Future of the PC: “the de facto single format”

By Jim Rossignol on May 8th, 2008 at 9:44 am.


Games For Windows top spokesman (and RPS’ favourite name in the games industry), Kevin Unangst, has been interviewed by Gamasutra’s Brandon Sheffield. In the interview Unangst is careful to talk up the PC, while avoiding the clear and present fact that the humble box will ultimately outmode and obliterate the console toys and become the de facto single format for gaming. Wuh? Crazy talk? Nolan Bushnell is with me. Find out what I’m wittering about after the link.

So here’s the interesting bit:

Okay. I was talking to Nolan Bushnell a little while ago. I was asking him if he ever thought that there could only be a single format for games, and he said he’s pretty sure it would be the PC that would be the de facto single format on which games are released in the distant future. What do you think about that?

KU: That’s interesting. I have a lot of respect for Nolan. I hadn’t heard that he’d said that, so that’s an interesting view of the future. I think that we’re uniquely in both the console business and the PC business, and I think there are certain instances where consumers like playing in their living room for some types of games. I like playing on the biggest screen in the house.

But I think we share the view that the PC will always be at the center of the innovation that is happening for gameplay — new game types, new business models, new distribution models.

It’s lead in the Internet, it’s lead in the acceleration of graphics, and I don’t see any reason to believe that the PC will change, and that trend will go away any time soon. It is at the forefront, and I believe it will continue to be at the forefront.

And who knows, in that vision of the future, everything may be called a PC, right? Everything’s going to get more intelligent and more Internet-connected, and the investments that Microsoft’s making in both of those worlds I think will allow us to bring better experiences to consumers, no matter where they come in. They start on the consoles? We’re going to make sure that when they add a PC to the mix that that experience gets better, and vice versa.

That last paragraph was basically the message I got from the last GDC. (A GDC at which Mr Sheffield told me he never used a PC to play games, except when he did…) The point is that everything is converging on being a PC, from your phone to your Playstation. They all want to be the beige box.

My personal future, for say fifteen years time, sees things like this: a similarly open-ended PC market to today, only there’s several powerful standards and ultra-scalable technologies that everyone is running with. The PC is sat in your office, but is wirelessly tied in to every other screen in the house, from your phone to the TV in the kitchen and the machine renders appropriately for the display device. The household PC is used to browse the Net and check email in your office, but also becomes a kind of central entertainment handler and games TiVo. No need for another box or a pile of discs in your TV parlour: the PC is already handling that, and it’s busy downloading the stuff you might want to play, even if you never do. You’re paying for a couple of different services, one that makes sure you can play the games you’re likely to want to play on your TV as soon as you sit down. Your PC does the actual rendering on one of its many cores, while someone else is web-browsing, and it knows you want to play because you’ve picked up a gamepad. At the same time, it also makes sure that you can play other games sat at your desk with a mouse and keyboard: those Total War games you like, or the mouse and keyboard versions of the episodic shooters you’ve been playing through, or those dojin games you keep blogging about.

When I suggest this future people generally dismiss it as a 1950s-style technofuture dream: one box fits all? Never! But it’s not quite like that. One box scales to all. If we’re getting to a stage where that console under the TV can be used to check your email or browse the web, why not simply set things up the other way around? Why would you spend $1000 on a PC and $500 on a console if you could spend $1000 on something than ran all aspects of your home entertainment? I think the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is that media-centre type PCs are a bugger to set up, and don’t have the pluggable convenience of consoles. As more and more people find themselves playing via the internet, making the most of their PC, and using what Koster calls “the true next generation console,” ie Abobe Flash, that will change.

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65 Comments »

  1. Thiefsie says:

    When they make games bootable without an OS, will the unified universe be upon us. And oh how awesome would that be without MS in the mix.

  2. moromete says:

    /No, it can’t be. We all *know* the PC is dying./sarcasm off

    I agree with your ideas and also think that the PC is the future, while at the same time being the past and the present. That’s while I rezist playing any console games for more than review purposes.

  3. Mike says:

    I’m not sure it could happen while there is still a performance/spec arms race with faster graphics cards coming out every 5 minutes. Nor with PC developers who don’t scale/tune the system requirements of their games so they can run on average systems.

  4. Nimic says:

    “Why would you spend $1000 on a PC and $500 on a console if you could spend $1000 on something than ran all aspects of your home entertainment?”

    We’d sure want that, but would the producers want that?

  5. Rook says:

    I really think the idea of a desktop PC will probably be gone soon.

  6. Dinger says:

    Single master computer and more or less smart terminals, or a network of computers specialized for various tasks? That’s the Billion-Dollar Question.

    Frankly, I see task-based-specialization. The Desktop PC isn’t going to go away. Nothing beats a Desktop PC for working on a computer.
    Laptops, on the other hand, are threatened. They combine the Desktop PC tasks (working on a computer) with the functions of portable computing. Other tools are doing the portable computing far better and cheaper (The Eee-class of stuff, on one side, and MIDs on the other. I think I’ve said before that my n800 has replaced my laptop, takes care of a lot of my browsing needs, and all my telephony around the house and office. It also helps me convince others I’m at work being productive when I send out flurries of email from the Luxembourg Gardens on a fine spring day).
    For that matter, so is storage. NASs are getting mature, so that one low-power device can serve as file- and print-server for your home. Add another one that hooks directly to a media player, and your theatre/music needs are taken care of.

    When people talk about PC gaming vs. consoles, they often forget the fundamental difference. Generally, console games are played on the couch, with friends. PC games are usually sitting at a desk, alone. The interaction is different, and so the interface and the games should be.

  7. Sam says:

    When they make games bootable without an OS, will the unified universe be upon us. And oh how awesome would that be without MS in the mix.

    Well, the latter is already possible, you know.
    The former… well, there’s a reason why we have OSs, and its basically so that everything works. I’d not want to be the developer who decided to reimplement lowlevel disk I/O, let alone graphics card interfaces, because I wanted to boot without an OS. What you may mean is that you want to boot without the overhead of a graphical user interface? In which case, you already can, to a large extent – I remember, when Black and White came out, people who “really needed performance” setting bw.exe as their shell, thus preventing all that nasty Windows GUI from loading.

  8. Nick says:

    “I really think the idea of a desktop PC will probably be gone soon.”

    Shit, that’s gonna ruin a lot of buisnesses.

  9. itsallcrap says:

    I’d look at that the other way around. I’d say they won’t be gone because a lot of businesses still need them.

    Also, I’ll still always want one, and I doubt I’m alone. There may soon be specialised machines for every common application of the desktop PC, but I like having a machine that can be programmed to do whatever I want.

  10. Rook says:

    “I really think the idea of a desktop PC will probably be gone soon.”

    Shit, that’s gonna ruin a lot of buisnesses.

    Not really, I’m just thinking about the move to laptops. AMD/nVidia and Intel are all really pushing the move to smaller dies with low power consumption and less thermal dissipation. Look at desktops in retail stores, they’re pretty much gone now as you can get a laptop that has everything you need for not that much more. All that’s really missing at the moment is a 9600M GT that will run in a 15” laptop chasis and I really have to start to question the point of a desktop for all but the biggest enthusiasts. Even then the gap between my current laptop and desktop is pretty small, and there’s a ton of stuff my laptop does that my desktop doesn’t.

    I’m kinda surprised no one’s really standardised the laptop configuration in the same way that desktops have been with ATX/uATX/BTX etc, to the point where you can build your own, or at least upgrade all the major components.

  11. kalain says:

    When people talk about PC gaming vs. consoles, they often forget the fundamental difference. Generally, console games are played on the couch, with friends. PC games are usually sitting at a desk, alone. The interaction is different, and so the interface and the games should be.

    Sorry have to call you on that one. There have been several times I’ve slumped down on my sofa, Wireless keyboard on lap and mouse on the sofa, playing several different games on my 32″ TV. Yes, i cannot have people all playing on the same screen unless it’s Lego Star Wars, but PC Gamers can play on the sofa just as well as our console cousins.

    As for playing with friends, I’m yet to see a decent MMO on a console. Sure, it won’t beat having people with you, but you still chat and play with several other people at the same time. I’m yet to see a console have large groups of people performing quests, playing, at the same time.

    Overall, the experience is different for the console and PC Gamers, but we can play their games just as well, if not better, than they can whilst they can only look at some of our games with jealous eyes.

    But on Jim’s point, everything, eventually, will become a PC, there is no way of avoiding it. When consoles can start doing more and more than just play games, like they can now, they lose their console status and become a PC or, a better term would be, an Entertainment hub. PC’s are already beyond that stage now, way beyond, and so far ahead of the consoles, it’s silly. I do, occasionally, stream media from my PC to my TV as well as use it to capture TV programs whilst I’m out so I can watch it when I get home. So, for me at least, the PC will be the winner overall and the consoles are just poor pretenders to the throne.

  12. Sam says:

    Laptops, of course, are currently hard to upgrade. The impact that this has on their interest to dedicated high-end gamers presumably depends on how rapidly the eye-candy element of games continues to push at the edges of graphics (and CPU) specs, and how disposable old laptops become.
    Certainly, though, outside of Crysis, there’s not a lot I can’t do on my Eee PC that I can do on my desktop…

  13. Jeremy says:

    Playing with friends online seems to be easier with a PC – I think of playing FPS games with friends back home. But playing a game with someone else in the room – I can’t think of too many PC games that let you do that. The last time I played a PC game with friends on the same computer was Tank Wars.

    I’m debating getting an eee PC, but if I do that, my desktop will be largely relegated to game-playing. I’m having a hard time justifying a sizable upgrade on the new rig if I’m only going to play games (though not THAT hard with Fallout3, Clear Sky, Spore on the way).

  14. cHeal says:

    Jim, your vision of the future is pretty much identical to mine. I’d say people will get one powerful server and then install basic terminal computers in other area’s of the house which would deal with only minor aspects of what your doing, probably only have ram. So instead of a console under the tv, you’d have a computer terminal which replicates some elements of consoles.

    This is already happening so it is I think inevitable. And I agree that PC is actually the /only/ non-portable gaming format with a long term future.

  15. Rook says:

    On a decent laptop, there should be an access port for easy CPU upgrades. It’s just the damn graphics card problem.

  16. mandrill says:

    its all well and good saying we’ll have one box to rule them all, but as Nimic pointed out; will the hardware makers want that?

    We all know that consoles are loss leaders, MS and co make their money on the software and licensing. A console will only play the games made for that console, so any software you buy to run on it makes the manufacturer some money. And thats what this game is all about really, money. I don’t see the console manufacturers dropping their current business model anytime soon, it lines their pockets quite nicely thank you very much. A central machine that runs all the entertainment in the house is not a money spinner, unless its locked up as tightly as a console. Which means no upgrading until the next sealed box comes out, and not being able to run software not designed for it. The reason home media server doodads are so complicated to set up at the moment is because the hardware is fairly open, you can use whatever bits you want and upgrade them as needed. Unless manufacturers are willing to open up their hardware to modification and adaptation then I don’t see your dream ever becoming reality I’m afraid Jim.

  17. Freelancepolice says:

    Give me a steam OS! All hail our new benefactors valve

  18. Jim Rossignol says:

    I think software will become increasingly scalable, and therefore allow people to upgrade their One Box as they do PCs.

  19. cliffski says:

    On thing that would help is if every game released at least a tech demo so you could see if the full game will run ok on your PC.

  20. El Stevo says:

    If it means Microsoft won’t be able to charge £70 for a 20 gig fucking hard drive then I’m all for it.

  21. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    “Give me a steam OS! All hail our new benefactors valve”

    I’m with this guy! I’d love to see a pure gaming OS, as I don’t use my PC for anything else. Cut out all the clutter etc.

  22. Sam says:

    Depends on what you mean by “clutter” – there’s already various third-party tools for streamlining and removing cruft from Windows XP (which I’ve not personally used, but…). And, of course, if you’re using Linux, well, there’s been cut-down distributions pretty much for as long as Linux has existed…

  23. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    I’m not clever enough to use Linux, alas! And i’m using Vista.

    “this deal is getting worse all the time”.

