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Blurring The Video Game Platform Boundaries…

I just happened to be reading the hardware specs on the Wii U recently, I suppose because we're quickly approaching the targeted Fourth Quarter 2012 release window (rumored to be a mid-November launch). I am obviously at least a little interested in Nintendo's successor to the Wii - the first of the big three to launch a next generation console (though some might argue whether the Wii U is truly next generation).

The Wii U will be sporting a multi-core processor, an AMD Radeon video card (or the more technically correct verbiage would be a GPU), 8 gigs of memory, 4 USB 2.0 ports, an optical drive, HDMI and a whole bevy of other features. I couldn't help but wonder, "Are these PC specs I'm reading or was I just too young to care about all of this information when I purchased video game consoles in the past." I certainly don't remember being worried about tech specs up until maybe the Xbox and Playstation, but even then I don't really recall being remotely interested in the hardware. As a PC gamer, I could recommend a CPU & mobo combo; tell you the differences between Nvidia's GeForce and AMD's Radeon chipset; field strip and reassemble your home computer in minutes not hours; and recall the WEP key printed on the underside of my DSL modem from memory. But as a console gamer, all I really seemed to care about was how the controller felt in my hand, how amazing the graphics looked and whether the game loaded when I turned the system on. That's it.

With all of this talk about the PC platform being dead and how video game consoles are the superior gaming platform, I can't help but wonder...

Why is the PC becoming more like a video game console?

And...

Why are Video Game Consoles becoming more like the PC?

It wasn't all that long ago there were clear boundaries and definitive advantages / disadvantages to using one platform over the other. The console gamers would brag about how little effort it took to play a game - power the system on, insert the game, and pickup the controller (put the TV on the correct channel or input of course). The PC gamers would counter with how much more they could do with their PC, with many of the benefits extending past just playing games.

Ironic, how these boundaries have blurred and how now many of the previously defined advantages and disadvantages co-exist across the various systems. I say blurred, because they haven't completed merged, but who's to say as technology progresses they won't continue to converge on one another until one day there is no difference between the simple home PC and the video game console.

Video game consoles appear to have adopted more features from the PC than vice versa. Consoles now offer non-gaming features like web browsing and video streaming. I can surf the Internet, update my Facebook status, watch Netflix, listen to Pandora and with some of the hardware add-ons, I can video chat with my little niece who lives on the other side of the world in England. Funny how console gamers love voice chat so much, but this is something PC gamers have had for quite some time. Let's not forget the friends' list and associated requests and messages that come along with managing that aspect of it, which by older standards seems more of a PC centric circumstance. In the modern era of gaming, this has populated itself on the consoles too.

A few problems that used to plague the PC as a gaming platform were the inconveniences that came with long install times, the massive amounts of hard drive real estate some games required and multiple disk swaps often required from larger games. Nothing like getting to the good part of a game and getting the message popup - "Insert Disk 2 To Continue". Of course some of the better off gamers from back in the day had multiple CD-ROM drives which cut down on disk swapping (assuming you could configure the game/and or computer to recognize the second device). This isn't always the case anymore. I can't think of the last time I had to have the CD in the drive to play, and yes I'm talking on the PC. I've played games like Mass Effect 3 and Need for Speed recently that installed to the hard drive and didn't require a CD. When I want to play them, I click their icon in the Start Menu and it runs. This is true of all the Valve games I have.

Is it as simple as a console?

Probably not, but today's consoles aren't necessarily as fast and easy to load the game as they used to be either. When powered on, both my Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 load to the dashboard. Yes, I could set it up to boot the game directly if there is something in the drive, but I use my consoles for so much now, I don't necessarily want it to. Also, not all games come on disks anymore. Let's take Minecraft for example.

In order to load Minecraft, I turn the console on and let it run up. I log into the user account, navigate to the games menu, navigate through the games until I find Minecraft, I select Minecraft and let it load. When it loads, then I have to select the options and what not and let the game finish loading. That sounds an awful lot like loading a game on the PC. Sure, the run up time between a PC and Xbox might differ, but not by much. The rest of the process is the same.

And if we're going to be honest, there are a fair amount of games on the consoles that require installation on a hard drive prior to playing the game. I'm playing Bioshock on the PS3 now, and it easily took as long as some PC games to install. Are there console games that come on multiple disks? Yes. And do these games require you to swap disks throughout the game? Yes. And does that resemble the PC generation from a few years ago? Yes.

