February 6, 2004 10:52 PM PST
This post at Ars Technica
prompted me to write a bit about console gaming. Of course, from the legacy of SimCity, Half Life and WarCraft, I'm a PC gamer. Before I get to my problems with consoles, let me preface by saying these issues are probably not going to stop the growth of console gaming, and that is sad. Also, I realize that there are benefits to the console (I'll list below). But we'll be focusing on the negatives here. :-)
First Person Shooters (FPS) suffer with the controller
- This has been beaten to death, so let's get it over with. Controllers are less accurate than keyboard/mouse combinations. Their model of operation is different. A mouse you move to where you want to go, with a controller, you steer where you want to go. Think about why you don't use a joystick to control your PC. Controllers are also forced to cram more into what you do with each finger, since it's primarily your thumbs doing the work. Ever hear the phrase "he's all thumbs?" Right.
Lack of resolution
- Another standard issue. TV and even HDTV can't match the resolution of a modern PC. This is a huge issue for games such as Starcraft, Diablo, Age of Empires and the Sims, where a large screen and quick click access to any resource are a huge advantage. For FPS games, this is an issue because you physically don't have the accuracy. Where an opponent's torso may be a few pixels wide on a PC, the player may look like a single blurry dot on the TV. And just try to get the controller to point exactly on that dot. On the flip side, console games with older engines look better on TV because of the decreased resolution and the highly saturated color. This is why a VCD looks fine on TV, but looks like crap fullscreen on a PC.
Laggy network play
- My experience here is with XBox, which is pushing it's subscription Live service the most. Any real FPS player knows that "it's all about ping." The difference between a player with a 20ms ping on a lan and a 70ms ping on a T1 is easily enough lag to unbalance otherwise equal contestants. Even an 80ms ping is noticeable vs. a 120ms ping (which is almost unplayable for most FPS). The XBox does not give an actual ping time for their online games. Since the games are hosted by one of the players, there will always be wildly varying pings. Serious PC gamers would not run a server on their client machine. Nor would they participate in a low ping game. So it follows that...
XBox Live is weak
- It costs money. It doesn't provide dedicated servers. It's just a naming service! The games are hosted by one of the players, who also likely hosts the voice chat. I've heard the service is also pretty buggy when in connecting to games, but I have not used it enough to come up with more specifics on the problems.
Compromises must be made to enhance console gameplay
- The lack of controller accuracy, the lack of render accuracy and the laggy network all combine to dilute the quality of the game. Most weapons become spray type weapons, so that the various sources of inaccuracy can be hidden in weapon spread. Single shot weapons either require multiple hits, or are just plain frustrating to use online. Seeking weapons become much more powerful because their algorithms compensate for any lag. MechWarrior online is a great example of all three of these issues. So is Halo. The Halo developers stated that to balance the game for the PC, they didn't have to change the levels or AI as much as they just simply increased the accuracy of the weapons so it wasn't ridiculously easy.
Myth: Consoles are cheaper then PCs
- The Ars article surprisingly mentions how cheap consoles are. Yes, this is called giving away the razors for free and charging for blades. The price of new console games is usually 20% more than their PC counterparts ($50 vs. $40). In addition, the price of PC games drops off every few months after their release to $30, $20, etc. Console games only drop in price if a new version comes out, or they really, really suck. But even the bad games start out at $50, where for the PC they'll come it at $19.95. And what about the $200 hardware? Cheaper than a PC though, right? So you could buy 8 $50 games and still come in the same price as a $600 PC. First of all, you have to add in $50 for the yearly XBox live account. Then a $30 HDTV output cable, then a $30 second controller. $30 DVD remote, etc. And you probably already have a PC.
But consoles don't need upgrading
- Let's see what happens with XBox2. Rumors are that it will not be backwards compatible. Whoops! Upgrade time. By the way, I think this is perfectly valid for MS to do. You should have to pay $200 every couple of years to keep up with cool games. It's the price you pay for the awesome progress that's been made in gaming and computing in general.
Myth: Consoles have better games
- While this largely depends on what genre, let's take a look at the most popular games out there. Top game - Sims. Sucks on console. Top XBox game - Halo. Originally developed as a PC (well, Mac) FPS game, and only made console after a buyout of Bungie by Microsoft. The PC version of this game plays better. The fact that Halo is the XBox flagship is laughable. Microsoft payed a ton of money to make this PC game work on the console. I won't even mention Counterstrike (Top online game), the 3 year old free game built on Half Life that you can (just in time for the holidays) buy for $50, and play on your $50 XBox Live account.
What about independent games on consoles
- It is great to be able to download free and shareware games on PCs. Tetris, Bejeweled, etc. These are a huge part of gaming for casual gamers (Solitaire or Minesweeper?) The tight control on dev kits for Nintendo, PS2 and XBox makes it very difficult for independent gamers to release and distribute games.
Myth: Console hardware is getting as good as PCs now
- 10 years ago, consoles were better. Couldn't beat Nintendo for a side scroller. But with the advent of 3D, this all changed. The only reason consoles may appear to be better is the previously mentioned low resolution of console games, and the general lack of good competition between ATI and NVidia this year. The past couple of years saw some amazing progress in graphics hardware, while 2003 saw ATI kicking NVidia's ass, causing the new technology to stay very expensive.
- Of course there are many benefits to consoles. The largest contributor to their recent rise is the social factor of being able to sit in the living room and play, rather than behind the desk in a home office. They are more acceptable and cooler than the nerdy PC for a large portion of the population. Of course they allow less user error or misconfiguration (although this hasn't stopped the growth of PCs in the home any). Some games are equally as good on the console such as Tony Hawk and Grand Theft Auto. Some games are better (usually for the social aspect) such as sports games and fighting games. A group of guys feels OK watching two people on the big screen battle it out in Madden 2004, but would never consider huddling around a monitor to watch two guys sharing a keyboard. That even makes me shudder.
The first point
- Console gaming is gaining in popularity because it is being pushed hard by Microsoft, leading to innovation by all players in the field. It is being pushed hard by companies because they see a huge revenue opportunity above PC games. They can charge more for games because they don't have to compete with piracy (which some would say gave DOS its market leadership, and perhaps may be giving Linux it's leadership today). They can also lock players into proprietary series of games that only runs on a single platform. Only a handful of powerful game studios can make agreements to put out multi-console games. Smaller developers with cheaper games are shut out of the industry. Even the online play is turned into a pay service on top of broadband fees. Bottom line - console gaming is "cool" because it makes more money for the companies pushing it than PC games.
The second point
- It is frustrating that we're taking a step back to several years ago in gaming technology. When I think of all the time people have put into Counterstrike, the tournament ladders, the professional players, the other Half Life mods, and then look at all the Johnny come latelies to online gameplay, it's just sad. Been there, done that. Counterstrike was written by a kid in on a pc using a free mod kit for Half Life. Let's see an XBox user do that.