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Feature: The Next Decade of PC Gaming

As 2010 draws to a close, we look back and marvel at how far PC gaming has come over the past decade. The start of the new millennium brought technology and trends that will resonate for years to come. So we take this opportunity to examine some of those technology trends and see how they might grow over or fizzle out over the next ten years. Here are our predictions of what PC gaming might look like in 2020.

The End of Disc Media

The growth and success of online stores like Steam, Impulse and iTunes would indicate that the days of physical media are numbered. With the growing availability of broadband connectivity, people can have their entertainment whenever and wherever they want it, carrying as much as their hard drives can hold. Additionally, we can attest to the amount of space that can be freed up around the house after converting from physical to digital.

Still, the change won't be swift. For starters, installing from a disc won't use up bandwidth cap. Considering the ever growing size of games combined with other downloadable forms of entertainment like movies and music, that's definitely something worth keeping in mind. Secondly, a lot of regions don't have reliable broadband connections. Furthermore, many associate ownership with tangible items that can be put on display. This especially applies to Collector's Edition boxes that include things like art books, posters, and figurines. It's always more gratifying to look upon a hardcover on your shelf than a PDF file on your desktop. Lastly, some people just have a certain sense of paranoia when it comes to digital purchases. If a service like Steam were forced to shut down for any reason, customers could be looking at hundreds of dollars worth of lost games. Our biggest complaint with digital purchasing is the pricing. With no box, disc printing, or shipping costs, why do consumers need to pay full retail price?

Streaming Content

Netflix and Hulu revolutionized how audiences can watch video online. Instead of renting a disc to watch their favorite shows and movies, users can have all the content streamed straight to their computers, televisions and mobile devices. So it's only natural that video games should be next on the list. OnLive is the most prominent streaming service right now, promising games that are run completely online and streamed to computers like real-time interactive videos. This means that players won't need super fast computers or the latest video cards to get in on the action. Subscribers can stream the content to a low powered netbook and still have a satisfying experience. As of right now, OnLive offers a pretty sparse library and the experience doesn't match that of running a game locally. So, video card and computer manufacturers don't have anything to worry about right now, but the technology is bound to improve.

Major issues include the availability of stable broadband internet and selling people on the merits of renting games via this service instead of owning them. That's assuming publishers don't kill the technology in its infancy by not entering into license agreements, or by charging excessive rates to have their games made available for streaming. However, the important consideration is that the technology is out there and it works acceptably well. We wouldn't be surprised if, as the technology improves, companies like GameFly will eventually offer its own competing streaming game service. In any case, it will be interesting to see how well streaming competes with services like GameTap, which allows subscribers to download games and run them from their hard drive.

Stereoscopic 3D Graphics

Movies have fully embraced the 3D craze as a way to bring some extra life to films like Avatar. As an extension of that, there are a number of televisions being sold that support 3D stereoscopic viewing with more expected to hit the market in the future if demand increases. So, it's not a far leap to expect game gamers will want to see shrapnel and explosions flying out from their screens too.

Yet despite Nvidia pouring a ton of resources into developing and promoting 3D Vision, stereoscopic viewing is still a long way off from becoming mainstream. The biggest obstacle is cost. For starters, players would need a monitor that has a 120Hz refresh rate, which are significantly more expensive and harder to find than regular 60Hz displays. The good news is that if you have the money, the higher refresh will improve the overall gaming experience. The bad news is the best 3D experience requires a pair of geeky looking shutter glasses. Adding 3D stereoscopic effects cuts overall performance down by almost half, and we don't think there are many PC gamers that are willing to sacrifice performance for the sake of a gimmick.

You could purchase two video cards and split the work between them, or get a stereoscopic monitor that has a special screen layer, but that's a long (and expensive) way to go for technology that isn't fully supported yet. Very few games are designed from the ground up with stereoscopic 3D support - meaning that objects will have depth, but won't necessarily pop out of the screen like on movies. That's a waste of a dimension, in our opinion. Hopefully, manufacturers will someday develop an affordable gaming grade 3D screen that doesn't require glasses, like some sort of scaled up version of the Nintendo 3DS.

Panoramic Widescreen

3D stereoscopic gaming will probably be out of reach for most gamers, but a different PC gaming trend may be easier to grasp. Gamers looking for a more immersive experience can put their money toward stitching together three or more monitors for a full panoramic experience. It's a costly setup that has its share of hassles, but it has a huge payoff, so we believe tri-monitor setups will become increasingly commonplace. Adding peripheral vision brings new life and provides distinct advantages, especially for first-person shooters, driving games, and role-playing games. Put simply, there's nothing more immersive than having the game world take up your entire field of view. Furthermore, the increased desktop space could potentially increase productivity and improve other areas of entertainment like movies.

