SEPARATE PEACE

THE GREAT DIVIDE
IF YOU NEED PROOF THAT THE GULF BETWEEN PC AND CONSOLE
gamers is real, then Live Anywhere—Microsoft’s online-gaming olive
branch allowing Windows and Xbox Live players to face off in the same
games—is it. When Microsoft launched the Xbox console in 2001, we all
harbored a secret fear that the company would let PC games wither and die in
its pursuit of console ascendancy—but that didn’t happen. Instead, it embraced
both as siblings with different audiences and different assets.
“It’s really about user preference,” says Peter Moore, corporate vice president
of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment division. “In the past, Windows gamers
have been accustomed to playing games with a keyboard and mouse, and
many gamers prefer this.”
But the distinction goes beyond interface. Mitch Gitelman, studio manager of
FASA (currently at work on cross-platform Xbox 360/Windows shooter Shadowrun),
says that PCs offer an intimacy and intensity that consoles don’t—the
difference between what he calls a “two-foot experience” and a “10-foot experience”:
“A two-foot experience is right in your face, so the visuals and audio
can be more subtle. A 10-foot experience requires bigger and bolder sound
and visuals to get you excited from that distance. It’s kind of like the difference
between watching a movie on a 30-foot screen and watching a play in a theater.
On a big screen, the actor need only narrow his eyes to be menacing. On a
stage, he might need to move into another character’s personal space.”
But Louis Castle, vice president of EA Los Angeles and executive producer
of Battle for Middle-Earth II, is currently in the unusual position of bringing an
RTS already available on the PC to the Xbox 360; he feels that intimacy is a
function of genre and interface as much as platform. Of RTS games, he says:
“The mouse and keyboard are inherently selection devices that imply a level
of abstraction. The [360] controller is a direct-input device that implies a more
intimate connection to the actions you’re controlling.” But the same can’t be
said of a game like Half-Life 2, where a player’s mouse movements and Gordon
Freeman’s onscreen motion are as cozy as can be.
Still other dynamics defi ne the divide: “A PC player is usually savvier in terms
of hardware and system tweaking,” says Todd Howard, executive producer at
Bethesda Softworks, whose once PC-only Elder Scrolls RPG series is now one
of the Xbox 360’s fl agships. “A console player just expects it to work perfectly.”
“The price of full [PC and console] systems affects the market,” adds Diarmid
Clarke, project director of the upcoming PC version of BioWare’s Jade Empire.
“I’d wager that your ‘average’ PC owner is less likely to be into anime than an
Xbox or PlayStation 2 owner is.” Indeed, the high cost of entry—and upkeep—
is constantly touted as one of the barriers to PC gaming. But just how big a
barrier is it?
“Windows lets users do much more than just play videogames…[it also
allows] word processing, web browsing, and e-mail,” says Peter Moore. “So
hundreds of millions of people out there already have a very viable gaming
machine right on their desk.” And with escalating console prices (the high-end
PlayStation 3 will cost $599), that “work PC” suddenly grows longer legs as a
gaming device. What’s more, console licensing fees mean that Xbox 360 versions
of games often cost $10 to $20 more than their PC counterparts. Tomb
Raider: Legend, for example, sells for $59.99 on the Xbox 360 and $39.99 on
the PC—and, as most gamers tend to buy a couple games every month, it
doesn’t take long for a console’s TCO (total cost of ownership) to keep pace
with a PC.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
In the world of game development, which comes fi rst: the console or the PC?
In 2001, Bethesda revealed it would be bringing the third installment
of its Elder Scrolls series to the Xbox at the same time as the PC—a
decision that startled fans familiar with the game’s fi rst-person, nonlinear
role-playing (and decidedly “PC”) nature. Since then, Bethesda’s been
fi ghting the notion that it—and other developers—tend to “dumb down”
games for the allegedly simpleminded console set. Take the lock-picking
and persuasion minigames in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, for example,

