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PC/ Console Development Differences

This article is about some of the main areas that differentiate console and PC game design and development.  It is fairly generic – there are differences between PS2 and Gamecube development too for example, but PC and Console gaming causes much discussion, so I’m basing the article on that.  I’ve grouped these into broad catagories, although some points could easily apply to several areas of development.

There isn’t a lot of difference in what consoles and PC’s are CAPABLE of doing, but there is certainly a difference in what comes out, and what is successful.  A lot of this is down to what genres work better on what platforms given the advantages and disadvantages that consoles and PCs offer.

In the past, there was a large difference between age groups on PC and console, with PCs being considered the “adult” games machine, and consoles being for children and young teens.  Now, largely thanks to the Sony Playstation, this has changed, and although there is an age differential, the cross-over is far larger.  The ends of the gaming spectrum (the very young and the over 40’s) still tend to stick with console or PC respectively, but the rest use either or, as is becoming increasingly popular, both.

So if age is no longer such a big factor in game genre, other issues must explain why most of the best fighting games appear on console, why the PC dominates in RTS games etc.

As with all the articles on this website, this is work in progress, and will be added to as I think of new points.

 

Technical

Although both types of system are powerful, there are differences in the way that consoles and PC’s work.  Although the issues raised are less problematic than in the “old days”, care still has to be taken.

Fixed vs variable spec

Consoles are closed box systems – when developing for one, you know exactly how much memory you’ve got, speed of the various processors, what performance you can expect from your engine (unless you have to develop this whilst writing the game) etc etc.  Since this information is set before you start, any ideas can be analysed based on these restrictions, allowing impractical or expensive ideas to be eliminated or adapted very early in the project.  When you have a fixed spec system, you also eliminate the problems with varying driver and component combinations that can cause a number of problems with PC development.

PC game development involves a certain amount of prediction.  At the start of development, a certain amount of guesswork must be made to determine the target spec machine that you are writing for.  Given the nature of PC tech improvement, this is not always obvious.  Having to write software that works on the myriad of PC systems also makes bug testing significantly more difficult than on a console.

The biggest advantage of PC based development is that since the target specification is not set in stone there are options if a particularly desired feature becomes technically difficult on the target machine.  On a console, this is not possible – you MUST work within the platform.  Of course, this does also mean that technical excellence is more obvious on a console, since everything must be done within the same restrictions.

It seems strange that I claim that a big advantage of PCs are their open specs, and a big advantage of consoles are their closed specs, but any development is about trying to maximise any good points.  Whether your target specs are set in stone or not does force you to think in different ways when designing.

Brute force vs clever design

Consoles tend to be designed to do certain things very, very well, and in order to keep costs down, do other areas less well.  When you are designing for a console platform, you need to exploit these advantages, and work around the disadvantages.  For example, since you don’t have the processing power, or the levels of memory of a PC, you may need to come up with a simpler model for AI or environmental texture usuage.

PC’s tend to just approach any problem with brute force, and most of the technical restrictions that you place upon it are due to target spec, and project budget/ schedule issues.

Standard Controls

For this, I assume standard controls are joypads for consoles, and mouse/ keyboard combinations for PC’s.  Although alternate controllers exist, the majority of games have to work with the standard control setup.

Although the majority of games can be controlled effectively with either of the two systems, care must be taken in design and implementation to cater for the problems of both.  Different input devices are optimal for different games, and if you haven’t got the optimal device, then concessions must be made in order to make the game as playable as possible.

For example, the mouse/ keyboard combination is far better for FPS games than a joypad*.   Aiming is easier as the mouse was a device design for pointing and firing.  Although the majority of joypads now sport  analogue controls, these are still not nearly as useful as a mouse.  To cater for this, FPS games on console often feature aiming “help” systems such as auto-targeting as long as the target crosshair is near an enemy.

An opposite would be more “arcade” style games.  Joypads are set up and created to place all of the controls at the player’s fingertips, allowing control buttons to be pressed almost as soon as a decision is made, making for accurate and fluid control.  Keyboards aren’t nearly as effective at this, especially as they often have problems when multiple keys are pressed.  In addition, although the mouse provides an excellent method for targeting – better than the analogue control on a joypad, a joypad is a far better controller for providing a persistant level of analogue control.  For example, a joypad is a far better controller than a mouse for a car or spaceship game, where the player might want to keep a small amount of “turn” going over a period of time.

*Of course, what you are used to is the most important factor.  A mouse is an incredibly unwieldy device to use until you get used to it.

