Apr 7

The distinction between video and computer games is blurring

Category: PC Games

Newcomers to interactive entertainment inevitably want to know how video games differ from computer games.
Industry pro Seamus Blackley offers a musical analogy: ”Think of console games as rock videos and PC games as symphonies.
”If you look at the kind of games that are successful on consoles, it’s an incredibly high-speed, adrenaline-rush experience, like Ridge Racer or Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
”But the games that are most successful on the PC, like Age of Empires or Flight Simulator, are very cerebral, very deep, take a very long time to play.”

That’s a succinct summary of the traditional view: games played on the TV aim to bedazzle the senses, while games played on the PC try to beguile the mind.
And it’s a useful starting point for a discussion of how these differences evolved and how -I would argue -they are gradually blurring.

The distinction between a video game and a PC game is determined by three factors, according to Blackley, Microsoft’s manager of advanced technology and a veteran gamemaker: origin (arcade vs. mainframe); the place where they’re now played in the home; and the device the player uses to control the game’s action.
Arcade games started with pinball and skee ball. When TVs became cheaper and Pong was introduced in 1972, it was possible to place a video game machine next to a pinball machine. Given the option, players began putting their quarters into Pong and its successors.

Around that time, huge mainframe computers at universities and research facilities were being operated for the military and NASA. And the geeks who were writing missile and space exploration simulations were amusing themselves by programming the computer to play the ultimate strategy game – chess – as their opponent or to provide an adventure.

These two different modes of gaming were refined over the next couple of decades. On the PC, the main evolutionary path featured games created by thinking people trying to challenge themselves – looking for fun, not profit. In the arcades, gaming evolved as a whizbang sensory blitz designed to end quickly, in order to suck up ever more coins.

The PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and, more recently, the Dreamcast console – which plug into the biggest TV screen and best sound system in the home – have brought the arcade experience to the living room. And the PC has metamorphosed from a silent, number- crunching, monochrome drudge to a multimedia information and entertainment appliance in dens and home offices.

Which brings us to the second distinguishing factor between console and PC games – where they are played.
”Since the console is in the living room,” says Blackley, ”you play it sitting back on the couch. You’ve got a controller in your hands, maybe a beer on the end table, and you’re surrounded by friends. You play it for a while, and then watch TV – or you play the game for a long time. In any case, it’s a social experience. But your experience with a PC is totally different. You sit upright at a desk in front of a computer monitor and speakers, playing by yourself, using a keyboard and a mouse.”

And it’s those game controllers that lead us to the third and final factor defining console vs. PC entertainment – how the player interfaces with the game.
”A game is its controller, much as a band is its instruments,” asserts Blackley.

”Game design and game play are defined by the controller and how the player is seated while using it. The most popular first-person-perspective shooter for a console, for instance, is the Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye 007. Compare that game, which was designed to be played sitting on a couch with an N64 controller, to, say, Quake.
”Quake was designed as a PC game in which you sit upright and use the keyboard and mouse on a desk in front of you. You can spin 360 degrees in a quarter-second with a mouse. But you can’t move nearly so fast, nor with such control, using the analog mini-joystick of a console gamepad. So, like all of the first person-perspective PC shooters in that style that have been ”ported” to consoles, the N64 version of Quake was a flop.”

There’s evidence, however, that these traditional distinctions between PC and console games are blurring.
Consider, for example, the PC pedigree of the three-dimensional shooter – starting with trend-setting Doom and its sequel, Quake, in the mid-’90s. Since it’s an arcade-style twitch game, the shooter genre should, according to conventional wisdom, have originated on the console rather than on the PC. Yet the most sophisticated shooters were designed for and played on the PC, while the lower-tech console shooter, GoldenEye 007, wasn’t produced until years after Doom and Quake.

As for those players who prefer PC-style controls on console versions of hit computer games, help is on the way.
The Dreamcast version of PC action/strategy masterpiece Half-Life, for instance, is being designed to support not only the two-handed controller packaged with the console but also the optional Dreamcast keyboard, available now, and a mouse due this summer.

And, because console and PC hardware now share similar technology, all kinds of games on both platforms are becoming increasingly more realistic, cinematic and complex – obliterating traditional distinctions.

So a console game such as Gran Turismo 2 for the PlayStation is not only playable in simplified arcade mode but as an authentic racing simulation with programmable season and customizable cars.
The differences between consoles and PCs will become even fuzzier during the next few years, as consoles add hard drives for storage and are used for online gaming.

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