A device called the Matrox TripleHead2Go allows users to attach three monitors to a single output. Those looking to upgrade their hardware should check out the current generation of AMD ATI video cards, all of which offer Eyefinity three monitor support. Some models can combine up to six displays for a giant mega screen. Finally, Nvidia 400 series or better cards have native triple display support, but you'll need two video cards to make it work. However, we're still holding out hope for something like the Alienware curved panoramic monitor, first shown as a prototype at CES 2008, to finish development and be made available at a relatively affordable price.

GPU/CPU Fusion

Combining the central processor and graphics processor into a single chip is an inevitable marriage with an extremely long engagement. Multi-core processors make fusion a real possibility, and both Intel and AMD are competing to produce a unified processor code named APU (Accelerated Processing Unit). Although it's not quite ready for release, this is definitely a technology that's waiting to happen. We're not saying that dedicated video cards will go the way of standalone sound cards, since gamers will certainly get a lot more performance out of a dedicated GPU than a combo processor, but fusing the two together could lead to host of possibilities. Most prominently, it could mean that computers with onboard graphics won't be a complete joke for gaming anymore. In a best case scenario, a combined processor could handle mid to high quality graphics. That means more affordable gaming grade desktops and notebooks, which in turn could make for more PC gamers.

There's no telling how this technology will impact the graphics card industry, since hardcore gamers will almost certainly stick to dedicated processors and video cards. Still, it might be cost saving to upgrade both a CPU and GPU in one shot. At these very least, this merging could provide developers with a minimum standard to program for.

Cross Platform Connectivity

Games for Windows Live makes it possible for PC and Xbox 360 gamers to play with or against each other, but very few developers have taken advantage of this feature. Similarly, the possibility exists for PC gamers to share the same virtual playground with the PlayStation 3, but many development studios are apprehensive about cross-platform interaction for a variety of reasons. So it seems clear that gamers should expect a "separate but equal" relationship between different platforms for a long time to come. However, the rising popularity of smartphones and devices like the iPod Touch and iPad opens the door for a different brand of connectivity.

We're already seeing some overlap between devices like the iPhone and certain games, but the trend hasn't fully caught on yet. We'd love to keep track of what our friends on Steam and Xbox Live are up to while on the road, see their achievements, and send messages to them while they're in game. There are apps available now that cover some of these features, but few to none are official, and they only scratch the surface of what's possible. Apps like the World of Warcraft Mobile Armory, which lets users access the auction house and update guild activities, is definitely a step in the right direction. We'd love to see more MMO games use similar apps in a big way, perhaps letting players mine for materials or craft items from their phones, so no matter where they are, they'll always have some access to the game. Perhaps in the future, gamers can play minigames on their mobile devices to help contribute to larger game. Just imagine a guild member solving a puzzle on the way to work that will help unlock passage to a secret area on an online game. Cross platform connectivity may become a stronger demand as more people adopt smartphones for constant access to the internet.

Social Network Gaming

We groan and start hitting the ignore button whenever contacts start sending us lame FarmVille and other social network game updates. However, our suffering is a testament to exactly how popular these games have become, and even we have to admit that something this big isn't going away. So let's try to look beyond the Facebook spam and consider what can be accomplished if social network gaming could be applied in a less annoying fashion. Anyone who has ever participated on a large scale raid in an MMO game can attest to what can be accomplished when enough people participate. We hope socially connected games in the future will be similar to MMO games, but like Mafia Wars, won't require players to be online at once. Instead, players can rely on pledges from friends and their characters' statistics to strengthen themselves. Perhaps players can assign special tasks to friends that contribute to a larger event. The power of groups working toward common goals is too much to overlook and there are developers actively figuring ways to make best use of it. The biggest challenge will be in convincing people to participate in a collective instead of hitting ignore out of reflex.

Touchscreen Gaming

The success of the iPhone, iPad and other touchscreen devices have certainly opened the door for a whole new level of interaction. Although Windows 7 includes built-in support for touch displays, the technology hasn't quite caught on yet for desktops and notebook users. That's too bad, because we can imagine a lot of games benefitting from tactile control, particularly board games, card games (including Magic: The Gathering), and puzzle games. Furthermore, we were very impressed with seeing the real-time strategy game R.U.S.E. played on a touchscreen table. Despite valiant efforts like the custom touchscreen notebook that was developed by iBuypower and software designed to make any game touch compatible, nothing has translated into success.

Maybe has to do with the cost of producing large, high quality touchscreens. Or maybe the weights of a tablet PC and a gaming notebook are too much to reconcile in one device. Perhaps most people would simply rather stick to using a mouse than poke at their screens. Whatever the reason is, it could be a long time before touchscreen gaming moves beyond a handful of devices. However, we're confident in the idea that as technology becomes more sophisticated that notebook computers will eventually evolve into decent gaming systems with a tactile interface. Of course, this could just mean that Angry Birds will be made available to an even bigger audience, but we're hoping that someday games developed for a Windows Phone may have a counterpart on for touchscreen PCs. Most of all, we really want to have an affordable touchscreen table for our living room.

