RC Drews takes a look back at the road PC gaming has taken to reach its current heights.
Being born when I was, I’ve had the distinct privilege of watching the video game industry nearly from conception to present day. A great deal has changed in the years that have gone by. Today, we have games that are more impressive and immersive than ever. The advent of the Internet, however, brought with it a certain cynicism and negativity which, in my opinion, remains all too common. For someone such as myself, I consider it a very real fortune to be alive today and see my favorite hobby as it exists, but I hear so much outrage as well. It’s unfortunate to me that seemingly so few people are willing to take the time to appreciate how things have changed and improved. While this could be applied to video games as a whole, I want to focus specifically on PC Gaming. For me, that’s where it all began.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but we’ve come a long way since the early days of PC gaming. Modern hardware is many times faster than anything that could have been conceived of in 1990. We no longer measure memory and storage space in meager kilobytes – nay, not even megabytes! Our present-day graphics cards sport not one but multiple gigabytes of blazing-fast VRAM in addition to teraflops of processing power. Back then, a graphics card was lucky to flop at all!
Not only is our hardware more powerful – this was to be expected – but it’s also more readily available, more affordable, and, frankly, it all looks better than ever. Old computers were expensive and very practical in their design. The concept of the current gamer aesthetic simply didn’t make sense at the time; the use cases for computers in general were still being understood. In the early 90’s, it was a privilege just to have access to a computer, but owning one was uncommon. There simply wasn’t a market to support any real focus on appearance.
Oh, and I mentioned price? Sure, a top-of-the-line system will still run you more than some people spend on their cars, but the reality is that to own a computer now is vastly more affordable than ever. Even what most would consider high-end is extremely reasonable in comparison. Remember these ads?
Ah, the days of pre-rendered, CG-cutscenes… Mind you, these things still exist, but not like they did in the 90’s! Early cutscenes in 3D games were jaw-dropping at the time.
That marine may not look like much today, but these sort of images promised us the amazing technologies that would someday be commonplace. Imagine a game with graphics on-par to the cutscenes in the original Starcraft! It seemed too much to hope for. Yet, today, we’ve reached beyond the wildest imaginations of 1998. The average PC game of today draws ever-closer to photo-realism with lighting and effects work that were the works of science fiction back then.
Relevant to the topic: I remember a lengthy debate I had with a friend in 2004 just after the release of Doom 3. We both had capable systems, but we were arguing fervently about the merits of a 1024 x 768 image with 4x MSAA vs. a 1600 x1 200 image without anti-aliasing… The technology simply didn’t allow for us to have both, so we had to compromise. Today, you can grab most any new release and drive 30+ frames-per-second on even modest hardware at resolutions well in excess of what was possible then.
Gameplay and Depth
If you like, you can certainly argue that modern PC gaming – and AAA games in general – have grown heavier and heavier with endless collectables and fetch-quests (we’re looking at you, Ubisoft!). Be that as it may, video games simply afford a much more involved experience than was ever possible in those early days. As a rule of thumb, most games had you run through a linear path and shoot or jump on most anything that was animated. Occasionally you needed a key card. Today’s games have much more expressive characters, more intricate story lines, and many more opportunities to interact with the greater world around your character.
If you need proof, look no further than the controllers that are common today compared to then. True, the average keyboard has roughly as many keys as ever, but the concept of a gamepad is presently standardized as being 2 analog sticks, 4 face buttons, a d-pad, 4 shoulder buttons, and somewhere around 2-3 buttons in the center.
Yeah, we’ve come a long way.
Then and Now
So, what does it all mean for the present and future of PC gaming? What’s the value of all of this whimsical musing? I know many readers out their grew up in the same era I did. Games were hard, saves were few-and-far-between, and a “gaming computer” was also usually an “accounting computer” or a “word processing computer”. We had to battle with our parents for the opportunity to use the family computer to play Commander Keen, Jill of the Jungle, or Duke Nukem. We had to play what ran on our simple systems because talking your parents into a dedicated graphics card was pretty unlikely. Multiplayer was known as a “LAN party” and even gaming publications were barely a thought in anyone’s mind – let alone the massive emporium of entertainment that is YouTube or dedicated sites such as this one!
The observation, for me, is that gaming has come a long way. We are fortunate to live in a time and in life situations that allow us such remarkable experiences as have never existed before. Next time you hear someone complaining that they can’t get a consistent 60fps at 4k in the latest title, remember that many of us played Half-Life at 20fps and 800×600 (or less!). I challenge you to take a moment to appreciate how far things have come, how quickly things have evolved, and how many experiences and adventures have filled the time in-between. Next time you login to Overwatch, CounterStrike, League of Legends, or whatever your game of choice, I hope you can agree we all live in the wonderful present of PC gaming.