As a gamer, specifically one that indulges in both console and PC, I had become used to the upgrade cycles that came pretty regularly for all my hardware. Ever since I got my hands on the first Nintendo Entertainment System I had pretty much every console in my house quickly after their release in Australia. Once I got into the wonderful world of PC gaming this then lead into me spending far too much time at the local computer fairs (which you can still see me at today) gawking at the latest and greatest components, dreaming of the perfect system to build. Nothing has really changed in the world of gaming hardware with yearly product releases still the norm. But there has been a shift that has, until very recently, gone seemingly unnoticed.
In the middle of last year I bought myself a new system consisting of everything but a graphics card since I had 2 8800GTs which seemed to be holding up quite well on my old system. By all accounts it was a beast of a machine at the time although it was quickly trounced by the release of the Core i7 line that was released only a few short months later. I had deliberately bought an expensive DDR3 motherboard in the hopes that I’d be able to squeeze 2 years out of the board by upgrading the processor a year or so later, but that didn’t seem like it would ever happen. Although one thing struck me whilst playing through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (review coming!): I had everything turned to absolute maximum and my 1.5 year old system was chugging along without a hitch.
In fact all of the games I had purchased recently had no trouble whatsoever with being turned up to the max. I even unlocked a whole bunch of hidden options in Borderlands which made the game almost tear inducingly gorgeous which in the past would’ve had watching a slide show. I admit I hadn’t really thought about this at all and just loved the fact that what used to be considered an “ancient” system was still kicking so much ass. But then it hit me, almost every game in the past year has had a simultaneous release on a console. This is what was extending the life of my pc rig far beyond what it would have been originally.
It really should have come as no surprise since excluding the console market from your game is removing a large potential revenue source before you’ve even released the game. With the Playstation 3 selling 27 million units and the Xbox360 selling 31 million the potential audience you can target increases by a whopping 58 million should you decide to do a console release. In fact if you take the absolutely massive blockbuster title of COD:MW2 you’ll see that a mere 12% of sales were on the PC with the reigning champion being the Xbox360 (which is not surprising considering that the online component of the Xbox360 for MW1 was the superior of the 2). So really you’d be a fool not to target these platforms but that also means that you can’t make the game that strenuous because the hardware in those consoles really isn’t top notch.
Just taking the graphics cards as a talking point (I’m not going to try to compare the CPUs in these since Cell is just too hard to do comparisons on without getting unnecessarily technical) the PS3 has want amounts to a NVIDIA 7800GTX with a higher theoretical performance and the Xbox360 an ATI X1950XT. Theoretically they’re pretty similar in terms of performance but the differences usually show up in implementation (I have it on good word from a developer friend at 2K Games that the PS3 is a coding nightmare). Still any decent geek will look at those models and tell you straight away that they’re 4 years old and 3~4 revisions behind the current generation. So when your largest audience looks like its going to be playing from a console you’ll design the game from the ground up to run well on such hardware. With a console however you have the benefit of doing platform specific optimizations to really get the most out of the hardware, so your game won’t look seriously out dated. A liberty you don’t have when programming for the PC.
So even though my 18 month old machine would have been struggling in the gaming era of years gone by thanks to the ever growing console market us PC gamers are enjoying the benefits of their slower refresh cycle. This has the added benefit of making almost all PCs capable of running modern games with only certain market segments like netbooks struggling to keep up. In the end it all comes down to a giant windfall for the average consumer as their purchases are now more capable than ever before.
There is a darker side to this however. You see when your largest market is going to be on a console there’s the glaring difference between them and their PC brethren: the control scheme. Typically consoles come with some form of proprietary controller that share a similar baseline (a directional pad, dual joysticks, 4 normal and 2 trigger buttons seem to be the norm) whereas the weapon of choice for all PC gamers is the good old fashioned mouse and keyboard. Needless to say the range of input options for a PC game is vastly great than that of a console and this means that the difference in interfaces is quite vast. Whilst the differences should be transparent to the user it is far more typical that the game is built around the target platform and then ported across. I lamented this fact in my Borderlands review where the game was very obviously built for console and then modified to suit the PC. This usually ends up in a screaming mess for the scorned platform which typically ends up being the PC, sporting what many call a “dumbed down” console interface.
Another rare downside to the rise of consoles is that sometimes the game play itself can suffer due to development focused on a particular platform which is later ported. The most typical example of this is platform specific bugs which are usually not game breaking but are enough to detract from the experience. There are some rare occurrences of game play mechanics being changed to suit the platform such as COD:MW2 having an auto-aim on the console when you zoomed in the sights which the PC lacked. I’ve yet to see the core story be modified but there are issues like platform specific content which leaves a few feeling a bit miffed but is probably the rarest of the lot.
In the end it really comes out as a boon for all us gamers. Sure there are some downsides to having such a huge console market but overall it has made games far more accessible driving the need for bigger and better titles. Even though this year was plagued with delayed releases we’ve still managed to see many great titles come out which just makes me all the more excited for what’s in store next year. Would we have had this despite the console market success? It’s possible but I’d find it hard to translate those 50+ million console gamers into PC gamers. Nintendo knew it all along, the biggest market is the one you haven’t tapped yet.