A SEPARA If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? After years of discord,

which many critics felt screamed “console concession.” Howard dismisses
that assessment.
“They came from the desire to have each skill have some gameplay,” he explains.
“Elder Scrolls has a Security skill and a Speechcraft skill. In Morrowind,
you didn’t get to actually do anything with them. So it was our goal to make
those skills more interactive, as opposed to just clicking ‘unlock’ and waiting
for a random dice roll. That was the whole thought process, to somehow create
interactive ‘dice rolls.’” In other words, not just to provide “thumb candy” for
fi dgety console gamers.
And what of Oblivion’s interface, which prompted modders to create their
own PC-friendly version in the form of BTmod, which PC players downloaded
in droves? “I think people are reacting to the [large] font size, not the interface
mechanics themselves,” says Howard. “We talked about having a small-font
option, as it’s not hard to do with the XML-driven menu system, but we didn’t
have a nice way of switching between large-font XMLs and small-font XMLs;
it was one or the other. So we went with the larger font on the PC, hoping that
would work for the majority of users. But I think BTmod is great, and I’m glad
someone did it.”
Howard even counters the assumption that PC players dig fi rst-person while
console kids prefer third-person views. “Regardless of platform, people play
Oblivion mostly in fi rst-person. We’ve actually seen more people try thirdperson
on the PC—people who have been playing a lot of World of WarCraft.”
In the end, Bethesda found that it didn’t have to dumb down its games; console
gamers were ready to rise up to the developer’s intent. “For the games we
create, I’ve found that PC and console players both expect the same things,”
says Howard. But he acknowledges that the move to consoles did have some
impact on gameplay. “We learned a lot about making things easier on a fi rsttime
user by working on a console—I guess because it just forces us to think
differently. Those kinds of things, like nice tutorials, easy controls, limiting button
usage…benefi ted both versions.”
By contrast, Mathieu Girard, producer of Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon Advanced
Warfi ghter, does fi nd differences worth accounting for—though these differences
creep up from an older divide. “A large and infl uential community emerged
with the fi rst episode of Ghost Recon after its release fi ve years ago,” says
Girard. “They appeared to be very demanding, but also very involved…. From
the beginning, this community has been very sensitive to the specifi c aspects
of the game—such as the advanced tactical orientation—and, as a result, they
have been pushing the game over the years…. [So] GRAW for the PC has been
specifi cally developed for the PC community.”
When crafting GRAW for the 360, Ubisoft recognized that the game would
likely be reaching a new audience, so accessibility was essential. But when designing
the PC version, Girard felt they had to trust their roots. “Immersion was
key,” says Girard—it’s the two-foot-versus-10-foot difference. “That’s why we
chose the fi rst-person representation rather the third-person view [of the Xbox
360 version]. Also, we did not focus on direct action in the PC version as we did
on consoles, but more on strategy and tactics. We remade all the art assets; the
game engine, A.I., and behaviors are all different; and maps are easily twice the
size on the PC.” As for the PC version’s lack of a save-anywhere option in favor
of “console-style” checkpoints: “To reinforce the tactical aspect of the game,”
says Girard. “We did not want gamers to just carelessly run out like in some
other FPS.”
WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY
Where Oblivion and GRAW seem to stand as examples of cross-platform done
right, PC gamers are more than familiar with ports gone wrong—translations of
otherwise well-designed console titles such as King Kong or The Godfather that
don’t take advantage of current PC tech and end up looking shoddy and stale.
Matthew Guzenda, senior producer of Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider:
Legend, says that money is the motive, naturally: “Most PC versions of [PS2
or Xbox] titles were just high-res-texture versions of the console versions. If
you wanted to do normal maps or dynamic lighting, you pretty much had to
‘re-art’ the game, which adds pretty signifi cant cost to development—and most
companies don’t deem this worth the additional cost.”>

TE PEACE PC and console games unite in an uneasy alliance.

