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Friday, December 10, 2004

PC Gaming Is A Pain In My Arse

Gaming on a computer has always been a bit hit and miss with me. My first experiences were with the VIC 20 and the Commodore 64. Great games, for their time, but you either had to physically type in the game code, or load from a casette drive, which would take hours, and often fail. Plus, you had to type some gibberish at the command line to get it to work. But one machine was much like another, and if you tried it a few times, and remembered what your older cousin had told you to type, you'd be playing Ghostbusters or The Last Ninja or IK+ or whatever in no time.

Then came the age of the Amiga. This, to me, was the golden age of home computing. Not only did you have WYSIWYG word processing and desktop publishing and all that, and pictures that actually looked like something, but you had great games that'd boot right from the floppies that came in the box. They just worked. Which is something that was easy to take for granted, at the time, but an important feature.

The age of PC gaming, and "multimedia" actually saw us take a few steps backward, along with the forward leap home computing made around that time. I used to have three different boot disks, which I'd had to make myself by editing the config.sys and system.ini files that decided how my PC would use the 640kb of RAM that Bill Gates had famously claimed "would be enough for anybody", and then how it'd use the apparently superfluous other few megabytes it had floating around in there. You had to boot it one way to play X-Wing, and another way to play Doom. What a load of crap. If Magic Carpet didn't happen to support your particular graphic chipset or whatever, you were out of luck. And you couldn't return games, either. I never had to know any of this shit when playing console games, and I certainly didn't edit my Amiga's system configuration or anything like that. You put the disk or cartridge in, and you played the damned game. The machine knew what to do with it, when you put it in there, and the people that wrote the game knew what sort of box you'd be putting it in.

So, once the Playstation and Saturn rolled around (and later the Nintendo 64), I saw no need for PC gaming. So I used my PC for work, study, Internet, and all that, saved a few bucks when buying a graphics card, and thought little more of it. But memories are short, and I've started to drift back towards PC gaming. Half-Life and Doom2 are both games I remember fondly from the past, and it was the updates to these two classic franchises that lured me back in. But I don't think we've actually come very far from where we were in 1993 or so, sadly. It's no easier getting this shit to work than it was back on my old 486. Here are the main issues, as I see them:

1. I don't want to know the difference between OpenGL and DirectX. I don't want to have to figure out what sort of videocard I have, how much RAM it has, how fast it is, what drivers it has installed, and whether it supports hardware transform and lighting, pixel shaders, and what have you. And I'm a tech-savvy game developer. I'm no dummy - I *can* figure all this shit out. But when I buy a game, it's entertainment I'm after, not some sort of edutainment meta-game where I have to research modern graphics technology and trawl through all sorts of miserable forums filled with techno-geeks waving their e-penises in the air and boasting about how many FPS they're getting at 8x FSAA. To put it politely: fuck that shit. It's no wonder that consoles are killing the PC gaming market stone dead. Who, really, has time for all this? I've got to update DirectX, download the latest Forceware or Catalyst drivers, tweak all sorts of settings, while avoiding downloading anything that'll kill my computer, and then cross my fingers that the thing'll run? Madness. Let's also remember that if I do manage to kill my computer while fannying around with all this crap, that it not only stops me from playing the game, but it more or less kills my ability to be productive (work, banking, email and what have you) until I sort the whole damned mess out.

2. I'm not getting the same experience as everyone else. I know this, because I play the few PC games I've bought recently (Doom 3, Half-Life 2 and Pirates!) on my work PC (which is a high-end machine) and on my home PC (which isn't). Playing Doom 3 at work is not the same as playing Doom 3 at home. Fundamentally, it isn't. It'll run just fine on both sets of hardware (and full credit to the developers here - that's no mean feat), but it's a different experience. Depending on the hardware you have, you'll be getting a larger or smaller subset of the whole experience the game contains. And you can bet it'll be different to the next guy. It's sort of like if you were reading a book and it got passed through Babelfish a couple of times before you got it. I mean, you get the gist, but it's not really what was intended. When I'm playing a console game, I'm playing the same game as everyone else. What's more, the developers had a chance to optimise it, and make decisions about what was important and what wasn't. It's not me making these decisions looking at a baffling set of sliders before I've even been able to experience the game, trying to decide whether soft shadows, anti aliasing, a few extra frames per second or whatever is going to make the game better, more playable, more enjoyable or whatever. How the fuck am I supposed to know?

3. Bugs. Alight, so console games have bugs. Everything's got bugs. But when you get a weird bug in a PC game, where everything glitches out and becomes unplayable, you can't take it back to the store. You don't even know who to ask for help, or what to ask them. I was getting a weird Half-Life 2 glitch, that was fucking the game up for me. I asked around, and tried tech support, and couldn't get an answer. Now I'm getting the same bug in Pirates!. So what gives? I update DirectX. I update my drivers. I check for conflicts. I read an arseload of FAQs and troubleshooting guides. I try different settings and configurations. No dice. Life really shouldn't be this difficult. If a console won't play the games that are designed for it, it's broken. You get it fixed, and then it works. But most PCs can be found somewhere in a vast grey area between "broken" and "fixed", and the amount your PC is "broken" varies from game to game. If the software that's designed for it works at about 70% of what it's supposed to, then you're doing okay.

What's the answer?

Should all PCs be built to standard "benchmark" configurations? No. Apple did well out of this model for a while, but even they've gone and fucked it up. PCs aren't built by a single company, and there's no one entity that could enforce this, or even put out meaningful recommendations. Plus, people buy PCs for all sorts of reasons, and being able to custom build one is a huge advantage. You can get all the stuff you need to do what you need to do with it, without having to pay for a whole bunch of crap that you don't actually need at all. Plus, having companies competing over CPUs and graphics cards and all that helps to keep prices down, and also makes for more innovation. Which are pretty positive points, surely?

Should we give up on PC gaming altogether? Probably not. There's always that bit of time where the current console generation is getting a bit long in the tooth, and PC gaming has a year or two to shine. Plus, it's a fertile ground for independent development, new ideas, online distribution, and all those other good things that eventually filter through into the console world. We hope. Plus, I can't imagine playing Civilization on a console. There are some games that are just meant to be played at a desk, with the mouse and keyboard.

So what's the answer? I dunno, to be honest. I suspect there's something to be done in the layer between the hardware and the application. Get on it, Microsoft. This new-fangled XNA thing had better be good, or else. In the meanwhile, I think I'll go back to ignoring PC gaming. I mean, I couldn't resist Half-Life 2 or Pirates! but just about everything else I can live without. It's back to the console for me - the world of push-button functionality; shit that works, even if you're a luddite or a moron; bean bags, couches and potato crisps. Mmm. Crunchy.

(Please forgive the long rant. I finished everything I had to do today about half an hour before beer o'clock, and I needed to fill in the time somehow. And those weird expanding rainbow textures in Pirates! have been really shitting me. Seriously.)


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