    Did you mean stuff like crap cleaner etc? I’m sure there are Vista equivalents out there somewhere. But i mean a realllly thorough cleaning, so that basically you load up the PC and there’s just a list of games there, WAITING to be played.

    edit: plus, yknow, a web browser/media centre etc. Am I talking about a console that you use a keyboard/mouse for and can still fiddle with mods etc? Eep.

  24. Senethro says:

    I would honestly use a steam OS that has web browsing and media capabilities for…. everything I think.

  25. Sam says:

    You’re quite clever enough to use Linux, nowadays, really.

    I mean things like NLite and XPLite, which can remove almost all of the bloat from XP.
    What you want to do sounds more like a custom GUI/shell, though – I’d imagine it’s quite possible, since you can apparently get XP to load anything as its shell (hence the “loading Black and White as a shell” trick I mentioned earlier)…

  26. Therlun says:

    In the future consoles will simply be available as cards.
    Instead of just a graphics card you will have a complete mini console with all the advantages of console game development (e.g. clearly defined hardware) and all the advantages of being in a computer.

  27. Dinger says:

    On thing that would help is if every game released at least a tech demo so you could see if the full game will run ok on your PC.

    –Nahh, you can just download a cracked “trial version”.
    Just kidding, Cliffski. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    To be honest, the multipurpose PC is breaking down. As pointed out above, the reason we have an OS is supposedly to stabilize the configuration nightmare of PCs so that they can have a common framework. And, as Microsoft has found out, that framework has ossified, and we’re at the point where adding new features multiplies the bugs. Heck, even by fixing those bugs, you introduce more.

    Of all the tasks we throw at computers, only a few require full processing resources and power. So why tap into it for the rest? If it costs less to slap a low-power CPU and some memory into a keyboard, why have it act as a terminal for a massive central computer?

  28. AbyssUK says:

    Didn’t you get the Memo Linux isn’t for clever people anymore!

    Ubuntu

  29. Paul Moloney says:

    Bit of a softly-softly interview, no? There doesn’t seem to be any real feeling that PC gaming is in crysis (pun intended since Crytek have annouced they will no longer be PC-exclusive). Instead, we have Kevin offering messianic zen nostrums – don’t worry, relax, it will all be OK one day, thou knowst not the hour.

  30. Babs says:

    I’m not sure about gaming on a dumb terminal connected to a remote server. Wouldn’t you get horrible lag? Not so much from input->server but imput->server->render->send frame to terminal.

    I guess you could wire up your house with fiber-optic but that seems a touch excessive.

  31. darkripper says:

    Dinger: around friends and family, I see anecdotal evidence of the contrary. Laptop among casual users are sold more and more. For space and the fact that when something crashes you simply send the whole thing to repair and you’re not bounced around by graphic card dealer, cpu dealer, etc.
    There’s not a single reason why someone with simple need should use a desktop while a more compact and versatile laptop could do the job. Well there’s one thing you can’t do and that’s gaming: laptop are extremely bad for gaming when there’s a integrated graphic card inside (even the ones with a decent video card age very fast).
    At the time of the first Sims, everyone I knew with a computer could run it (albeit with lower detail and resolution). Today I don’t think you can’t tell the same of casual appealing game by EA.
    And that’s what software developers should worry about instead of blaming piracy everytime.

  32. caesarbear says:

    The first thing that needs to happen is for wireless tech to improve. Not only to avoid lag, but to allow a greater variety of connections. Once the gamepad and tv are operating on the same network as the PC, turning the TV into a gaming terminal is trivial. Currently 802.11 nor Bluetooth are up to the task though.

  33. semi-coolon says:

    Dinger – laptops aren’t going anywhere. The only people I know with desktops any more are hardcore PC gamers. When I set one up my housemates were incredulous. And since when is the Eee not a laptop?

    I think laptops quite neatly replace the server terminals idea too – instead of having a dedicated screen in every room you just carry your laptop wherever you want to use it. It works outside the house too and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and easier to set up than half a dozen LCD screens and a server. Maybe add a nice docking station on your desk and another under the TV which instantly hooks it up to the display, plus have some bluetooth gamepads by the sofa and your every need is covered.

  34. RichPowers says:

    Yeah, for the first time I’m questioning the viability of the monolithic desktop. I’m in the only person I know who uses one outside of work.

    And now with the Eee (and to a lesser extent smartphones) people are complaining that laptops are too bulky.

  35. Dr.Gash says:

    I envision a gaming-equivalent to Red Book Audio being released in the not-too-distant future. Maybe that’s a first step on the road to what’s being discussed here.

    Also, yes, Laptops are definitely starting to offer enough power for even a reasonably serious gaming enthusiast to consider one as a main machine. I use my MacBook Pro as my primary gaming computer at the moment and it’s handled everything from Assassin’s Creed to STALKER without hiccup.

  36. Sam says:

    Wouldn’t the gaming equivalent to Red Book Audio just be something like DirectX, for Windows, or (more closely, being actually open) OpenGL + OpenAL + other open interface standards? Or am I missing a subtlety?

  37. Dr.Gash says:

    Well, I imagine it to be more akin to a detailed hardware specification (in the case of Red Book Audio, describing sector sizes on the CD, but in the case of gaming it could be everything from number of processes per second to required quantity of volatile memory to, well, anything) as well as the standardised hardware libraries you describe.

    I’m not sure how robust the analogy is but I think it fits reasonably well.

  38. Sam says:

    Hrm. But that’s kind of what I meant by what “DirectX 9 compatible” is supposed to mean – it implies that it requires certain hardware functionality which is enabled by that particular version of DirectX (and not those previous to it). It’s not really the same thing; however, I’m not convinced you can have a perfect match here, there being a difficulty in stretching the analogy from “audio format” to “game software”.

  39. Rook says:

    If microsoft hadn’t completely fucked up the Window’s Experience Index I’m sure they could have gone somewhere with that when it came to standardising performance.

  40. Dr.Gash says:

    The major difference being, ofcourse, that DirectX is constantly updating in-line with trends in multimedia hardware. Whereas Red Book Audio has remained practically fixed for what, about 28 years now? It’s not just the definition of a standard but also the long-term adherence to a fixed hardware platform.

    I’m also, ofcourse, not describing something that I think will happen in a couple of weeks, but over the course of the next 10 to 20 years.

  41. Sam says:

    Yes, but you can’t really have a fixed hardware platform when one of major fields of competition between some sectors of the computer games industry is in producing increasingly fancy graphics-heavy (and cpu-heavy) effects.

  42. Hypocee says:

    Nolan Bushnell the serial restaurateur?

    No, I do bow before him for getting to a good idea first and doing it well…but he hasn’t touched a successful technology venture in twenty years.

  43. Dr.Gash says:

    I guess I see an eventual limit as to how far they can continue to improve on the visual side of things. Again, it’s a way off but I definitely see it being there.

  44. Jonathan says:

    Reply to John P (Katsumoto)
    Nope, your not talking about a console, you’re talking about an operating system. To be specific, you’re talking about Vista’s Game Explorer albeit with a better search system which hasn’t happened yet.

    My PC has lasted 16 months now and gets 40 fps on SupCom (with the multi thread patch) and cost £550. Today I saw a second hand 80gb PS3 for £328. Given that every console game is a good £10-15 extra over PC and you can see price doesn’t really matter.

    As for losing desktop pcs. Not bloody likely. TVs are much more likely to be used for Internet and why bother with the latency, lag, signal breaks, interference, firewalls and third party middle ware conflicts to stream from your computer when you could just sit at your computer. New processing power may be going up in price again but look at what their capable of now and existing components depreciate faster than ever.

    “One box scales to all. If we’re getting to a stage where that console under the TV can be used to check your email or browse the web, why not simply set things up the other way around? Why would you spend $1000 on a PC and $500 on a console if you could spend $1000 on something than ran all aspects of your home entertainment?”

    Yes. I call it my computer, it’s been my dvd player, hi-fi, games console, web thing and televison for 6 years. As for integrating it into the rest of the house, nice idea, but why?

    Also episodic fps have really kicked off since Half Life 2 and Sin.

    What I do agree with is simplified system requirements this is mainly because Intel and nVidia said so.

