Games Are Better Without Consoles

The topic of consoles versus PCs is something which comes to mind for me rather often. I see the subject surface in strange little ways across a myriad of discussions, and once in a while in a big way. It is regularly debated in practically every place it can be, but it is always from the angle of the gamer, rather than the game. My issue with consoles isn’t one of value (though I¬†do find them to not be a good value), but rather that when you develop for a console, it comes at the cost of the game. The hardware restraints, the common user setup, available input devices, and the garden wall structure all impose costs on the design and development itself. I don’t want console games on PC, I want the best games that can be designed and developed, and that won’t happen when a console is being considered.

Performance

The dedicated hardware of a console was for a very long time, the advantage of a console. Where PC gamers had to run a game on top of an operating system, consoles were comparably leaner, and the game had more resources at their disposal. The trick there was the different architectures between the consoles, so even if a developer had the freedom to release on the leading platforms, they rarely had the fiscal freedom to do so. Consoles were faster, but inflexible, and PCs were growing in both strength and selective standardization.

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With the Xbox 360 and PS3 we saw more defined operating systems, and thus some actual overhead to the games, while at the same time PCs were immensely powerful. Sure the 360 and PS3 had some muscle behind them on launch, but that muscle was fixed. Over time, developers learned the systems and the games looked better and better. Competition naturally set in, and more of that processing power went toward the environments and effects. Games streamlined toward gated stories as we see in things like The Last of Us, where it is easy to control what a player can currently possibly see. As expectations of detail levels increased, larger and more open (in terms of choices and exploration) environments decreased. With the fixed hardware, the two could not coincide. Meanwhile on PCs, you simply need to raise the minimum specs some, or advise the user disable a more costly effect. The design wasn’t encumbered. When a game is being ported to PC from console, I expect more limited environments, and being forced down certain areas with no ability to backtrack.

(An aside: I am aware of the other reasons for content flowing in this direction, but very immediate limits on compute power is a substantial factor in shaping the canvas of the design.)

Audio

The PC includes in its name personal. It is designed for a person, an individual. You sit close to the monitor, and you often have headphones on. The console however is designed for the TV, and thus, the living room. It occupies a shared and open space. The player sits further from the game, and even with a large screen, it occupies less of their vision. People can walk between that space, pets certainly do, and any connecting cords become an inconvenience. A console player is thus less likely to use headphones in their gaming (bizarrely, I’ve seen Call of Duty players call using headphones on console “pay to win” because players are expending money for a tactical advantage – the same attitude isn’t expressed toward higher resolution TVs however). Call of Duty provides a good example in where Modern Warfare 3 is an unbalanced game and Black Ops 2 is a largely fine tuned game. Modern Warfare 3 has loud footstep sounds, where anyone with headphones and an attention span can detect a non-crouching/Dead Silence using player’s movement on either platform. On PC this just made listening a big part of the game, but on console it gave a decided advantage to players with headphones. Black Ops 2 balanced the experience on console at the cost of depth on the PC, with movement sounds being minimized. I actually play Black Ops 2 better without sound at all, but in Modern Warfare 3, listening paid dividends.

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Display

Display experiences many of the same problems as Audio. As everything is further away, everything must be bigger. Characters must be in your face, options must be huge and not too many at once, and of course, fields of view must be tighter. Because of these tighter fields of view, you find tactics like corner camping to be very useful, as you can’t walk into a normal room and easily see three of the four corners. Because of these tighter fields of view, you see enemies running past each other in stairwells, leading to silly combat scenarios and dumb gotcha moments.

With viewing distances so much greater, background details matter less. So thus gameplay can’t concern those details, as it would be unfair. Open worlds are inherently smaller feeling, and the mood suffers.

Input

This is one area where the player debates touch upon the issue almost just as well. Gamepads have their issues (and where they don’t, you can just plug one into a PC – there is a 360 gamepad next to me right now). In particular, they’re not well suited to first person shooters. They are lousy at moving across multiple axes and thus environments see reduced verticality – largely making the 3d portion of 3d engines a moot point. They’re not good at tracking a target, thus you have sticky aim (this caused an imbalance in Black Ops 2 where the M8, a four shot burst assault rifle, was dominating on consoles because of sticky aim, so it received a damage nerf which made it not worth the aiming effort on PC). They’re slow to turn so you need to develop AI which slows itself down to compensate for this. They’re bad for maneuvering so you need game mechanics which justify soaking up damage, and taking cover. They have few buttons so large inventories are difficult to manage in real time, resulting in limited player choices, which also results in favoring just the Safe Choices – you stick to the shotgun and assault rifle.

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What does this result in? Games where your mistakes are inconsequential, where armaments are limited – and thus engagements are as well, where battles are more akin to peekaboo. A neutered action sequence based around holding the player’s hand as they are tethered by the controller.

