Monday, August 22, 2011

The PC returns to the spotlight

It’s fair to say that in the last decade or so, consoles have been the top dog. For consumers, their relative low entry cost, guarantee to play games tailored for the system, and easy-to-use online multi-player functionality gave confidence for those looking for a dedicated gaming machine. But the rise of consoles left the PC behind in the dust. Games that begun as PC exclusives eventually became console exclusive, leaving anticipating PC gamers feeling betrayed and neglected. Even PC games that were developed along their console counter-parts often suffered from what is referred to as consolification, or designing the game in a way to meet the limitations of a console. However, games releasing this year are beginning to lean more towards accepting the PC as a viable platform instead of an after-thought.

Ars Technica’s hands-on preview for the PC version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution details the features and care put into the version developed specifically for the PC. Publisher Square-Enix brought aboard Nixxes Software to make sure the PC version was a cut above most console ports, fleshing out the title to take full advantage of the PC. The first Deus Ex received many awards for its innovation and design when it released in 2000, and consistently appears in the upper brackets of many ‘greatest games of all time’ lists. Its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, received significantly less praise. Its console-orientated development led to smaller levels, less detailed textures, and a shorter game overall. It also replaced the previously applauded skill system in favor of biomods that required less forethought and comprehension.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, however, looks to bring back the PC experience that so many lauded from the first game. Julien Bouvrais, Eidos-Montreal’s Director of Technology, explained some of the features in the PC version to Gamespy, “First off, Nixxes developed a DX11 renderer that is used on the PC, when available. We did leverage this by adding several features you will see when you have DX11 hardware on your PC: real-time tessellation, improved Screen Space Ambient Occlusion, improved blurs and depth of field. We also added custom support for AMD's Eyefinity (multiple monitors), and 3DHD. On another note, the user interface has been tailored for the keyboard, and mouse controls can be fully customized for your gaming habits.”

Bouvrais even goes as far to say that the PC is the best version, “We are obviously a little biased, but for us here at Nixxes, the PC version really is the version you should play. The extra depth you get from 3D or EyeFinity, and the extra crispness of the enhanced resolution, effects, and frame-rate, really give you superior visuals. And the speed and accuracy that you get from playing with mouse and keyboard compared with a gamepad, at least for me personally, makes it a pretty easy choice.”

Developer Rocksteady, who worked on the acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum, recently released details about the PC version of their upcoming sequel, Batman: Arkham City. Besides optimizing the game for mouse and keyboard, the PC version features nVidia 3D, PhysX, and DirectX 11. The October issue of PC Gamer notes how, “In [the courthouse battle], the not-so-subtle PhysX enhancement causes a wooden wall to splinter as inmates are flung against it.” They also mention how the environment plays a bigger part in combat, “If you happen to be near a wall or rail, Batman transforms it into an instrument of justice by slamming a goon against it.” They point out that with the inclusion of DirectX 11, “Even ignoring the absence of [these PC exclusives] (such as tessellation, fog, and more loose trash in the streets) ... the console textures look poor by comparison.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun called the PC version, “by far the definitive one.”

Since its reveal at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, DICE touted the PC as the lead platform for Battlefield 3. Using its new Frostbite 2.0 engine, DICE aims to push the fidelity of games to a new level, using only DirectX 11 to ensure PC players have the best experience. Shacknews interviewed DICE General Manager Karl Magnus Troedsson asking why PC was so important. “Two years ago, maybe one year ago, people talked about ‘the decline of PC gaming.’ Or ‘the death of PC gaming.’ These kind of words were thrown around and, honestly, that's bullshit,” Troedsson said, “PC gamers are probably the most hardcore players we have out there. Sure, online gameplay has been on the rise on the Xbox 360 and PS3. There are a lot of hardcore online players there too. But on PC? That's our core audience.”

The PC version of Battlefield 3 is shipping with the capability of handling 64 players in multi-player, where as the console version will only be capable of 24 players. Besides the additional single-player and co-op modes, Battlefield 3 will also use Battlelog, a social system that allows players to organize their matches among friends with support to form squads and clans outside of the game. After unanimously winning Best of Gamescom 2011, Battlefield 3 looks to re-establish the PC as the cutting edge in gaming technology.

During the same weekend as Gamescom, GDC Europe took place where Epic announced they are working five new games, all targeted for the PC. Epic President Mike Capps revealed the announcement at the end of a panel nothing that, “It's nice to target the PC as a primary platform again, not just for ports.” Though they didn’t announce any details about the games, they did note that none of them related to the Gears of War franchise. Capps also hinted that these games might be smaller in scope, “At Epic we didn't multiply the studio size by five when we started working on these multiple projects, so you can make some assumptions about the size of those projects.” They also announced that the Unreal 4 engine is currently in development.

All of these games and projects in development focusing on the PC are great, but it begs the question, why now? It could be this late into the life cycle, the separation of quality between consoles and PC is becoming bigger. It could be that a powerful PC today is significantly less expensive than it was when the latest generation of consoles released. It could be the viability of a PC control scheme; more times than not, games allow rebinding keys to suit the player’s preference. Using a mouse provides more precision than an analog stick, controllers are always an option, and gimmicky motion controls shoehorned in are non-existent. Thanks to Steam and other online storefronts, digitally published games are cheaper than physical copies, allowing publishers to sell more and customers to find better deals. Electronic Art’s first quarter 2012 fiscal year results show their Non-GAAP figures earning more revenue on PC than either console. The PC is an open platform meaning no licensing fees, and games don’t have to adhere to rules or strict guidelines. The PC is once again returning to the spotlight, not in superiority, but in equality.

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