Platforms in Play

I play video games, on average, maybe an hour a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but on average probably 1/24th of my adult life is spent playing videogames. That’s quite a lot.

I have a love of the game medium that is wide and deep. For the past many years, I’ve played games both on the PC (Windows and Mac) and more or less every console in vogue. I spend time and money on gaming as a hobby. And lately I notice that a greater percentage of my playing time is devoted to games on a console, as compared to games on the PC.

Why is that? Although it’s popular for people to blame cost, that’s not really a major factor for me. I’ve got my PC. I’ve got my consoles. They’re all paid for. I’m asking “What are the feelings that make me reach for the console rather than the PC when I’m in a gaming mood?”

For one thing, there’s the comfort factor. I sit at a desk in front of a computer all day long. Perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind is the feeling that sitting at a desk in front of a computer in my leisure time too is wrong somehow – playing a game is psychologically transformed into work. This holiday season, when I had a huge stack of games that I hadn’t made progress in, I had a brief period where I was actually feeling guilty that I wasn’t playing enough games. When games are work instead of fun, I’m less likely to play them.

I can play a console game from the couch, sitting well back from the monitor, which is an attractive, large TV. Friends can play or watch at the same time in the same room, which makes the console experience a bit more social, comparatively speaking. If I’m playing Project Gotham Racing 2, I can play standing up (everyone knows that if you lean when turning left, the car turns faster, right? Just like how you can steer the ball when bowling.)

Lastly, there’s the “just works” factor. This weekend while preparing my review of _ The Battle for Wesnoth_, I decided to fire up Warlords III to refresh my memory of it. Same hardware configuration as when I used to play it, same disc, but now, presumably because of some magic Windows update, the game no longer works – it crashes after a few minutes. I spent about 2 hours downloading various driver updates and trying different configurations, but in the end I was foiled. Congratulations! This is what it’s like to play games on the PC. Get used to it.

When I want to play a game on the PS2 or Xbox, I walk up to it, hit the power button, put the disc in the drive, and I’m playing in a minute or so. No fuss. No wondering if there will be some subtle incompatibility between the game and my sound card. It all just works.

Perhaps this is just another example of how specialization brings convenience. If you really want to, you can make toast by sticking a piece of bread on a spit and holding it above a flame, or by putting it in the oven for the right amount of time. Everyone has an oven. Everyone has a stove. But everyone also has a toaster. You don’t hear people saying “Hey, don’t use that toaster – this Viking range is much more powerful!” Yet people make that argument about PC games versus console games all the time.

Chromatron

Chromatron

Are there downsides to leaning towards console games? Sure. Although it’s no longer fair to characterize all console games as “less intricate” than all PC games (I played Knights of the Old Republic for a good 60 hours, for example, and found it involving and enjoyable), it is true that there’s a certain class of games that are less likely to break through to the console world, due to the ergonomics of controlling them (I don’t expect to see Europa Universalis II on a console any time soon, just to pick one example – real time strategy games which require fine mouse control might make up the lion’s share of this class). And because the cost of entry for developers to the console market is higher, great little games like Chromatron and Escape Velocity aren’t likely to appear on them. I’m glad those great little games exist (especially because I can play them on the couch, on my laptop). I think there is a nostalgia factor for those of us who are a bit older who remember sitting in front of our Apple ][’s (or whatever) knowing that the game we were playing was written by one person, who was maybe just like us, and wouldn’t that be cool to do for a living?

Castle Wolfenstein

Castle Wolfenstein

You can’t maintain that illusion with consoles; obviously any commercial console project is a serious undertaking by a comparatively large team. There’s no Bill Budge or Nasir or Dani Bunten producing all aspects of the game themselves. But that’s also true of large commercial PC games. Castle Wolfenstein, arguably the best game of its era, was written by Silas Warner. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was created by a huge team of coders, artists, designers, and producers. There are thousands of great, independent, small scale games written by unique individuals today. You (and I) never get to hear about most of them. So if you’re going to spend money on the product of a faceless multinational conglomerate, why not at least spend money on the product that reliably works?

A year ago I would have said that a PC was the better choice for online gaming, but frankly the Xbox Live user experience has so far exceeded my expectations that I no longer hold that opinion. I’ve drunk the Kool-aid. Here’s my money; a few bucks a month to pay for a voice-enabled rendezvous service that lets me play with my friends rather than a bunch of rude 13 year olds is well worth it.

Will I keep playing PC games? Sure, especially the smaller, independent ones. But the sharp dividing line of quality that used to exist between PC and console games no longer exists. As time goes on, I find that the ergonomic advantages of consoles overwhelm PC games for all games except those with the quirkiest user interfaces. I’m already choosing to play most game available for both PC and Xbox in their Xbox form.

Toast, you see, should be made in a toaster.

Additional Resources

This is what we talk about when we talk about games: