The slow-down of PC tech has left a strange hollow in my life. If you’re older than a tiny baby, you’ll remember the days when your PC was perpetually on the verge of not being able to play the current crop of games no matter how frequently you upgraded it. Now, my PC insides are a couple of years old, and playing everything on maximum. This is, I think on balance, a good thing. But there are downsides to it too.
I remember our first PC upgrade. The 486 my dad bought in 1993 had 4Mb RAM, and the possibly-entirely-placebo “Turbo” button on the case, that was supposed to give a boost of memory. And then there came a point where this just wasn’t enough. The inside of a PC, having for so long been in the relatively safe world of Atari STs (512, 1024), was a terrifying place. And putting in RAM, as it still is, was most scary of all. (I now get a perverse pleasure from the absolutely ludicrous, motherboard-bending ferocity with which you have to shove RAM sticks into their little slots. The contrast of from-the-shoulder force with such delicate machinery. It’s like cleaning a Fabergé egg with an angle grinder.) But brave it we did, and our big beige box doubled in memory. The difference was astounding. Windows 3.1 FLEW!
Then came the day we needed a 3DFX card. Voodoo. (There was a short time when 3D cards were named meaningfully, so the higher the number, the better it was. Then more competition plus the advantages of consumer confusion saw this go berserk, with GRAPHIXBUSTER 90,000,000,000 and so on.) We added a CD-ROM drive for £300 (!). These were enormous new stages, the machine expanding its abilities, rather than simply incrementally improving upon them. But soon all the bits that would ever go in were in (we only seem to be removing them these days – remember ethernet cards, sound cards, running out of PCi slots? Now they just lie fallow, or are obscured by the fourteen fans of the graphics card.) It became about those bits getting better.
A two year old PC became something for nostalgic gaming, unlikely to be able to play the latest big-name releases unless it had been heavily augmented. And at around £1000 for an off-the-shelf contemporary box, that was one hell of an expensive pursuit. It became about sacrifices, working out what parts you could afford to add, how you might be able to rig it to play Unreal/Far Cry/Crisis at an acceptable level, or just giving up on that game being something you’d encounter in its year of release. It was, of course, no wonder PC gaming was a very niche pursuit, despite the ubiquity of the appropriated office equipment.
And then consoles caught up. The Xbox and PS2 never really competed with the PC. Developers tended to build for one or the other more often than worked cross-platform, or if there were ports they’d generally be far improved upon for a belated PC release. The wall of PC games in your local store still matched those for the consoles, and still had big-name games that made it stand out. Until the 360 and the PS3. Come 2005/6, the two big consoles launched with tech comparable to a decent PC. Tech locked in a sealed plastic box that would be outdated almost instantly, of course, but it created a parity that meant games were more frequently developed across all three platforms. And due to the byzantine nature of the architecture of the two consoles, it took developers a few years to work out how to get the most out of it. That created an artificial race between the improving tech of the PC, and the improved quality of console games. A race the PC easily won, of course, but one that lasted long enough for cross-platform to be entirely normalised.
As a result, developers stopped pushing PCs to their limits with their games, since they were designed to run on the increasingly years-old tech of the consoles. Sure, the resolutions would be met, the improved anti-aliasing options hopefully added in, but that crazy grind to make graphics cards wheeze was suddenly gone. And as a result, PC gaming became both far more accessible, and far less ground-breaking.
With the PS4 and Xbox ONE essentially PCs in sealed boxes, that parity was re-established a couple of years back, and this time the PC is pulling ahead even more slowly. And I think it’s good? It makes the hobby far less expensive, with a decent PC built yourself easily at £500. And it’ll last. It’ll play Fallout 4, because it could play Skyrim.
But it also makes me a bit sad, the loss of the arms race, the competitive battles between the likes of Nvidia and ATI, Intel and AMD, two main players fighting to pull ahead of the other. It was silly, sure. But gosh, it made graphics and scale evolve at the most extraordinary pace. I’m kind of sad to see that slow down, even though I know it’s obviously for the best. I’d love to see the new Crysis, the new game that means we all have to throw our arms above our heads and our bank balances out of the window, and find a way to upgrade to be able to play them. There was fun to be found in that, as stupid as that obviously is.
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