The PC's install and auto-update features have resulted in a gaming platform more akin to the console than a traditional PC. Scroll through a handy little menu to pick the game of your choice; enjoy relatively quick load times and whether you hate it or tolerate it, the persistent online connection to auto-update and deter piracy is there too. Heck, I even have one of those adapters that allow me to use an Xbox 360 controller with my computer. For awhile I wasn't even using a regular computer monitor; I was outputting the video to a television. My gaming PC is practically functioning as a video game console because that's all I use it for is to play games, and the similarities are uncanny.

Other interesting similarities...

Isn't it odd how Nintendo is notorious for introducing off the wall controllers? Almost every controller they've ever adopted was...a bit unusual. So why now, after all these years and after all their systems would they give the Wii U a controller (the Wii U Pro Controller) that looks a lot like an Xbox 360 controller.

 

Initiatives to create successful cross platforming solutions continues to progress, with the most recent and noteworthy accomplishment being Portal 2 being able to simultaneously support PC and PS3 players; Valve also developed a version of Steam to run on the PS3 to promote this project.

Digital distribution seems to be the way forward on all of the platforms, further eliminating the need for an optical drive and further resulting in the systems all becoming more alike.

Modding was historically something only available on the PC, but some video games played on the console include features reminiscent of traditional modding tools. Games like Halo 3 and Halo Reach include a Forge mode that allows gamers with enough patience and creativity to create their own levels. Little Big Planet offers this feature too with the "create" component from their Play, Create, Share theme. Creating mods for console games was unheard of in the past, but with the current and future generation of technology, who knows where it will end. Mods like the popular DayZ zombie mod for ARMA II originated on the PC, but because of its popularity now may see the light of day on a console or two.

Speaking of mods, how about modded cases? Back in the days of the early consoles, I don't recall seeing too many modded Atari 2600 consoles or even the NES being modified (although I'm sure you do now). It was during the 90s the PC kicked the traditional beige PC cases to the curb and witnessed an explosive growth in customized cases sporting neon lights, custom fan grilles and shapely window cut outs. Now you see the consoles following suit with some rather creative console case mods.

The underground movement (I say underground for lack of a better word) of sordid yet talented individuals who manage to crack systems and provide their own "homebrew" operating systems to run all sorts of crazy configurations. I've seen PSPs that run Nintendo and Super Nintendo emulators; I've read about modded Xbox consoles running Linux based operating systems; and I've watched the Wii boot from an SD card with a modified OS that allows custom games to be created and played - like Mario Kart with dozens of fan created tracks. Setting the legalities of these projects aside, it is at a minimum intriguing that the various platforms with their own unique proprietary software can be modified by outside entities and be made to run something completely opposite and contrary to what it was designed to run. That tells me a universal platform IS at least possible, although not likely.

I don't know who started it first...it's the whole chicken and egg debate. Did achievements start on the PC or did they start on the consoles? Who knows, but every system, the PC included continues to develop stat and achievement tracking. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a universal stat and achievement tracking system (and don't tell me to use Raptr, I mean bigger and better than that) for all of the platforms. Achievements, trophies...whatever you want to call them. They are prevalent on all platforms and are here for the long haul.

So what does all of this mean?

It definitely means regardless of what platform you are playing, they are more similar today than they ever have been in the history of gaming. It might mean that we are destined to a single appliance that is capable of playing games and doing everything we're currently doing on our home computers.  It probably doesn't mean we have to worry about a universal video game system governed by international standards defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), although that could be an interesting prospect for the future of the industry. I'm not opposed to one universal device that is capable of running products developed by the various developers and publishers. Imagine going to the store and buying this box and then buying one or more packages of software and games to run on it. Swap or select the Microsoft drive and when you power the system up you're playing Halo or Gears of War; turn it off and reboot it into Sony mode and you're playing God of War or Uncharted; click it again and now you're up and running Mario or Zelda. A grand concept,  I know, but a feasible one.

Anyway, whether you consider yourself a PC gamer or console gamer, as time goes on you may find your allegiance change and the side you're on all of a sudden look very different.

If I see an Xbox 360 hooked up to a printer I'll know it's true...

 

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