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.

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