Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Console and PC gaming

In the open Sunday thread there was a question about console versus PC gaming, and where I see the trends in gaming platforms. Not something I would have blogged about without prodding, because it is somewhat of a dead horse which has been beaten on since the early days of the internet. But I would say that the discussion is a bit silly, and based on a common misconception: People think the gaming market has a fixed size, and any success of one platform or genre comes to the detriment of another, in some kind of giant zero sum game. But that simply isn't true, which removes much of the need of these kinds of turf wars.

I've been around for a while, so I know computer and console games from the days of the ZX81 and Pong. And since then the market for games has nearly constantly been growing, admittedly with some ups and downs. And while of course there has always been some movement and competition between various platforms, the general rule has always been one of synergy: A new game or platform evolves and attracts people that have not been playing before, the market grows, and once people tried one form of gaming they are more willing to also try another.

Thus if you compare lets say World of Warcraft, Halo 3, the Wii Fit, and Farmville, there aren't actually all that many people who would be attracted by all of these games. And it isn't as if the over 80 million players of Farmville are somehow "missing" on the other platforms and games.

Different platforms often lead to different controls. The "lean backward" style of slouching on a couch with a console gamepad in hand is different from the "lean forward" style of gaming on a PC with keyboard and mouse. And different genres of games work more or less well with different control schemes. For example the few companies that made cross-platform multiplayer shooters had to artificially handicap the PC players, because otherwise they would have had too much of an advantage, aiming with a mouse being so much faster and easier than with a gamepad. MMORPGs on consoles suffer from the problem of text input, and a gamepad not having the over 100 keys that a PC keyboard has. But 3D PC games lack the ease of controlling the camera with one thumbstick and the character with another, ofter leading to camera positioning problems.

Much has been discussed about the comparative costs of different gaming platforms. A top notch gaming PC costs significantly more than a console. On the other hand a household without games might already have a PC for surfing the internet, and you don't need a Geforce 480 to play Farmville. If the family bought a computer with enough graphics power and memory to handle daddy's home video editing hobby, the machine will also run World of Warcraft without a problem. In those cases the marginal cost for playing games on the PC can be as low as zero. Meanwhile console makers discovered how price sensitive their customers are, with the Wii being considered to have "won" the last round of console wars not just by offering different games and controls, but also by simply being a lot cheaper than the competition. As a consequence the Playstation 3 today only costs half of what it cost on release, in spite of coming with more features and hard disk space. Not to mention people playing games on iPhones, which is probably the worst cost to benefit ratio for gaming you can imagine.

But all that shows that people choose their gaming platform for many different reasons. While you are waiting in an airport lounge that iPhone is a lot more convenient than an XBox 360 game. If you hang out on Facebook anyway all day to chat with your friends, playing a bit of Farmville while waiting for somebody to reply to your wall post comes easy. When you're tired in the evening after a long day at work, a quick match on some console game might be better suited than a complicated strategy game on a PC. But if you have lots of hours to burn, a PC MMORPG offers the biggest number of hours of entertainment.

Thus I don't see a big trend towards one form of gaming becoming extinct to the benefit of the growth of another. I am pretty sure that in a decade from now there will be more gamers than today, and potentially more platforms as well.

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