But the next-gen-console regime change offers a glimmer of hope. “Up until now, there
has been a big difference in the lighting models between PC and console titles. PCs, for some time, have been able to handle per-pixel lighting models, but because the PS2 can’t handle
per-pixel lighting, most console titles are vertex lit—no normal maps, dynamic lights, and other such stuff you generally see in PC-only games…. The Xbox 360—and soon, the PS3—changes
that. You can use similar art techniques between [next-gen consoles] and highend PC graphics cards.” Guzenda’s own game, Tomb Raider: Legend, shipped simultaneously for the
PS2, Xbox, PC, and Xbox 360. And while the PC version’s “standard” mode refl ects PS2
and Xbox tech, the Next-Gen Content option makes much better use of your $400 graphics
card. “The PC version of Tomb Raider is really two versions of the game,” says Guzenda. “There’s a complete set of textures for the standard version, which are high-res versions of the Xbox and PS2 textures. Then there’s another full set of textures and lighting data for the Next-Gen Content version based off the work that we did for the 360 and PC versions.”
Translation: New consoles can actually be good for PC gaming—at least when it comes to ports. “There are no longer any differences in the production environments of PC and console
games,” says Kijong Kang, producer of Webzen’s upcoming cross-platform Huxley. “Console games can be made by applying the know-how used to make PC games, with little effort.”

I CAN’T THINK OF ANYTHING LONGTERM THAT A PC WILL BE ABLE TO DO THAT A CONSOLE WON’T.”

THE LIVE EFFECT
The cross-platform connectivity offered by Live Anywhere, Microsoft’s
upcoming service that allows 360 and Windows players to play with one
another, complicates matters—the most immediate conundrum being how
to deal with the platforms’ fundamentally different control schemes. The
folks at FASA, makers of Live Anywhere’s shooter “spokesgame” Shadowrun,
don’t think the controls have irreconcilable differences: “The menus
are the same, and the HUD is the same,” says FASA studio manager Mitch
Gitelman. “Only the input devices are different.” Early versions of Shadowrun
compensated for the PC’s keyboard-and-mouse advantage by being more
forgiving toward 360 players in aiming, but the developers are still chasing
the perfect solution. “One advantage that Xbox 360 gamers have is that their
controllers rumble, which tells them when they’re magically healing or getting
shot. A mouse doesn’t rumble, so [our designers] have to fi nd ways to
ensure that keyboard-and-mouse players are not
at a disadvantage.”

The producers of Huxley, an MMOFPS promoting cross-platform play, have pegged segregation as the only fair approach: “Keyboard and mouse are controllers optimized for FPS games,” says Webzen’s Kang, “and the Xbox 360 control pad is no match for the strengths of the mouse.
Rather than tone down [each platform’s] strengths to compensate for different weaknesses,
we decided not to let 360 and PC players play on the same battlegrounds.

The players on the two platforms will, however, be able to enjoy certain content together…related to communications in which minute differences in controls do
not affect fun.” “The early feedback [on Live Anywhere] is incredibly encouraging and superpositive,” says Scott Henson, product unit manager of Microsoft’s Game Technology Group, “but gamers will ultimately decide if we’re crazy or not…and the less time developers have to invest in infrastructure— authentication, billing, matchmaking, friends lists, messaging, and so on—the more they can focus on making a great game.” But Live Anywhere isn’t without its hazards. One possible side effect: more PC games being built with the limitations of an inevitably inferior console in mind. “A console is static,” says Bethesda’s Howard. “The PC is an ever-evolving, highly customizable machine. It’s fl uid. This allows a game coming out next week to use new hardware, or some new way of connecting to people, that a console cannot do.” Even now, the Xbox 360 “has larger restrictions in memory compared to the PC,” says Kang, “so such
restraints must be taken into account in production.”

THE GREAT CONJUNCTION
Alarmist conspiracy theories aside (is Live Anywhere just a Trojan horse designed to get us “used to” the console way before Microsoft pulls the rug out from beneath Windows gaming?), convergence seems to be the inevitable conclusion. “I believe that one day, there will be no real difference,” says Henson. “You’ll be able to play anything you want on one device and choose
the depth of experience and control with a glorious lack of complication.” “I’m sure I will offend some gameplay purists,” says Guzenda. “But I can’t really think of anything long-term that a PC will be able to do that a console won’t, or vice versa. Short-term, the PC is still going to be the platform of choice for MMOs and RTS games because of the keyboard…[but] I don’t think we’re very far from the point where every PC user will have a gamepad and every console player will have a keyboard.” Some wars bear no winners—just uneasy truces.

The PC version of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter opts for a first-person perspective; the Xbox 360 version uses a third-person view.

Written by: blend

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