Are consoles squeezing out PC games?

A panel at the Game Developers Conference debates the future of PCs games, as set-top consoles expand their lead as the devices of choice.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
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David Becker
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SAN JOSE, Calif.--The next generation of video gaming will reside in your living room, not your den.

That was the consensus--but far from universal--judgment of a panel of gaming executives at the Game Developers Conference here. The panel gathered Thursday to debate the future of PC-based games in an era of steadily climbing interest in set-top consoles such as Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's upcoming Xbox.

The conference, which runs through Saturday, attracts thousands of programmers, designers and other gaming pros hoping to learn the latest tools and tricks.

Despite fervent support from those on the PC side of the business, the upshot from the panel was that game consoles will maintain and likely expand their already vast lead over PCs as gaming devices. Besides a much lower price barrier and more consistent software quality, consoles have an advantage that PCs likely will never be able to match: They work as soon they're switched on.

"People want to put a disc in, push a button and start playing," said Phil Harrison, senior vice president at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. "That's just not the reality with PCs." Dennis Hassabis, a PC booster and the senior programmer at England's Lionhead Studios, acknowledged as much. "For the average user, playing games on a PC, especially online games, can be a real pain to set up," he said.

But PCs will continue to play an important role in the gaming world, partly because it's much easier for small developers to work on a PC title. Console development requires expensive programming tools, as well as intricate licensing and approval procedures--all of which retard the growth of new ideas, PC developers maintained. And PC hardware can be much more flexible in bringing a developer's concepts to life.

"In terms of functionality and innovation, I think the PC is still way out in front," said Bruce Shelley of Ensemble Studios, creator of Microsoft's popular "Age of Empires" series. "All the creative stuff in our industry is first done on a PC."

And it's nearly impossible to imagine gamers immersing themselves in the virtual worlds created through the PC-based smash "The Sims" via a console, said Bing Gordon of game software giant Electronic Arts, which publishes "The Sims."

"I think the lesson from 'The Sims' is not about subject matter but about how people want to interact with a game," Gordon said. "What's going on with 'The Sims' is that PC customers are buying fewer games and playing them more deeply."

PCs also are better adapted to certain types of games, panelists maintained. Consoles are fine for action-happy shooters and racing games that unfold in five-minute segments, but complex strategy and adventure games still work better on a PC.

"My family is not going to be too happy when I take over the whole entertainment system for 20 hours to finish the latest level of 'Diablo II,'" Hassabis said.

That will change, however, as next-generation consoles such as the Xbox sport broadband Internet connections and other features formerly exclusive to PCs.

"You can't rely on past history," said Jason Rubin, co-founder of "Crash Bandicoot" creator Naughty Dog Studios. "Consoles haven't had hard drives before."

With a growing number of homes boasting both PCs and game consoles, panelists agreed that multiple formats will continue to co-exist for the foreseeable future. And the current dominance of consoles as the game delivery method of choice is likely to face new challenges. Harrison noted the proliferation of mobile phone applications in wireless-heavy markets such as Japan.

"In Japan, communication is turning into entertainment," he said. "That's something we've thought very little about in the console space."