  45. Dinger says:

    On Laptops: yes I consider the Eee something other than a laptop, because it breaks the sacred rule of laptops:
    “Power, portability or price: choose one”
    The Eee and similar devices (I traded my laptop for a MID, and around your family people will start doing that in a year or two) give you portability and price. They cost _less_ than a desktop.
    Traditional laptops cost more. And all portable devices fail more often than desktops, and when they fail, the result is usually the scrapyard.
    So yeah, the laptop I replaced cost me >$2000 new. After one year the battery was cooked; after one and a half I had I had a panel removed to access a MB power switch, since the original one wore out. At two years, cancer of the motherboard set in, and it was having trouble booting. At two and a half, it started running 18V DC through the outside of the case.
    So I replaced it with a $400 MID (now even less) and a desktop. I use the little thing _a lot_, and I can use it in places where a laptop is too heavy or expensive to go. For games, entertainment media, serious processing, or hardcore desk work, nothing beats a real desktop, with a fullsize keyboard and mouse, and two huge screens.

    So when I say the “laptop is in decline”, I don’t mean portable computing. Rather, I mean that there are few people who need a full-powered PC to do their mobile computing tasks. As PCs carry the “workstation” forward, portable devices will eat into the laptop sector.
    You wouldn’t set up your 2000-pound MacBook Air in the kitchen while you baked a cake, but you might risk a 200-pound Eee. The laptop’s probably better for communicating on Skype than a desktop, but better still is a toy that you can throw in your pocket, and wander around the house talking (or IMing) on.

    The monolith is dead, whether it’s the monolithic desktop computer, the monolithic laptop, or the $2 Billion do-everything space probe.

  46. Jonathan says:

    My opinion on PCs is that their diversity is their strongest suit. A games PC can be tweaked to be a business server, which can be tweaked to specialise with photo editing or animation or can be watercooled and moved into the lounge as a dvd-hi fi hybrid. I think the future is multiple computers as prices for adequate, rather than top of the line, hard ware drops and water cooling becomes the norm.

  47. BonSequitur says:

    “Normal” sized laptops are on the brink of uselessness. They can do everything a smaller laptop (IE, the EEE PC) can do, but don’t perform well at any task that requires a large screen. Teensy tiny LCD screens are okay, but not good, for gaming, and the small laptop keyboards are also terrible. And of course, one has to carry one’s own mouse to game with a laptop, since the touchpads are also useless. Let’s not mention the fact that LCD screens distort colours into oblivion (With the exception of the very high-end laptops and displays), thus making them worthless for actual graphics work. And those minute, often widescreen displays also don’t work too well for programming, either. Laptops are fine for the average user who does a bit of gaming, but it’s simply not possible for myself and lots of people who work with programming, graphics, or are just “core” gamers to transition fully into a laptop. One small size does not fit all, really.

  48. UncleLou says:

    “I really think the idea of a desktop PC will probably be gone soon.”

    Depends on how you mean it. If I can put a box under my desk that allows me to run photoshop, itunes, a good word processor, my games, etc., and browse the net comfortably, I wouldn’t really care that much if it’s still called a PC or not.

    But I can’t imagine doing most of these things while sitting on the couch, or on a laptop.

  49. spd from Russia says:

    One box for all – nowai! never
    Too many companies want to sell us thier boxes with their prop formats. We cant even have a single console – there are 3 manufacturers with 4 home consoles(dont forget the ps2) plus 2 handhelds! each having a share of exclusives.

  50. DigitalSignalX says:

    I agree laptops will be the future of all desktop computing and gaming – but not till two issues are solved, performance equivalence in hard drive and GPU for same price as current desktop versions. Today’s laptop with same output of a 10k rpm high capacity HD and a high end vid card still costs about 5x more then it’s desktop brother does.

    On a related note, NPR this morning reported

    “During the past decade, HP and Dell have kept laptop prices low by forcing their Taiwanese manufacturers to absorb rising costs. But on Thursday, the Financial Times quotes the head of one of the Taiwanese companies saying “we’ll be raising prices for the first time.”

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90268424

    which means basically.. still a long time before we see the desktop/laptop gap being narrowed.