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Desktops

Crave Talk: Pin-stripe rebel -- the PC at 25

It was born dull. It grew up dull. A quarter of a century on, how on earth has the IBM PC become the ultimate gaming platform?

Even when it was new, it was middle-aged. The IBM PC (pictured) came to life in 1981, but its DNA was already four years old. Legend has it that IBM first decided to get into personal computing when a senior manager visited a company research lab, saw Apple IIs everywhere and asked, "What the hell are all these?" As a result, almost every idea in the PC was a version of something Apple had done in 1977, but without the pizazz.

Throughout the 80s, the 'official' PC never shook off that dull, worthy, derivative air. The poor thing got stuck with the early versions of Windows, while the Amiga and the ST ran their own, superior, operating system. On the living room floor, the Spectrum begat the Sega Megadrive, which begat the PlayStation -- gaming was fast, colourful, easy and reasonably cheap. Everything the PC wasn't.

Then something odd happened. The PC had always done well for textual, Adventure-style games, which it had also inherited from the Apple II and the other eight-bit micros. They started to sprout graphics, crude at first but with increasing sophistication, and a sense of style that often eluded the arcade-flavour pixelfests on the more unbuttoned platforms. Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and the Leather Goddesses of Phobos were two fine products that brought an attractive anarchy to the PC, at the same time as IBM clones became cheap enough to hit millions of homes. 

Shareware grew up at the same time, with clunky 3D maze games gradually morphing into complex, violent quests that took advantage of the PC's hard disk to outshine the competition. And the hardware kept up: a company might not have been able to build a complete gaming system to compete with Sony and Nintendo, but it could produce a £100 soundcard that was bought by hundreds of thousands of gamers. The same was true for video adaptors -- with the bulk of the hardware fixed and a truly open architecture, incremental improvements progressed much faster than with consoles. And with the market for PC peripherals much bigger than that for the Amiga and Atari, the economies of scale kept the prices down.

None of this was thanks to the original inventor. IBM itself dallied with the red bandana in 1995, with its Quest for Fame virtual rock star game. In this game you played a guitar, controlled by an active pick plugged into your parallel port, alongside animated figures representing the rest of your band. The better you got, the more difficult the music became. If you got it wrong, the crowd beat you up. Guitar Hero, in other words, but ten years earlier and with a better sense of humour. But Quest for Fame was a huge flop and the lesson to IBM was clear: "Don't even try -- leave it to the specialists."

The PC gaming industry's days could now be numbered, though, as it starts to look bloated and over-expensive compared with gaming consoles -- the technology used in consoles is so cheap (well, apart from the PlayStation 3) and the gaming market is so well defined that next-gen consoles could potentially steal the gaming PC's thunder.

But we don't think it will happen quite yet. All the fun experiments are still happening on the PC platform: physics engines that simulate the real world, graphics cards with as much computing oomph as three 1990s mainframes, and online gaming communities that are livelier than Brixton on a Friday night. It might be a middle-aged frump, but buy it some nice clothes and the PC can still leave its pretenders standing. -Rupert Goodwins