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Will PC Games Trump Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii?

With rumors that a new Xbox is in the works, likely slated for next year, and sales dropping like a rock for every game system (ironically the Xbox appears to be holding on the best at the moment), I wonder if we are about to see a PC game resurgence. Windows 7 and DirectX 11 are coming, along with an expectation that Snow Leopard will actually embrace games for once. So are we months off from a smack down by PCs on game consoles, once again?

Maybe. Let’s take a look at this.

Aging Game Consoles

When game consoles first come out, they typically have performance in line with some of the highest performance PCs. By the end of year one, they are in line with medium performance PCs, and by the end of year, two PC games are starting to look better in general. From here, it only gets competitively worse, because PCs remain on a rapid evolution schedule, and game consoles are frozen for around five years.

As a result, sales tend to drop off for consoles and games as buyers increasingly find the devices tired, and the games less and less cutting edge and compelling. Numbers were horrid in May and the Wii, still sales champion, dropped by more than half.

The hot thing at E3 was Project Natal, a technology that is supposed to be part of the next-generation Xbox expected out next year. But with the noted exception of MAG, which kicks serious butt, coming for the Sony platform, and Wii motion plus controller upgrades (let’s make Wii games as hard to play as real games), there was little going on to really excite buyers.
Game consoles are vulnerable. Will Windows 7 and DirectX 11 kick their butts?

Xbox Project Natal

Microsoft’s Project Natal at E3

Windows 7 and DirectX 11

Both Nvidia and ATI are starting to pitch DirectX 11 hard to developers, and Windows 7 is the maintenance release of Windows Vista, suggesting a much better experience with most things, including gaming. DirectX 11 represents a major jump, allowing for the graphics processor to do an increasing amount of work like game physics, artificial intelligence, and utilities (like transcoding).

The end result: You’ll get a much better gaming experience, much more than the normal improvement you typically just get with a new card. For instance, with multi-threading under DirectX10, one thread would be prioritized and the rest would get whatever performance was left. With DirectX11, performance is balanced between the threads for less bottlenecking. There is also a new instruction set, better HD compression and decompression to preserve bandwidth, and a more aggressive use of tessellation, which allows you to seamlessly zoom from very far to very close to an object that appears vastly less blocky and more realistic. You can check out some of the most recent DirectX Technology videos here. There is also a great video recalling the difference between DirectX 9 and 10 from Crysis, if you have forgotten or still live in a DX9 world. DX11 games promise to be richer, more engaging, and more realistic than their DX10 predecessors, and against their console equivalents, much more current.

Direct X

Microsoft Direct X Logo

Windows Vista didn’t have titles until months after it launched, kind of sucked initially, and even patch lagged Windows XP. This time around, I’ve been told by the graphics card companies there will be a number of hot titles available on top of the Windows 7 launch in October, taking us into the critical fourth quarter at a time when folks are likely really troubled about buying a game console that is getting really old. EA Phenomic, Emergent, Rebellion, and Codemasters have all committed to having product at, or soon after launch.

Wrapping Up

I still think OnLive is the future of console gaming, and it is due about the same time that Windows 7 and Snow Leopard launch. I wonder if consoles will survive the onset of their twilight years, when their performance drops off and PCs start kicking their butts all over the map. Granted, some of the consoles can do other things, like play music and movies, but I doubt they can survive on these secondary activities. I do think there is a reasonable chance we are on the forefront of the decline cycle for console games, and that PC gaming, and services like OnLive are on the rise.

Maybe I should have titled this “Revenge of the PC?”

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