The Way We’re Being Played

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The Silent Hill 3 protagonist recoils at the thought of buying another video card.Here’s how I learned to stop worrying and learned to love the console.

For years I’d thought it was a sucker’s game to buy a dedicated machine when you could play on your multi-use PC. I looked on the proliferation of PlayStations in the ghetto as electronic malt liquor: sure, it was only $300, but you paid for it later in games.

But my anti-console bias has been worn away, bit by bit, by video-card makers and game developers forming strategic alliances that are benefiting both, but screwing over the gamer.



Video cards are a necessity for playing games on a PC — they handle the intense computation with a dedicated chip set and memory. Video-card makers routinely upgrade their product, and game developers have to keep abreast of these changes if they want to stay competitive. There needs to be some relationship between video-card makers and the game designers, but things are getting a little too cozy. For a while I’ve been seeing the brand and slogan of the biggest video-card maker on a bunch of games: “Nvidia, The Way it’s Meant to Be Played.”

The Silent Hill 3 protagonist recoils at the thought of buying another video card.
Recently, I tried to install Silent Hill 3 (Konami, 2003). It’s bloatware to begin with: five CD-ROMs as opposed to the usual two or three. But after the hour-long install, I was told that I needed to have a video card with different features to be able to play the game. Overlooking the idiocy of not doing a system check before the install, there was something else wrong with this picture.

I’m 31 years old. I’m not a teenager who’s embarrassed by how unfashionably out of date his gear is, easily shamed into upgrading by a stern warning message. I may be obsolete, but my hardware isn’t.

I checked to make sure, and yep, my PC’s hardware outclassed the PS2 by several orders of magnitude. So there really was no excuse for my system not being able to play it at all: most games allow you to knock down the resolution, details and frills until it plays smoothly on your machine. In this regard, I’ve been impressed by Rockstar releases: almost everything they release runs fine on low-end machines. Despite their unabashed capitalism, at least they aren’t in the pocket of the video-card cartel.

I’m not joking about the cartel stuff. Electronic Arts and Nvidia signed an exclusive deal, and another video-card maker, ATI, has an advertising/ bundling deal with Valve for Half-Life 2. What all this backroom dealing really adds up to is a lot of disappointed kids realizing that the PC they bought with their part-time job money won’t even play the games they bought it for. Well, kids, it’s called bleeding edge for a reason: if you get tired of shelling out every couple of months, buy yourself some well-supported old technology. And really, that amounts to a console, which uses Nvidia and ATI video cards that are obsolete in a PC context but still plenty powerful.

I’ve spent some time with all three of the main consoles, and their beauty is their stability. When designers know exactly what hardware they’re dealing with, they can do more with less: getting some lush visuals while not sacrificing frame rate. Crashing is pretty much non-existent, too.

They’re all capable of the same things, as far as throwing polygons at the screen: their graphics and sound are pretty equivalent, viewed from the couch. (If you were up as close to the TV as you would be to a monitor, the Xbox’s higher res might matter more, but the couch is a great leveller.) The Sony PlayStation 2 ($219) is undoubtedly the king in terms of game selection. You can get an online adapter for it, and it plays DVDs out of the box. The Microsoft Xbox ($229) also has online capability and plays DVDs (but only after you spend $50 on their glorified remote control) and has the cool feature of an internal hard drive for saved games. The neatly-designed Nintendo GameCube ($139) recently dropped in price, and if you can deal with the limited selection of games, it’s a great deal.

Of course, consoles aren’t immune to obsolescence, only more resistant because of their market share. Any way you slice it, you pay to play. Remember the good ol’ days, when they only took it from us a quarter at a time?

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the warning Jim. I’ve been thinking about plunking down some $$$ for a new system, but the only reason I really need one is to play games. And I don’t need another reason to spend more time in front of my computer. After reading your post, I’m starting to like my old PS1 a lot more. Retro-gaming is where it’s at for us low-teks.

  2. Eh. I still prefer PCs for two reasons:
    First, as far as I can tell, consoles don’t feature the sort of in-depth strategy games that I prefer. Fortunately, though, these games have scads of replay value and tend not to require beefy graphics cards, so I don’t have the sort of trouble that you are talking about.
    Second, I am constantly amazed by the amount of user-modification that goes on for some PC games. Half-life, Civilization 3, Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights are just a few examples of people doing amazing things just because they have the greater freedom that a PC provides.
    Cheers!

  3. Hmm… I don’t know anyone who buys a new video card every few months. There’s just no need. You might buy a new card every year if you were really obsessed. I’d hazard that every 3 years is average. I’ve managed to upgrade at about that speed, but I use my computers for work and gaming. Can’t use a console for anything but gaming and telephony.
    The Xbox is a PC dressed up as a console. You can download new content for it because it has a `net connection and hard drive. It crashes a little more often than a PS2, but nowhere near as often as a PC.
    A PC, as pointed out in a previous comment, opens up the floodgates to a tsunami of *free* game content. Not only do game mods extend the life of contemporary and “older” games, but many can actually improve the game (or at least extend the lifespan for a year or two).
    If anything, PC gamers might spend less money on games overall. With consoles, there’s huge pressure to buy the latest hit game, and there are a crapload of titles out there to choose from. That seems like the same kind of marketing noise PC users might have to withstand from PC-game developers and hardware manufacturers. Hey, what’s $60-$70 every month or so? Oops, Silent Hill 4 just came out. Oops, my controller broke. Oops, I need a broadband connector for my PS2. Oops, I need to buy a new downloadable mech for Mechwarrior. We’re being played regardless of platform.
    On a sidenote, here is a related article about why PC gaming is going down the shitter:
    http://curmudgeongamer.com/article.php?story=20040113221322445

  4. I’m with Joel on the strategy game side of things. They still haven’t figured out how to make a friendly UI for these games on the consoles, although now that the boxes have USB ports that you can plug keyboards and mice into, I’m sure it won’t be long.
    There’s another reason I prefer my PC to consoles, though: My girlfriend is a TV junky. I’d be hard pressed to squeeze in some quality time with Tony Hawk in between episodes of Dawson’s Creek or Gilmore Girls. With my PC, I can just slide on my Sennheisers and kill Night Elves with impunity.
    I *have* spent an ungodly amount of money on my PC. Since spending close to $3k on the initial setup, I’ve somehow convinced myself that upgrading the hard drive, optical drives, keyboard, mouse and RAM was absolutely NECESSARY. It wasn’t, but I do have a sweet gaming machine. I have stuck with my original video card though (although it cost more than an XBOX). I bought it 1 1/2 years ago, and I haven’t noticed any degradation in quality, even with the newer games. I don’t think I’ll need to upgrade it until 2005/2006. I do use my computer for purposes other than gaming, though, and since I pay far less for PC games that I would be paying for console games, I figure it evens itself out.

  5. I’ve really gone back to the console – the text console. Check out Nethack [nethack.org]. It’s a text mode Dungeons & Dragons type adventure game and a favorite of uber nerds. It’s ported to Win32, Mac, and of course Linux and *BSD. Even VAX is supported if you are really old skool.
    Nethack is more complete in terms of gameplay than any other game I’ve seen. They have really thought of everything. It used to have “everything but the
    kitchen sink”, but now there are kitchen sinks too. The entire software development focus is on content rather than sizzle. In a flash, hype, and hollow media world this is very refreshing.
    I usually play games on the more difficult settings. I’m not that good at games, but if I do want full value from my purchase. Nethack takes the philosophy that save games are for wussies. You are forced to learn to play the game well, and this necessity forces you to find out all of the little undocumented extras in the game. I’d give an example, but I’d hate to spoil it for you.
    I’d encourage everyone to try it out. Learn to dread the yellow lower case “c” and fend off werewolves during full moon. Try out this super low-tek game – if you buckle down and learn the interface you will really dig it.

  6. Joe, I’ve been a Nethack fan since the early 90’s, and you’re absolutely right, it does rock. I do disagree with your stance on saved games in Nethack. I always backup my save file to another file so if something ridiculous happens, my hours and hours of gameplay aren’t wasted. My one complaint about Nethack is that it’s far too random, and messing with the saves helps take some of that randomness out of the equation.
    Nethack is a great example of what game design should be – graphics should be secondary to playability.

  7. There is a Problem with your reasoning specially portained to the xbox.
    1. The Xbox is a computer made by Microsoft.
    with all the normal computer hardware.
    2. One of those peices of hardware is a “Video Card”
    3. and if i am not mistaken (i couldnt get a link to prove my case due to firewall ristrictions to most game related websites) NVidia Makes the Videocard there for you still have the same problem. i think its a 64 Mb geforce chipset.
    Email me if i am wrong but i am pretty sure its an Nvidia make.

  8. Hi Daniel — as I said: “And really, that amounts to a console, which uses Nvidia and ATI video cards that are obsolete in a PC context but still plenty powerful.”
    Xbox and PS2s use Nvidia, GameCube uses ATI (at the moment). My point was that I think it’s ridiculous that you can play a game like Silent Hill 3 on a PS2 console that uses a video card far less powerful than the minimum specs the game demands for a PC.

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