Certification

On PC there is no third party certification. Those who are most financially invested with the game are the ones assuring its quality. This sounds bad, especially when you look at Microsoft and Sony who have independent QA teams for the purposes of assuring quality. In particular Microsoft is known for their Cert team who can be exacting with TCRs/XRs and who don’t answer to the same people as the general publishing QA. There is value to be had here, but all things take time. It takes a long time to completely check a game for violations of these key aspects, and thus the game must be delivered to Certification two to four weeks before it is set to appear on store shelves. Cert can give exemptions, particularly if an issue is already scheduled to be fixed via a launch day patch, and this is what happens. It is why the disc copies of games are often not quite functional, and require patching before they can be launched, or before certain features can be accessed. Cert is also why patches can have such a long turn around time, even if an issue’s fix and the testing time is rather low.

In conclusion, and by conclusion, I mean the end of my loosely listed complaints, I find that considering consoles is a way to damage the gameplay of a game. The constraints it puts on pretty much every facet dictates a vast swathe of elements regarding the experience possible. This isn’t to say that games operating within those constraints aren’t good, or can’t be good, but they are inherently¬†constrained. Some of these issues can be mitigated by improved hardware or by becoming more like a PC, but not all.

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This is why I have immediately less interest in a game when it is multiplatform – especially if it is a shooter. The environments will be smaller and more horizontal, the rhythm will be slower, and the choices will be fewer. If id had concerned themselves with consoles during development, we wouldn’t have the first person shooter as we know it, or as we once knew it. If STALKER had been a multiplatform launch, it simply would not have been STALKER, but rather an early METRO 2033.

I want the best games, and we won’t get that by compromising as our very first step.

4 thoughts on “Games Are Better Without Consoles

  1. FifthElephant

    Consoles vs PC is a ridiculous argument. Consoles and PC’s are something that most gamers own one of each. They complement each other perfectly because the experiences are both quite different and both are able to offer up a superior way of playing in their own way.

    Performance

    The PC has almost always and always will out-perform the consoles but almost never on a $ for $ level. The experience you get on a console will bet superior on a per $ basis than a pc, you are unlikely to be able to build a pc system that is able to perform the same as a console that is newly released for the same dollar. Even as time draws on both become cheaper to develop for and the price drops.
    It’s also not true that PC hardware was once inferior to the console, and if it was it certainly was much much sooner than the suggestion. PC’s have outperformed consoles since the late 80’s, I know as I have owned *all* the consoles and have always had a good spec PC. However the barrier for entry is expensive on PC.
    While it is true that the newer consoles, especially the xbone, has been lumbered with additional OS overheads they are still bang for buck better. They’re nowhere near better when talking money-no-object. Consoles do have an issue with lack of power when you aren’t factoring in cost, they simply do not compete in the top end. The solution on consoles then is to limit framerate or resolution to deliver a consistent experience. This drawback doesn’t occur on money-no-object pc’s, you have full 60+ FPS gameplay at whatever your monitors natural resolution is, usually 1080p or more. However, dollar for dollar you’re going to be using graphical sliders or disabling features on PC if you’re gaming on a budget, this is why TotalBiscuit starts *every* first look video with the options menu, because making decisions on your performance is a huge part of pc gaming that simply doesn’t exist in the console space.

    Audio

    I wont begin by talking about distance from the TV or non-audio subjects.

    Most pc gamers either now use the speakers on their monitor or use a 2-speaker system. Some will use a better setup or maybe headphones. I once owned a really beautiful creative labs 5.1 system that meant I had 5 speakers on my desk and not in the correct configuration. It sounded meaty though. Most gamers aren’t huge audiophiles and this will probably translate to consoles too. If you have a TV you may have a 5.1 system, you may just use the speakers on the TV or maybe you’ll have a nice sounding Soundbar (I have, it’s good quality and cheap).
    Audio-quality is what you pay for, it’s rare you get an advantage unless you’re willing to put your hand in your pocket.
    How does this translate to games? Both markets have it’s competitive elements but only when discussing FPS games does audio matter, and how much you’re willing to spend will net you the advantage and from experience most audio solutions are multiformat. I have a nice turtle beach that works on pc and console.

    Display

    You sit closer to your monitor on a PC and you sit further away from your TV. So naturally your TV is usually massive. I have a 4k 42 inch tv, if I sat as close to that as I did with my pc I’d be blind or something. Proportionally it’s going to be occupying as much as your peripheral vision because of the distance and size difference. All the arguments given are more to do with input (slower movement speed, sluggish controls and tighter FOV) and all to do with FPS games. Your TV is going to service your gaming needs just fine on platform games, racing games, RPG’s, RTS, sports games… etc etc ad nauseum.

