Play Where You Like!
By Jeff "nonick" Solomon
Network play has become a cornerstone of many of the most popular games. Quake 3: Arena, id Software's upcoming sequel to Quake and Quake 2, embodies this concept wholly by positioning itself as a purely deathmatch game that is optimized for Internet play. The ubiquitous nature of the Internet allows companies to embrace a single, standard communication architecture that eliminates the proprietary nature of previous networking attempts and limits the market share anxiety that companies often had to face when developing games for systems with dubious promise for the future.
In addition, the PC-based gaming platform invites a far greater degree of user interaction with the system than would be the case with a console. With a PC, users have complete control over the operating system and its drivers. Most of this is automated, but there is far more player involvement in the technical underpinnings of a PC-based system than with a console, where players simply plug in a cartridge or CD and play away. This level of involvement has sometimes proved troublesome for players who long for the effortless days of the NES where the system always worked, but the tradeoff is that designers are no longer limited by functionality dictated in ROM and destined to remain in place for years at a time. PC-based systems are constantly in flux and can be updated on a whim.
An outgrowth of this involvement has been player interaction with the game design process. People can now dig into the code that comprises the game, and in many cases make changes and additions to suit their preferences. Game editors and recorders have spawned entire markets of add-ons and utilities that are entirely player designed and supported. Recorded movies, pioneered by the camera functionality in Quake, are a fascinating example of what can happen when the customizable, open architecture of PCs is backing a common gaming platform. This kind of thing didn't- couldn't- happen with a closed system like the Nintendo 64.
Looking at the PC platform, however, is not just a study of Windows 95/98. There are currently several popular operating systems that fall under the PC umbrella, and each offers varying degrees of gaming support. Each OS/processor combination is its own sub-platform under the PC umbrella. I'm going to go over each of the major PC operating systems and briefly describe how they relate to gaming.
First up: Windows NT. NT's relationship to Windows 95/98 is very much like that of a younger brother who seems to follow in his sibling's footsteps but has the benefit of being second, and therefore the product of more experience and hindsight. NT 4.0, Microsoft's current offering, is a robust platform that has been around for over two years and has, over that time, evolved into a stable, mature system that addresses many of the Windows 95/98 platform's weaknesses.
NT is built around a "modern" OS kernel, with support for all of the latest OS buzzwords, including preemptive multitasking (Windows 95/98 uses a compromised blend of preemptive and the older cooperative method of multitasking to allow for compatibility with older programs), multithreading, and protected memory. Basically, this means that NT is more reliable than Windows 95/98, but since the system's underpinnings are a dramatic departure from the DOS-based routes of Windows 95/98, compatibility with certain software- games in particular- is not very strong.
NT is currently positioned as Microsoft's high-end business OS, and the company does little to promote it as a gaming system. And for good reason. NT can run DOS programs and games, but only those that do not directly access hardware. This stipulation is designed to prevent programs from monopolizing system resources and causing trouble for other running programs, which works to create a smoother OS in many cases but hinders compatibility with older programs.
As a result, NT can't support DOS games that use homegrown drivers that are designed to work with hardware accelerators. As an added disadvantage, NT's robust overhead- advanced networking and security systems- provides an inadequate environment for games that do run. There's a lot of stuff going on in the background at all times.
Basically, NT offers limited support for DOS-based games, and lackluster performance for the games that it can run. NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3 does support DirectX 3.0, but only in software mode. Some Windows 95/98-based games run on NT, but not as a rule.
NT 5.0, which, after years of delay, is currently scheduled for release in the second half of 1999, will offer full support for the latest available version of DirectX (at least version 6.0), and as such will offer the same level of gaming support to Windows programs that is found in Windows 95/98. Because of its fundamental design, however, NT 5 will still suffer from limited support for DOS games.
This inadequacy is by design. Asking NT to measure up to Windows 95/98 in terms of compatibility and gaming performance is akin to trying to get a Hummer to outmaneuver a Ferrari. The former is designed to be as rugged and predictable as possible, the other a nimble speedster that is very easy to wrap around a tree.
For those situations where extreme compatibility is needed, Microsoft offers Windows 95/98. However, Windows 98 was the last version of Windows to be designed around the aging pre-NT architecture. NT 5 will be the first version of Windows that attempts to bring as many users forward as possible. Much like the situation with moving from DOS to Windows, Microsoft is now trying to move people from Windows 95/98 to NT, and they will doubtlessly do whatever they can to address the weaknesses in NT that are preventing people from adopting it wholly without compromising the system's fundamental integrity.
In terms of gaming support, NT 5 will hopefully be to NT what Win95 was to Windows- a bold step forward that is enticing enough to bring gamers along. Until that happens, though, Windows 95/98 will be a superior platform to NT for gaming.
All of this Windows-speak must be grating on the nerves of those who use the Mac. Long before Microsoft got around to "multimedifying" Windows, the Macintosh was serving up high quality audio and video support. Gaming under the Mac OS was far superior to Windows until recently, when DirectX became common. Now they're roughly on par, depending on who you talk to.
The Mac OS's limited market share, however, has relegated it to the status of a secondary market. Many games were developed on the Mac, due to its strengths as a publishing and design platform. Myst is an excellent example. Designed on a Mac, released first for the Mac, embodying the purity of design and interface that the Mac is known for.
|Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. Play Where You Like! is © 1998 Jeff Solomon. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it, dammit.|