The argument about PC graphics being better than console graphics is an unwinable war for either side. PC gamers say their games will always look better, while console gamers try to come up with poor objections that we all know do not suffice. However, is there a bigger issue regarding the PC and console relationship? Could it be an issue PC gamers are neglecting and console gamers do not care about? I think it is. I bet you are wondering what world ending catastrophe I am talking about? It is the idea that the quality of PC games are affected by their console counterparts.
I am sure most of you have seen the trailers for next-generation games from Sony’s PlayStation 4 conference. I am also sure most of you will acknowledge that the graphical quality of most of those games looks spectacularly better than anything we have seen on the 360 or PS3 (Yes, even better than BioShock Infinite, and maybe Crysis 3). If you have a PC, you may have also observed that the trailers look much better than anything you can get on a PC at the moment (mods excluded), but that should not be the case. According to a lot of tech aficionados, the PS4’s specs are not real high-end (Nvidia link, Tom’s Hardware forums link), but they are not low end either by today’s PC standards- they land somewhere in the middle, depending on where you read. However, Quantic Dream co-CEO Guillame de Fondaumiere believes the PS4 is more like “the PC of the next year or two years.” Looking at the scarce specifications, my PC can probably match the PS4, but I have never seen anything running on my PC like the clips from the PS4 game trailers.
Take the Deep Down (working title) trailer, from Capcom, as an example. While at first it looks like we are seeing some kind of CGI trailer, a HUD proves the footage is running in-game. I have never seen anything like that on a PC or console, ever.
That is because game engines have been created to run on current-gen consoles. Unreal Engine 3, CryEngine3 and Frostbite 2 are some of the best engines, graphically wise, currently available and they are all used on current-gen systems. However, Unreal Engine and Frostbite both have upgraded versions coming to next-gen games and consoles- Unreal Engine 4 and Frostbite 3 respectively. In saying that, because the next-gen consoles are being built to match mid-tier PCs, PCs should be able to run Unreal Engine 4 and Frostbite 3 now. However, because current-gen consoles do not have the power to run ‘next-gen’ technology, PC users are missing out on some amazing looking games. PC gamers have to wait until their console brethren catch up and stop using modified engines that have been around for as long as seven years (Unreal Engine 3) instead of receiving it now. Consoles are affecting PC games because consoles can not handle updated engine capabilities.
“We like 360 and PS3, but their specifications are over five years old now and that’s a lot in computer years. The kind of tricks we’d have to perform to get this game working on those platforms are such a lot of work that to port it over at this point is just not worth it for us.”- Jonathan Blow on The Witness and current-gen consoles
On the contrary, I would like to highlight the ‘Samaritan Real-Time Demo’ which runs on Unreal 3 (a current-gen engine). While current-gen consoles can use Unreal 3, the Samaritan tech demo showcases features current consoles cannot utilise, like DirectX 11. The Samaritan demo looks stunning and like nothing we have seen on consoles or PC so far. So, in theory, there is nothing outdated about Unreal Engine 3, there is something outdated with the consoles. Of course, this is to be expected from tech that was released seven years ago and a console generation that has lasted longer than usual. In addition, some developers do not have the time to implement Direct X11 or other PC only features. That is unfortunate because it means PC gamers are missing out on modern features consoles cannot yet access.
Further supporting the argument that the consoles are at fault and not the game engines is BioShock Infinite (no spoilers, I promise). While the game looks amazing on consoles, the PC port of the game looks better. This is because BioShock Infinite makes use of higher resolution textures PCs are capable of displaying instead of using console textures. I am not talking about screen resolution here(though the ability to play games on a 1920×1080 monitor is wonderful), I am talking about the developers taking the time to create more detailed textures that PCs can handle. BioShock Infinite also utilises some Direct X features that consoles cannot. The first minute of this video shows what I mean.
Is it really a game engine or console’s fault or should we be placing the ‘blame’ on developers? I do not know the workings of game development and how hard it is to create games for consoles and PC, but if Irrational can take the time to create a PC port that uses DirectX 11 and higher resolution textures, why can’t other developers do the same thing? Is it a problem regarding time restraints and publishers wanting the game out as quick as possible, or is it developers disregarding the power of PCs? Or is it both?