Resolution and Output Devices

Whilst consoles are usually limited to a top resolution of around 640*400, many PC games allow much higher resolutions to be used (1600*1200 and beyond).  This doesn't cause huge problems, but can raise some issues.  These issues are generally based around the levels of fine detail, whether in user interface, text, texture detail or object and character polygon makeup, although distance viewing and other factors must also be considered.

In addition, consoles generally output to a television, whilst PC's generally output to a monitor.  Although monitors are a higher quality display unit than televisions, there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Monitors give very sharp, accurate images, with little or no colour bleed or distortion.  This means that fine detail comes out looking just as the artist would expect.  In order to create smoother images, a variety of anti-aliasing techniques are employed. Some of these are very processor intensive, and some are not available on all PC's.  The end result is that more work, and a higher resolution, are required to give a natural looking image, although fine detail does come out well.

Televisions are lower resolution, and often have a fair degree of colour bleed.  Making games for a television has to take this into account, as colours do not all bleed to the same extent.  In the main, medium to dark reds and blues bleed more than many other colours, although the exact level does vary.  However, televisions do have one big advantage over monitors, in that images are anti-aliased to a certain extent (partly as a result of this bleed), smoothing out jagged lines, and making up for the lower resolution.   Natural, smooth images are simpler to make, but extra thought must be taken over any fine detail work.

As a last point, sometimes you lose the edges of the screen on TV's, and therefore no important information should be put at the very edge of a screen on console platforms.

Content

Content differences tend to be a little more traditional than technical differences.  Historically, top selling console and PC game genres do not tend to be the same, although some genres (RPG’s and FPS games) do well on both.  Content differences tend to be much looser than technical differences as there is little stopping someone from ignoring any of the points mentioned here and still coming up with a successful game.

Multi-Player

Although both PC and Console platforms support multi-play options, the way in which they are generally handled leads to different results.

On a PC, multi-player games are normally played on multiple machines, often not at the same location, and often with complete strangers.  Due to this, PC multi-player games tend to be more “serious” affairs, with the winning and losing being very important, and the social aspect somewhat downplayed.  Since players may not be within hearing distance, communication channels must also exist to allow players to converse.  Some games try to foster the social side, with massively multiplayer games allowing thousands of players to play in the same game world.  Since each player is at their own terminal, there is a high degree of secrecy – no other player can see your screen, so no other player can tell what you are doing.

On the other hand, at this point in time console gaming tends to be very social.  Most games involve a group of friends sitting around a single television.  With a dynamic like this, it’s not only winning or losing, but how you play the game.   With no secrecy, any and all mistakes and successes are viewed by everyone involved, and can be the cause of the majority of the enjoyment.  This obviously isn’t true of all games, but this social nature does give the developer some opportunities to increase the fun level of the multiplayer experience simply by appreciating that others will see the results.

The ability to see or not see what the other players are up to means that you can create very different multiplayer experiences, even within games of the same genre.

Watchability

Even single player console games tend to played in groups a fair amount of the time.  Although it is unusual to have a bunch of friends round to huddle round the PC, taking turns, this is common with a number of console titles.  This means that for a large period of time, people actually watch console games being played, rather than just playing them.  As a result of this, it becomes very useful if a console game is watchable, whereas for PC games it is of little importance.

Manufacturer Control

PC games tend to be fairly free.  If the money men are happy (whether the project is financed internally or externally), then the development team is pretty much free to pursue whichever avenues they desire.

However, with consoles, things can be very different.  Console manufacturers TEND to keep strict control over what can and cannot be released on their system.  Consumers may be surprised by this, as the statement would tend to suggest that console games should be uniformly stunning, but nevertheless, it is true.

At some point during the development process of a console game, it will have to be submitted to the publisher to determine whether the game can get released on their platform.  In order to get this approval, the game may have to meet a large number of initial criteria which varies from company to company.  A game may not have to meet all of these criteria in order to be accepted, but getting through this approval process is vital to the project, and will almost certainly require a certain amount of change in design or some areas of implementation.

Tradition

Most games these days cost a large amount of money to make.  Since many of the decisions as to whether to make a game or not depend upon market considerations, the historical success of game types on different platforms is taken into account.  Since some types of game have been historically more successful on one platform or another, some genres have become far more developed on some platforms, whilst others have shrivelled because of lack of quality games on a particular platform.

Like most traditions, game content is based on a mix of sensible reasoning and blind faith.  The X-Box looks like it might ignore some of these content traditions, even if only because of the ease of conversions to and from the PC platform.  Whether this will then cause a change of emphasis with the other console platforms is open to conjecture.