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The perils of PC gaming

As pre-E3 new console hype increases, PC games try not to send more gamers into console-gaming's warm embrace. By Tom Loftus.
"Guild Wars" has already been tested against a battery of PC configurations and video cards.
"Guild Wars" has already been tested against a battery of PC configurations and video cards.NCSoft

When the PC game "Guild Wars" from NCSoft launched at 2:00 a.m. last Thursday, NCSoft's director of studio services John Erskine was ready.

"Guild Wars" had been already thoroughly tested.  The in-house hardware compatibility lab had measured the game against a battery of PC configurations and video cards.  Volunteer testers had hammered away at alpha and beta versions documenting how mundane Windows programs like virus scanning software interfered with game play.

Erskine, who is NCSoft's representative to its players, and the 30 additional staff members he had assembled were taking no chances.  "Guild Wars" is a PC game, after all.  There were bound to be a slew of questions from frustrated gamers who couldn't get the game to work for one technical reason or another.

Erskine was philosophical:  "The PC is a piece-by-piece system with every PC just a little bit different from every other one.”

In serious PC gaming a philosophical mind-set is essential because the answer as to whether a particular game will work is rarely yes or no.

Instead, more questions:  Does the PC have an adequate graphics accelerator card?  Are all the display drivers up to date?  What about Direct X?  RAM?  Sound card? 

Unlike the game console business where one PlayStation 2 operates like any another, PC's come in an infinite array of set-ups.  Just look at the results of a survey on player's PC configurations posted recently by Valve Software, the creator of 2004's "Half-Life 2."  The number of possible combinations between graphics cards, processor speed and RAM could make a Talmudic scholar's head spin. 

All those ways for a PC game to not work... all those excuses to say, "forget this" and buy a video game console instead.

The official and unofficial response
"We get it, we live it ourselves," said Dean Lester, general manager for Microsoft's in-house  Windows Graphics and Gaming Technologies Group.  "If we could streamline the experience of playing games on Windows we really could get more people playing.”

Last week, Lester’s group announced several PC game friendly updates to make installing and running games on Windows XP and "Longhorn," XP's successor, less of an ulcer-inducing experience.  

Updates like an easy method to locate and install PC game fixes and patches; an improved architecture -- in "Longhorn" -- that shields gamers from having to worry about display drivers; the ability to use Xbox controllers with PC games; and game console-style easy installation where game files are placed in one games folder and not scattered throughout the operating system.

“Why are we even asked all of these questions,” said Lester about PC gaming's current installation process. “There is no reason why we can’t do the same as a console.”

Why indeed.  PC gaming has many lessons to learn from consoles when it comes to intuitive set-up.  But the PC, by nature, is only so user-friendly.

Koroush Ghazi is a PC gamer and one of the unsung thousands who has made it their mission to make PC gaming easier for the multitudes.  His online gaming technical advice guide dispenses tips on everything from optimizing a PC for better performance to troubleshooting common PC gaming problems.

"Given the sheer diversity of computer hardware as well as evolutionary and revolutionary hardware developments games developers will never be able to make their games 100 percent compatible or optimal on all gaming systems," he said.

The PC, unlike the console, is never a finished product.  PC's can be modified with better video cards.  CPUs can be "over-clocked," where the CPU's speed is tweaked to eek out better performance. 

That makes the PC's ability a powerful gaming platform...if the gamer knows what he is doing.  Many of problems in PC gaming, problems like crashes, slowdowns, and slow online play are often the result, according to Ghazi, of gamers changing their PC settings without understanding their relationship to the game.

User-created problems, the overall confusion with PC gaming's multitude of set-ups as well as PC games released with bugs are scaring some gamers away for good, according to Ghazi.

"We're losing a lot of PC gamers to consoles for that very reason," he said.  "The ability to simply switch on their console and start gaming straight away without worrying about the need to tweak or optimize anything."

Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developer’s Association encountered trouble installing “Half-Life 2.”  A trip to an online message board revealed that his answering 'no' to a question of whether he wanted to install what he thought was an optional feature had nullified the five disc installation.

"I’m a gamer and I have persistence,” said Della Rocca.  “Here we have ‘Half-Life 2’ one of the premiere games of the year and it had significant problems on the first installation disc. How many get a problem and say 'screw this'?”

Let's go to the numbers.  Despite the success of “Doom 3” and “Half-Life 2,” 2004's Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences "Game of the Year," PC games accounted for just 15 percent of overall console and PC software sales in 2004, according to the NPD Group.  The $1.1 billion it pulled in during 2004 represented a 12 percent decline from 2003.  

2005 is so far trending into another double-digit decline.  Console games, meanwhile, set new sales records in 2004. 

Keeping the faith while gaining converts
PC games sales may be down, but not out.

"Every time a new console comes out someone rings the bell on the death of PC gaming," said Todd Hollenshead, CEO of iD Software.  "We tend to believe that it's not true."

iD Software godfathered modern PC gaming back in the 1990s with first-person-shooters that married bleeding-edge PC graphics power with multiplayer play.  iD's customers remain PC gaming's most technically-savvy bunch, thanks to the companies commitment to allowing gamers almost the same powers as iD programmers in tweaking system settings. 

Yet as iD's games have become more sophisticated -- with its latest title  'Doom 3' boasting dynamic lighting and shadows -- so has iD's methods in not losing the more casual gamer to technical confusion.

"We did not even have a recommended setup in 'Quake,''" said iD Software’s CEO Todd Hollenshead referring to the now ubiquitous listing of minimum system requirements that appear on PC game boxes.  "In 'Quake 2' we were able to auto-detect a player's video card."

2004's 'Doom 3' was both the most graphically rich and CPU demanding of iD's titles yet the easiest to install thanks to what Hollenshead described as using the installation to identify "a complex matrix of RAM, processing speed and video graphic components," that auto-detected the settings of the PC to maximize the end result without sending the casual gamer into convulsions. 

"Our approach was not to be willing to lose critical components,” explained Hollenshead.  Everything we do has real time dynamic lighting and shading at a frame rate not less than 20 frame per seconds.”

Given iD's commitment, some took the company's decision to release 'Doom 3' on the Xbox last month as a surprise.  Hollenshead said that the Xbox version is not a different game from the PC original and with the inclusion of a co-op campaign plus 'Doom' and 'Doom 2,' the Xbox version has a "special edition DVD" feel.

The PC remains iD Software's platform of choice.  "For companies like us that like to push the limits, games on the PC will always look better," he said.

The death of PC gaming?

Two weeks from now the media will be abuzz with news on the next generation of consoles with nary a mention of PC gaming.   

But for fans of massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-games like "Guild Wars," first person shooters and strategy games -- games where a keyboard and mouse trumps a joystick and where the option of maximizing a PC's performance is only a visit to away -- the plusses of PC gaming are worth the perils. 

There are always people like NCSoft’s John Erskine waiting to hear our problems.  And that Thursday launch of 'Guild Wars,' Erskine reports, went smoothly as planned.