The Witness is a game coming to PS4 and PC (and IOS). In an interview with Edge, developer Jonathan Blow commented (according to a boxout on page 69 of GameInformer #39), “We like 360 and PS3, but their specifications are over five years old now and that’s a lot in computer years. The kind of tricks we’d have to perform to get this game working on those platforms are such a lot of work that to port it over at this point is just not worth it for us.” This represents a view on the current gen consoles, from someone developing for next-gen and PCs. While he and his team at Thekla, Inc. have created a game for PCs, that happens to be able to run on next-gen consoles now, other developers have been developing games for current-gen that are playable on PC, too. Maybe with the upcoming next-gen consoles, we will see developers finally pushing the boundaries of both PC and console.
Quantic Dream is one development studio pushing the boundaries of the current-gen consoles. While they only develop for PlayStation, the ‘Kara’ tech demo from last year showcased what the current-gen consoles are still capable of. It was running in real time and, while not looking as good as the PS4 trailers, looks phenomenal on a seven year old system. That is not all Quantic Dream have been up to. Beyond: Two Souls releases later this year and looks to be, once again, attempting to push the boundaries of the PS3. We saw motion capture taken to a new height with LA Noire, but Beyond: Two Souls looks like it is trying to go a step further. Lighting and character animations should be highlighted when talking about what has been seen of Beyond: Two Souls. Environments are lit up perfectly and light shines and reflects the way you would expect it to. Furthermore character animations look amazing. Now, emotion can be represented by using more than just great dialogue. Facial expressions can be used to create a more powerful image, especially when different camera angles can be used to manipulate the shadows created from lighting effects.
With all of this impressive tech pushing the limits of the PS3, you can start to see where that limit truly lies. In an article about Beyond: Two Souls, Eurogamer’s Richard Leadbetter talks about the drops in frame rate that were constant during a demo for the game, “In the action clips we have that represent gameplay, we see frame-rate change radically with highly detailed effects work producing sustained drops down to 20FPS.” *It is worthwhile to inform you this was from an article published in June, 2012.* Quantic Dream shows there are developers out there who are trying to push the boundaries of console technology, but they only develop for consoles, not PCs as well.
Let’s examine another factor dealing with consoles and PCs, the control scheme. If I asked you to put any game you wanted into your console, and that same game into a PC, what would you notice about the menus? They are exactly the same (minus more options for graphics on a PC). This problem coincides with the time constraint problem I flew over earlier. While a mouse and keyboard control differently to a gamepad (controller), menus are not created to take advantage of either device on their respective platforms, rather the menus have been created so both control methods can work with the same layout. Sure, a mouse and keyboard works when you design menus for a gamepad, but it often feels like- as is often the case- little to no thought has gone into figuring out how to optimise the menus for a PC which uses mouse and keyboard.
For example, in the recently released Poker Night 2, I am quite sure the keyboard and mouse has been completely forgotten about. Sure, poker seems simple enough, you would only need a mouse to click ‘check’ or ‘fold’ or ‘bet’, but I have a problem with the lack of keyboard usage. When it comes to placing bets, you have to use the mouse to slide the bar left and right, depending on how much you want to bet. It is clear Poker Night 2 has been created with a controller in mind first because there is no option to use the keyboard to move this bar, or to type in a set amount (which would definitely be easier), or to select fold/call/bet.
It does look like a minor problem, but when nearly every game is styled the same way, placing mouse and keyboard secondary, even on a system in which the mouse and keyboard is the native method of control, the problem starts to become more noticeable and a nuisance.
While it is understandable that developers are focused on creating a game that works adequately with both control methods, how about including special features for the keyboard? Remember the days of text based adventure games? That’s good because I don’t. Anyway, why not have the next version of Mass Effect on PC use the keyboard for speech? It would definitely take a while to implement, but it would garner some interesting responses that developers might not expect in certain situations. It would also revolutionise the way modern games with speech are played on PC.
While the issue at hand only affects gamers who have a PC, it should not be pushed aside. PC players fork out the money to buy a PC so they can experience exclusive titles, use a keyboard and mouse, and so they can play with graphics consoles cannot match (for now). We pay all this money for our machines, so we should be able to utilise their enhanced capabilities within a video game, not to be held back by consoles and gamepads. However, all gamers should also be grateful that there are developers out there creating great games for all consoles, allowing as many people as possible to have access to the wonderful medium we call video games.
Note from the author: Just with every feature and opinion piece on Analog Addiction, this is the writers opinion. You may disagree with it, and that is fine. All comments are acceptable, as long as they can be justified. I did not create this piece to ‘have a go’ at developers, I just happened to use certain games to emphasise my point. Oh, and before you start using the “PC fanboy” comment, I do own an Xbox 360, Xbox, and a couple of the older consoles.