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The Decline and Fall of PC Gaming: Fact or Fiction?

Shawn Cooper

For years, console enthusiasts have been gleefully predicting the downfall of PC gaming. Yet, despite these dire prophecies, PC gaming has survived--and indeed flourished--with titles such as Final Fantasy XI, World of Warcraft, and Bioshock. For all the fanfare surrounding these releases, the clamour about the impending end of the PC has only grown louder. Is there any truth in it? Or are these ravings merely an updated version of the same gloomy fatalism which we have heard before?

To be sure, now more than ever consoles are able to compete with computers in the war for video game supremacy. Seventh-generation systems are possessed of graphical power superior to most computer systems. Even with increased console prices, a console still costs much less than the comparable PC needed to run the same games. This fact alone seems to be the strongest evidence for eventual console dominance. After all, in a market economy, price often dictates production.

For the present, the personal computer retains its foothold in the gaming community largely due to the success of games which seem built around the PC's strong points. MMOs and Real-time strategy titles continue to be produced on a primarily PC-only basis, with a few notable exceptions. The majority of these titles rely extensively on a mouse-and-keyboard interface which may help to explain their continuing exclusivity with the PC.

Yet console developers and engineers have been endeavouring to take a bite out of the PC dominance. The availability of USB slots on current generation systems means that a keyboard and mouse are now just as feasible as for the PC. It is thanks to such innovations as these that games like Final Fantasy XI experience significant play on the Playstation2 and Xbox360. With gamers willing to pay large sums of money for dance pads, guitars, and steering wheels, it only seems reasonable to expect that they would be willing to purchase a USB keyboard and mouse. Surprisingly, this does not seem to be the case. In my own wholly unscientific investigation, I asked a number of people whether they owned a keyboard and/or mouse for use with a seventh generation system. Of those asked, only 5% said they do--and in all cases, only for use with one game: Final Fantasy XI.

The keyboard and mouse also may provide little use for current console titles. With voice chat available in so many games, the keyboard as a means of communication has been widely replaced with something less distracting. In a game like Halo, it is difficult to convey instructions to one's team by typing them out on a keyboard. In such a fast-paced and dangerous environment, stopping to type "cover me" could give one's enemies enough time to render the message moot. Moreover, analogue sticks are capable of emulating the functions of a mouse to varying degrees. It is likely that developers see no need to build keyboard and mouse controls into their console games. Without that, there is little reason for a console gamer to purchase those peripherals, and without those peripherals, conservative companies will be less inclined to produce games which require them. This recursive system serves only to entrench the status quo, ensuring that titles which are keyboard-dependant remain squarely in the realm of the PC.

Does this mean, then, that the future of PC gaming is secure? Perhaps. But as games continue to develop, and as the input methods are increasingly streamlined, the use of the keyboard may well dwindle away entirely. Already, games allow for vocal commands to be interpreted. Unreal Tournament 2004, for example, allows the player to issue commands by voice--commands which in previous games had to be manually entered by keyboard. It is seems entirely plausible to suppose that, in future, voice commands may entirely replace the keyboard's interface. When this occurs, titles which today might seem fit only for the PC will suddenly seem viable on consoles as well. Combined with the price difference, the end of the gaming PC may well, at that point, be near.

Because of limitations in voice recognition technology, that day is still far off. Until then, we can only commit ourselves to idle speculation about the future. For the present, one thing seems clear. With titles like Bioshock, Hellgate: London, Witcher, and Sword of the New World, PC gaming is certainly in no danger of dying any time soon. Perhaps in a decade we will look back upon this date in history as just another one of those points where the prophecies of doom were, once again, disproved.

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