Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The state of PC gaming (with a focus on FPS)

In the last few recent years you have probably heard the lines "PC Gaming is dying" or "PC Games are a shrinking market" or something similar on various shows, websites and blogs. This is generally because, when contrasted to the console gaming market, PC gaming does not attract the numbers or revenue that it's less sophisticated and cheaper cousins permit. PC gaming has and probably always will be the most expensive platform for gaming. But for exactly how long? If PC Gaming is apparently supposed to be going round the bend, then from a competitive standpoint it must not have much life left in the old girl. It has been around the longest and as we all know, all good things must come to an end...

Or do they? Now, I don't want to get off on the wrong foot here. I do not 'dislike' console gaming in any sense. I have great respect for both the Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo franchises. To not have an interest and/or understanding of the technologies and feuds between these 'rival' companies would be detrimental to the area of work I hope to get in to in the future (i.e. Game AI). I do in fact have an extensive past console gaming history, starting off with a NES, then many years later a Playstation then PS2 and now recently intend to buy a PS3 simply for Tekken 6 and God of War III alone. I do in fact think that certain genres of console gaming are superior on home consoles than any other platform, including PC and handheld. These genres (fighting, racing, platformers) are usually done extremely well and, should I still be interested in them, would prefer to play them on console than anything else.

My issue however is with the current rise of games that should not belong on consoles being pushed and developed exclusively for them. As you can guess, I believe FPS games are one of them. The FPS was born on the PC, years before console gaming could even compare on a technical standpoint (which I will discuss later). Admittedly games like Wolfenstein 3D and even Duke Nukem were originally played using just a keyboard, but the birth of the keyboard and mouse control scheme was not too far down the track. In fact, I remember people playing both Hexen and Heretic using both a keyboard and mouse back in the day, a method of control I found utterly mind boggling. The truth is that no game pad or pointing device can compare to the simplicity, accuracy and speed of the keyboard and mouse for FPS games. The mouse to control your aim and the keyboard to control your avatar and actions is a perfect marriage of complete character control that no other game genre can boast of having. So if this is naturally exclusive to the PC, why are consoles now overriding it in terms of FPS popularity and titles?

Halo is a classic example. One of the first FPS games built for console. It worked! It was also incredibly slow, easy and watered down. That was fine for the time, yes. It did in fact bring some new gameplay mechanics that have changed FPS gaming for the better. One such mechanic is the now benchmark abilty to throw grenades through a simple press of a button instead of selecting them as a weapon (a.k.a. Half-life style). I may not entirely agree with this as I have been doing this in FPS games since TFC (and through scripts in HL1) but still, its seen as an improvement on traditional weapon design in FPS. But then you see more recent games like UT3, Bioshock and (dare I say) Borderlands which from what I have experienced and seen all/will bear a very console like feel.

I've met and talked to console 'fanboi's' who while I will admit are nice enough people, have some very ignorant and illogical views on the matter. One such fellow claimed that there is nothing he could not do on a console controller that you can do with a keyboard and mouse. When I asked "well how do you rocket-jump, flick-shot, reflex-snipe, bunny-hop and wall-climb with a controller?". These five abilities are considered to be skillful techniques and control mastery, bordering almost on instinctive play. I got a blank look and a query as to wtf they were. I asked him if he had ever played Half-life or Quake (old FPS titles most people have played) to which his response was that he doesn't play crappy last-gen PC games. I left the conversation at that.

I challenge anyone reading this to mimic the kind of activity seen in this video on a console with a controller:

Console FPS games are watered down, slower and more skill-less games compared to the ones of PC of yesteryear. You look at the differences between Quake 3 and Quake 4. Quake 4 was like many FPS games of today, built for both the PC and console at the same time. It was a fun game, from a single-player perspective. But the multiplayer was nothing like its older brother. It was slow, boring and weapons had enough firepower packed behind them that any lack of skill would still compensate a frag from a bad player. "Well this is ok, for consoles, I guess" was my initial thought. The average console controller was more sluggish, less precise and slower to use than a PC mouse, often with auto-aim features and larger hitscan/box targets to make up for a lack of precision. Even crosshairs were usually larger (i.e. Halo 1's 1/4 of a screen crosshair). But then I found out the awful truth.

