Palin, he'd only expressed doubt. Here is a post by Sullivan at his angriest. McCain chief aide Mark Salter told a journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg: "This whole story about how the baby isn't hers? Jesus Christ. Just crazy shit." Even in response to that, Sullivan doesn't make any direct accusations. In his own defense, he says:

    I think the bizarre circumstantial evidence easily rises to the level of material that should be addressed - as presumably could be done definitively - by the campaign.

    It is not an answer to call bloggers "insane" because they are asking factual questions to which there must be evidentiary answers.

    He closes the post with:

    I'm begging the McCain campaign to make me look like a total fool for even wondering. Please, blow my skepticism out of the water. Prove I'm full of "crazy shit."

    Now let's go back to what Gillespie said (with snarky notes from me in [bracketed bold text]):

    The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, a self-identified conservative ['self-identified' is code for, 'He thinks he's a conservative. He isn't'] who calls his Daily Dish "the most popular one-man political blog site in the world," [um, he calls it that because it is] persistently claimed [never 'claimed' that I saw, just voiced suspicions] that Trig Palin, the governor's then-4-month-old baby with Down syndrome [As opposed to Trig Palin, the governor's then-4-month-old baby that didn't have Down syndrome? I don't know how Down syndrome is relevant, unless you're trying to gather sympathy on your side to somehow shame Sullivan], was not Sarah's biological child and requested the full release of her obstetrical records, stopping just short of demanding he be sent the placenta for genetic testing [cue rimshot]. (If President Obama is hounded by a small group of reality-challenged "birthers," who doubt he was born in Hawaii, Palin is certainly the only politician to have given rise to what might be called "after-birthers," who doubt that she delivered her own children. [I've never heard anyone doubt that she delivered her own 'children' (plural), just Trig specifically])

    Keep in mind that this is just me reading deeply into two sentences. I'm not trying to come off as angry or hateful towards Nick Gillespie, nor am I trying to make a case saying Sarah Palin wasn't pregnant with Trig. I don't have a dog in that fight. I just read something that seemed a little harsh towards a reasonable if misguided argument, and felt like offering my own take.

    Take from it what you will,


    Oh, and the link I pointed to while saying The Daily Dish is "the most popular one-man political blog site in the world," is a link to Technorati's Top 100, which ranks blogs, I think by popularity and influence. I don't know of any better ranking sites, or ones that judge popularity alone. The Technorati Top 100 is updated daily. The Daily Dish was listed #14 on November, 3, 2009 (the day of posting), and I didn't see any other political blog consisting solely of posts from one person ranked any higher.