Motion Sensing Control

We're not under any illusion that PC gamers are eagerly waiting for a chance to dance and jump around in their home offices. Although controllers like the Wii Remote and PlayStation Move can be hacked to work on PCs, there aren't a lot of practical reasons for doing it. Console gamers can stand six feet or more from their televisions while PC gamers sit about one foot away from their monitors, so it's far more likely that motion sensing control will be a more subdued experience. Still, Razer is currently partnered with Sixsense to develop a super precise motion based controller that John Carmack raved about. If it proves to be popular, it might be the incentive needed for Logitech develop a gaming grade version of the MX Air Mouse. Motion controllers would be very useful for games like Black and White, puzzle/creative games like Spore or Create and possibly first-person shooters.

However, we have a lot of hope for the Microsoft Kinect, since hackers have already developed open source software to get it working on the PC. It would require Microsoft to think beyond its console applications, but there's a lot of potential for a motion sensing camera system that can detect depth. Forget about the commercials that show fantastically fit gamers learning dance moves, kicking a virtual ball, or working out. If Kinect style motion control is gain traction on the PC, it will have to focus on the torso up. This includes miming a steering wheel, ping pong paddles, and instruments for virtual music lessons. The controller also opens a world of possibilities outside of gaming, including a Minority Report style virtual interface or 3D desktop where users can organize files like rows of books on shelves. The current Kinect isn't sensitive enough to recognize small hand gestures or a range of facial expressions, but we think that refining the technology with higher resolution cameras and marketing it in a way that's appealing to PC users could help usher in a new age of computing.

Gaming Notebooks

It's almost hard to believe that just a decade ago, gaming notebooks were kind of a big joke. Sure, gamers could probably get most real-time strategy games to work, and perhaps certain MMO games with the settings dialed down, but action games and first-person shooters were often far reaching. A lot of efforts made to help unchain gamers from their desktops and create a mobile gaming experience, including shoving a desktop parts into a notebook casing. These were very heavy systems with practically no battery life, and they ran so hot that users risked getting second degree burns. Many of today's models still suffer from those same problems, but there is an undeniable attraction to getting desktop power down to a portable size. The reduced desk space alone makes it worthwhile, but being able to invite a group of friends over for an impromptu LAN party makes the idea even more enticing.

Gaming notebooks have come a long way over the past few years, and at the same time, a lot of developers are making great looking games with modest system requirements. The starting price of a gaming notebook like the Alienware M11x is under $1,000, offering a relatively low-cost system that comes close to rivaling the desktop experience. This makes for a lot of incentive to either replace or supplement desktop computers. As solid state hard drives continue to grow in capacity and drop in price, coupled with the eventual development of a GPU/CPU hybrid chip, PC gamers can look forward to powerful lightweight notebook systems that won't threaten to burn a hole in their wallets or pants.

The Living Room PC

One strong advantage console systems have is that they fit very nicely into the living room, where families and friends entertain and socialize, while the computer are usually kept in an office or some darkened corner of the house. Even notebook computers can be a hassle, since it would require a group of people to crowd around a small screen. While it's easy to hook a computer up to an HDTV, there isn't a lot of incentive to do it outside of streaming videos and music. Although it's hardly any effort to attach a couple controllers to a PC (especially using the Microsoft Xbox 360 Wireless Receiver for Windows), only a small number of games support local and splitscreen multiplayer. The fundamental principle of PC gaming, where only one person can comfortably use a keyboard and mouse, makes for a very personal and solitary experience. With the majority of multiplayer interactions taking place online, there isn't much reason to develop a PC game with the expectation of sharing a screen.

That could change as powerful computers shrink down and are sold as media PCs, but we think that the move from the office to the living room might be very different from what many may envision. We're hoping that smart TVs and devices like Apple TV will someday be able to stream interactive content over a local network, similar to how StreamMyGame was able to play Crysis using the PlayStation 3 as a proxy. Smart TVs hold the most promise because the necessary hardware is already built-in. Then it's just a matter of running a streaming app and using compatible controllers. If we really want to go out a on limb on the synergy tree, smartphones and other touchscreen devices could be used as both controllers and voice communicators, which provides all the more reason to get that touchscreen coffee table. That way, PC gamers can have the best of both worlds. They can play from their desks when they want an up close and personal experience or stream games to their televisions when they have friends over or want a big screen living room experience - all while using devices they'd probably own anyway.

Mind Control

So the Emotiv EPOC controller is way less impressive in practice than it is in concept. Still, nothing is quite as sci-fi as controlling games with just the power of your mind. We won't comment too much on this subject since the technology doesn't work very well right now, but who knows how things will turn out in a decade? If it can ever get working correctly and comfortably, quadriplegics could use the technology to better join the video gaming community, with the most benefit shown in MMO games. Or tech geeks could simply mind control robots to fetch things for them when they're too lazy to get off the couch. Either way, the future is going to be a great place to live in.

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