    The advantages on PC vs Console is, again mostly cost, but if you have a top notch system and a decent monitor you’re going to be getting a great experience at high frames and higher res with a superior picture (though I think my 4k TV shits on most monitor displays right now but that thing is expensive). The console itself isn’t geared towards this kind of experience because of the trade-offs in developing a console game, bloodborne looks great on my TV but it runs at 30fps (the TV itself has 60fps as scholar of the first sin runs really nice).

    Input

    Let’s get this out of the way first. FPS games are outright superior for input on PC in most cases, I’ve seen some epic players on console with a controller but the top console gamer couldn’t hope to compete with a PC gamer using a mouse and keyboard. And the keyboard is really well suited to games like RTS games too. But this is all. The console comes with a decent controller out of the box and it is well suited and usually superior for every genre, racing games, platform games, puzzle games, fighting games, flying games and even though the PC is better for FPS games you can still have a good time on the console. This list isn’t exhaustive but the fact is that the controller will give you a better experience in most situations, and unless you’re cheap bastard with a 3rd party pad everyone is going to be on the same level. Yeah you can use these things on the PC but they don’t form the default configuration of most builds.

    Certification

    Cert is in a lot of ways a plus and a minus on console, on one hand the bar is slightly higher for game quality but on the other hand it’s an expensive and pain in the arse part of consoles that makes games more expensive. PC has lots of games, no cert process and as a result you do get a lot of shovelware. However these arbitrary costs make it difficult for good deals to take place in the console market that you get in the PC space. There’s lots of pros and cons to consider, I think the PC market and especially steam needs to do more to ensure quality on their services. Steam curators can only do so much.

    In conclusion I think you should buy whatever machine you plan to do your gaming on. PC games and console games both have their advantages, most people are going to have both. If you’re going to play almost entirely FPS games and you have money to burn then clearly the PC is superior, but for everything else it’s just personal preference.

    1. scar3crow Post author

      I’m not talking about one versus the other as which you should use, but the impact one has on the other when it comes to the sort of game you can design. This isn’t PC Gamer Versus Console Gamer, it’s which makes for richer mechanics and game worlds, developing with consoles as part of the intended release, or developing strictly with the PC in mind.

      Unless I state otherwise, assume I’m talking about first person games. When you’re controlling a single character, I very strongly prefer it over other styles.

      Thanks for leaving a comment though, I appreciate the time, and interaction beyond bits and pieces over Twitter.

  2. Trincetto

    Very interesting post, I agree with most of it. Sadly, consoles really have damaged game design, from small things like using the same button for multiple actions to accommodate the smaller number of options available on a controller (press X reload, hold it to pick up a weapon, tap it jump, release it to sneeze), to much more important stuff, like level design and genre mechanics.

    I feel that first person shooters have suffered the most: the two weapon system limits the choice you have, overly linear level design combined with health regeneration and stupid A.I. (which are necessity, because you can’t aim quickly with a controller and you get shot a lot more) make games more similar to whack-a-mole than to a traditional shooter.

    So we’re getting shallow games, with huge, intrusive UIs and boring, non-existent level design. You can’t explore the levels, there are no secrets to find, your only rewards are scripted sequences: to play, you just have to follow a linear path while shooting some goons on the way. And don’t worry about which weapon you pick up, because they all act the same way.

    By the way, there’s another reason for using such low FOVs on consoles. With each iteration of a game series, fans are expecting graphics to be better, while console hardware stays the same. So, by making the FOV smaller, they can put more details, because less stuff is rendered each frame.

    1. scar3crow Post author

      Thanks, it was hastily written while my kid napped, but I wanted to get it out there so as to hopefully get others thinking from this additional angle.

      CoD has C4, toss it, detonate it – if you’re quick you can detonate it midair. They even have a quick-detonate option, if your C4 isn’t on you, double tapping Use will trigger it. This will also pick up weapons on the ground, and that option has a higher priority than the C4. So instead of detonating when you want to, you’ll instead set your choice of gun on the ground, and raise a new one. To say this doesn’t work out well would be an understatement.

      Interestingly, Halo has fairly smart AI, but for the purposes of ensuring it goes easy on the player. They keep track of each other to keep from overwhelming, based on the difficulty, and to give windows of retreat. But it also makes for a very casual feeling environment when your foes randomly just idle, instead of pressing the attack.

      I found every secret in FEAR because they were kept at the end of short forks in the road, the non-secret fork would have story exposition. The moment you hear radio chatter, back up, there is a health or reflex upgrade nearby.

      It’s not just reducing the frame scope to render, it also masks activities being done to save on performance. In addition, games unload behind you as you progress. You only go forward in the levels because that early part? It’s gone. It doesn’t exist. There is a reason everything terminates in a permalocking door, or a non-fatal drop you can’t climb back up, because they’re already at their limit.

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