Console FPS games are built to be slower. Yes even Halo. Halo on PC was faster, not by much (10%) but still, a speed increase none the less. Even the PS3 and PC versions of UT3 have this trait. This quote from Mark Rein ...

"When you play Halo on PC, you notice the difference too, yeah? This is also the reason why we don't have cross-platform play, between PC and PS3, because you have got to make some compromises for each platform. But you play Halo on console and you find that it's slower too, right…they have to be slower, because your fingers are just not as precise as your whole arm, right? To me the movement and speed as a console gamer is just right."

... I personally do not find to be re-assuring, especially considering the Game Developer's shift in focusing on console games over PC. Why are we taking a step back? Why are we making slower FPS games for a control scheme that does not really support them? Why does the PC gamer have to sit in the shadows, reminiscing of the glorious days when PC FPS was king, considered pro and skillful only to be fed console based badly done ports that are basically Half-life with a face lift?

The answer is money. Now, I dont have a problem with consoles getting FPS games in general, but I do find the stance certain game companies are having on the games they develop. Because consoles are cheaper, because companies don't have to push the boundaries of rendering technologies as hard and because they can make a shitty game and still guarantee some sales ... what possible reason is there to develop games for PC. At least primarily for PC and then console after, anyway? Atm, none. Which brings me to another point about console game development in general. It was never the platform in which you played games on that pushed the boundary of graphics, rendering and sound technologies. It was always the games! If games can be developed on a platform that doesn't change for 5-6 years before its newer model comes out, then the recycling of games engines, code and ideas become mainstream. THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING! Hardware today is far beyond what the most demanding games can manage and considering the most graphically advanced games engine (Crysis -2007) is approaching nearly 2.5 years of age, this gap is just going to continue. Even Crytek (makers of Crysis) have jumped along the console developer bandwagon and do you know what? CryEngine 2.0 looks worse on console than what CryEngine 1.0 looks on PC. CryEngine 2.0 on PC however looks great, but it could look oh so much better....

I am aware I am bordering on ranting here, but the technological progression of games technology is something I am passionate about. Video cards, frame-rates, overclocking and cooling have always been my secret geek fetish ... thing, and although in recent years it may have eased off, I am still interested in the field. Some people say that console games help to increase the efficiency in programming game engines, particularly when the platform starts ageing. This perspective is mainly true. It is also flawed. Code efficiency is usually about memory conservation and increasing the number of clock-cycles your game engine can run at (i.e. processing power required). Reducing the complexity of algorithms and refining them to be more efficient is always great, but this takes time, money and effort. Lots of it! I know because I have had to do it. I say this is flawed as I would rather my game programmers be making the next Unreal Engine or working on a more reaslitic shading algorithm than fucking around trying to make their game work on a 6 year old piece of plastic that you can pick up for less than $200. Its like seeing how many clowns you can fit in your clown car, when the maximum capacity is only 8.

Companies are simply in it for the money. This is fair enough, but horrible single-player storylines, dodgey gameplay mechanics and design choices for apparent AAA titles are unaccounted for in this day and age. The quality of games today suffers because of this game development perspective. Half-life for example was for its time above and beyond everything else in its field. Unreal Tournament and Quake 3? Still the best tournament shooters you can play competitively. You could even say the same for CS 1.6 if you are into the team-work, accuracy and realism based shooters as well. These games are all over 10 years old. I may be getting old, stuck in the 'good old days' but I still feel that gaming and PC gaming in particular is having its own shallow grave dug for it. It's potential is being ignored, its roots forgotten and its gamers either converting or simply losing interest.

"I guess they just don't make them like they used to. Fucking plastic pieces of shit"

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