Is the PC a second banana platform now?

I enjoyed the movie Wall-E, it's one of those Pixar movies that manages to tug the heartstrings of kids and adults alike. Plus, the quality of the computer graphics are so mindbendingly good that I could drink in the rich details of every scene like some kind of light-consisted ambrosia. If you haven't seen this movie, go do that. Boost those box office numbers, I want a sequel.

However, I'm not here to gush over the movie. Looking at the licensed games THQ has released, I notice something mildly disturbing about the place of the PC platform these days.

From the Official Wall-E: The Game Website, I can see that there's essentially five separate versions of said game (not counting minor adjustments for the hardware capacity of the individual platforms):
  • A Playstation 3 and XBox 360 version by Heavy Iron Studios. This version can be identified by the solar gauge, longer Eve flight sequences, and probably the shiniest graphics.
  • A slightly different version of that for the Nintendo Wii to shoehorn in some use of the Wiimote features. (It naturally endures a graphical hit as the Wii doesn't have the firepower to support a XBox360/PS3 game.)
  • A completely different version developed for the Playstation 2, PSP, and the PC by Asobo Studio. This version can be identified by the speed gauge and door hacking minigame. (Surprisingly, this version is getting better reviews than the next-gen version.)
  • A completely separate Nintendo DS version developed by Helixe. This is mostly a stacking puzzle game like Chip's Challenge.
  • A completely separate mobile phone version. Some kind of side platformer.
The thing that bothers me is where they lumped the PC version in with a previous generation console version. Sure, maybe I lucked out in this case, since Asago seemed to do a better job, but I'm pretty sure they were the low bidder. Why is it that the PC gets the low bidder's product? Doesn't the PC have the technical capacity to run a current-gen console release?

Over the past two and a half decades I've been a gamer, my experience has been that the PCs always have had the best and most powerful hardware. A newly released console may edge out a brief advantage, but the modular upgrade capacity of a PC soon exceeds it. That's why the PC gamers were playing a 3D multi-media extravaganza, Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger, at about the same time console users were still excited over the creative use of simple polygons in the original Star Fox. It would be another two years until 3D become mainstream on consoles with the Nintendo 64, and the PC titles still had a clear advantage.

Now, however, it seems the tables have turned, and the PCs are considered a second banana platform. Why? Well, I can think of a few possible contributors:
  1. Piracy greatly cuts into PC profit margins.
  2. It's been said again, and again and again lately. Piracy of console games is not quite as prevalent as it is on PCs, most likely because many console users do not own the physical means to reproduce software. Apparently the problem is far too big for authorities to tackle, so for the most part the industry sits around and hopes for a magic bullet to solve the problem for them.
  3. The PCIe Hurdle.
  4. It's been 4 years, and chances are most people have already jumped this hurdle. However, the upgrade from AGP to PCI-E was a much larger jump than going from PCI to AGP. With PCI to AGP, your new AGP-compatible motherboard would definitely work with your old PCI video card (just pop it in a PCI slot) so you could use your computer until you could afford AGP. This left the typical motherboard/CPU/memory upgrade which could run about $200, and you'd feel a noticeable upgrade as a result of the money spent even before the AGP card comes into play. With the PCIe jump, your AGP card was now null and void, you need to buy a video card with your new motherboard or you did not have a computer, adding another $100-$300 depending on how good of a card you're upgrading to. The $200 you were paying for motherboard/CPU/memory was now essentially doubled thanks to the need for a video card. If you left behind a particularly good AGP card, you may not notice a real performance improvement. Prices have fallen quite a bit since then, of course, and now the PCIe transition is easy for most people to make. These days, thrifty shoppers can buy a complete middle-of-the-road PC (sans monitor) for about $400. However, all that lost time may have dragged severely on the PC's technological lead.
  5. Excessive PC development overhead.
  6. While it's generally acknowledged as such, I think Windows doesn't try to be bloatware. However, it exists in a considerably more bloat-heavy environment than a dedicated game machine. First off, you've got your hardware bloat, trying to be compatible with all sorts of strange PC hardware: motherboards, video cards, scanners -- basically, all those devices you can see under your system control panel. You can have two PCs made entirely out of components by completely different brands. These all require 3rd party writing of drivers to run, leading to problems of compatibility and efficiency as the mingling design philosophies try to coexist. Second is the software bloat. A fresh Windows XP install is innocent enough, but then come the basic necessities: antivirus programs, instant messengers, download managers, email filters, and more. This is not to mention the plethora of malware conducted by less experienced users. By the time you're truly "up and running," you've a few dozen processes running in the background. A great deal of development time goes into getting cross compatibility problems that don't exist on a console. If you're developing for a console, you know exactly what environment you're developing for, both in terms of hardware and software, with few (if any) differences between one user's console and the next.
So, yes, there are some pretty good reasons why the PC is receiving a lot less developer focus. It's not all firepower related, which is good because I still like to think the PC's modular upgrade capacity gives it an unbeatable advantage there.

Instead, it would seem the PC is put in its second banana position due to matters of profitability. This can be further evidenced by the price tag: the PC version of Wall-E can be found for $20, versus the (largely identical) Playstation 2 version for $40. Clearly, THQ's expectations of the average PC consumer are not very high, they've already overcome the hurdles of hardware and software, now they're just hoping to push out those sales before people pirate it. They probably wouldn't have even bothered with a PC version if they couldn't easily port it from their PS2 version.

Overall, it's hard to be an enthusiastic gamer who focuses on the PC platform knowing that the highest professional development budget is no longer going there. It's enough to make me wonder if I have to be some kind of fossil to still consider the PC gaming platform the one I want to spend the most time on.

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