October 20th marked the 30th anniversary of the very first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD). For those that don't remember MUDs, these text based multiplayer computer games were the precursors of modern MMOGs. I think it's safe to say that multiplayer computer gaming was the exclusive domain of hardcore gamers and geeks back then. People playing MUD1, Elendor MUSH or Pern MUSH were nerds, like myself, that knew computers, knew gaming, and loved roleplaying online. With the advent of online games with graphics, MMOGs like Everquest and Ultima Online began to attract a wider variety of gamers. The gaming demographic began to shift.
Modern MMOGs like World of Warcraft ushered in a new era of gaming and a very different demographic of gamer. WoW's colorful, friendly style, easy to use interface and simple gameplay concepts make it very easy to pick up and play. WoW appeals to almost everyone: parents, kids, men, women, and people that might not normally play video games. It's about as close to mainstream as you can get in a MMOG. While the Wii is often credited with finally capturing traditional non-gamers, I submit that MMOGs like WoW did it first and continue to do it well.
A key to WoW's success also lies is its low system requirements. Recent MMORPGs like Age of Conan and Warhammer may have more sophisticated graphics, but their higher system requirements work against their success in capturing a broad demographic of gamer. High system requirements are not just problematic for those particular games, but for the health and growth of PC gaming in general. Let's face it, when compared to console gaming, computer gaming isn't as cheap, accessible or simple. In order for MMOGs to continue to thrive, something needs to change at the hardware level. Without competitive pricing and standardization, PC gaming will continue to wither.
I'm sure most of you have seen the recent media blitz by Microsoft to support the reduced price of the XBOX 360 Arcade. For $199.00 you can purchase a console that pumps out high definition graphics, serves as a multi-media platform in your living room for music, movies and digital photographs, and allows you access to AAA titles like Oblivion, Bioshock, Fallout 3, Gears of War, GTA IV and Fable 2. Most importantly to gamers, you get a system that gives you an immediate gaming experience without having to configure firewalls, fight viruses, deal with a clunky operating system or install device drivers for hardware peripherals. For $199.00 you get a relatively hassle free experience and games that simply work when you plop them in your DVD drive. What can $199.00 get you on the PC front? A decent video card.
A quick glance over at Tom's Hardware or Anandtech and you'll find guides to building decent gaming systems that typically run between $1,000.00 and $1,500.00. High-end gaming rigs can top $5,000.00. While the price of owning a PC has dropped over the years, it's still an expensive alternative to the relatively cheap console. Granted, buying a PC means you can do a whole lot more than just game and watch movies, but when considering the PC solely as a gaming platform, it's a very expensive toy.
The XBOX360 is obviously not perfect. I've had to send mine back to Microsoft twice. Once when it overheated and I got the infamous red ring of death. A second time when the DVD drive of my replacement failed to work. I ended up waiting nearly four months for these hardware issues to be resolved. Fortunately, they were all taken care of at Microsoft's expense. Aside from potential hardware failures, the Arcade version of the 360 also sports a tiny 256 MB memory unit. You're not going to be downloading any HD TV or movie content to the Arcade version of the 360. Despite these flaws, you can't deny that the XBOX360 Arcade delivers a hell of a lot for the money. The "Elite" version of the 360 comes with an HDMI output and 120 GB hard drive for only $399.99. That's still far below the cost of a gaming PC.
My purpose in stating all of this isn't to rub my 360 fanboydom in your face. I am an avid PC gamer and it frustrates me that the PC isn't offering more competition to the console market. I've watched over the years as the nerd shops like Electronics Boutique and Babbage's offered less and less shelf space to PC titles and PC peripherals. Walk into an EB or Gamestop today and you'll be hard pressed to find any PC titles. Why? Because, from the retailers point of view, PC gaming is a pain in the ass. Any profit is simply not worth the hassle. Retailers don't want to spend hours explaining to angry customers why their PCs couldn't handle a game. They want to sell a product that works right out of the box. Where's the incentive in selling someone a product that they'll complain about versus selling a product that just works? Why bother dealing with the inevitable angry customer who returns a game because it requires a gigabyte sized patch to work correctly? Now that developers are making the same AAA titles for consoles as PCs it makes sense to prefer selling console games over PC games. So why are developers moving their focus toward console development?
Part of the reason why gaming on the PC can be frustrating is because we're all using custom PCs. There is no "standard PC" with one set of hardware components. No two PCs are going to be exactly the same. I might have an outdated GeForce graphics card with old drivers while you're using the latest Radeon with bleeding edge drivers. You might be using 1 gig of RAM while I've got 4. In addition to hardware component complications, you've also got software complications. I'm running Windows XP, and you're running Vista or, heaven forbid, Linux or Leopard. Developers have a wide range of hardware specs and software specs to consider when attempting to develop a game. Given that development time for a AAA title can take years, they also have to think about where hardware will be in the future. They have to code a game that scales well on multiple potential platforms configured with a myriad of components in multiple configurations instead of coding for one consistent platform.
Of course, there's an even more powerful factor than expense and lack of standardization: the choice of the gamer. People who are tired of spending hours configuring our systems to run a game that a console can run just as well for less money and less hassle. Let's not kid ourselves; gamers voting for consoles and console games with their money. We're buying more games and more consoles than we are PCs and PC games. When a guy like John Carmack says, "the ground truth is just that the sales numbers on the PC are not what they used to be and are not what they are on the consoles," you take notice. This is a guy who, along with icons like Will Wright, Sid Meir, and Warren Spector (to name a few), practically helped create PC gaming and molded it into what it is today. When developers like John Carmack decide the PC will no longer be a focal point for developing games, you know the state of PC gaming is grim.