Game Systems Deserve Respect

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Vancouver Computes, August 1998

What speed CPU are you running?

You may have noticed computer speeds just seem to get faster and faster, at the same time that prices for entry-level packages, featuring less than top-of-the-line processors get cheaper and cheaper.

Right now, the fastest Intel offering is a 400 MHz Pentium-II. Expect 450 MHz models soon. (If you want to go to the non-Intel Alpha, you can already run Windows NT at 500 MHz or faster). As I write, in Vancouver, clone shops are advertising 200 MHz MMX systems for $799?including monitor.

In my house (not necessarily a typical computer household), there are three computers?none of which stacks up to the bottom-end, low-priced system, to say nothing of being within scratching distance of the top end. We have a Pentium 166 (pre-MMX) desktop, a P-133 notebook (which I?m writing on right now), and a 160 MHz Mac (pre-G3).

And yet, I?m pretty much able to run everything I need or want on these machines. The only business application that?s complained was IBM?s ViaVoice, which wanted an MMX processor, it claimed, though it seemed to work anyway.

We surf the net and run streaming video. The bottleneck there is the slow modem connection, not the CPU speed on any of the three computers.

Even games, arguably the most demanding software, work?the ones we?ve tried typically require a Pentium 100 or at most a 133. Yes, some would run better with a 3DFx graphics processor, but that?s different from requiring a faster CPU.

The net result is problems for Intel.

They?re trying hard to convince the big business market that they need to upgrade to ever-faster processors, but haven?t demonstrated much of a need. Right now, they?re trying to convince business that faster processors would allow for video conferencing, but the reality is that not much video conferencing is being done. Downloading video-porn off the Internet behind closed office doors, maybe. But is that a business need that will convince a Chief Financial Office to spring for a company-wide upgrade?

At prices like $799, entry-level computers are getting closer to the price-point of the pure game systems-- $300 for a Sony Playstation or a Nintendo N64. Of course, for the game systems, you need to add a TV set, but most homes already have one.

When I mentioned that my house had three computers, I probably should have said four. We also have a Playstation. And while I?m not the game player, I remain impressed with that little, special-function computer.

Sure, it?s three-year old technology. Unlike PCs, game systems don?t come out with gotta-have new versions every three to six months. That means that programmers writing for game systems can?t count on more system power to allow them to dump in new features. If they want a better-looking game, they?ve got to write it better.

Plug and play and easy to use. How come it?s a no-brainer to use two game controllers with a ?system?, while it seems to require an engineering degree (and a lot of luck) to do the same thing with a PC that may cost 10 times as much? The result is that kids (note the plural) gravitate to game systems?playing is a social event. Kids play games on PCs?one at a time. A whole different experience.

Underneath their cheap plastic cases, game systems are technologically sophisticated. The N64, for example, uses a Rambus high speed memory system, that?s been adopted by Intel for its next-generation of processors. Its video system is so advanced that games like Shadows of the Empire run on N64 and PC?but only if you add a 3D video co-processor to your PC, which costs about as much as an entire N64 system.

Game systems are starting to get more respect from the PC industry. Perhaps they?ve noticed that while PC game software sells a respectable $1.7 billion a year, Playstation and N64 games  account for over $3 billion. A best selling game system title typically sells twice as many copies as a PC best-seller

This is forcing companies like Microsoft to rethink their approach. For years, the company?s  game software was available only for computer. They?ve recently announced a willingness to license their games to others for release on game system platforms, where they?ll have to compete with the larger number of games that are already released for both PC and game system platforms?or for game systems alone.

The  software giant has also teamed up with Sega, whose Saturn platform became an also-ran among game systems. Together, they?ve announced Dreamcast, with Sega producing the hardware, and Microsoft providing a variation of its Windows CE as the system software.

The next-generation Dreamcast promises graphics horsepower able to display 3 million polygons per second?ten times as much as today?s N64, and surpassing any of this year?s, or next year?s PCs. The CE software will be included on the CD disk with any games sold, making sure that the version used is always up to date.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan