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Why Chrome OS could change the face of PC gaming

in glhf

Overnight we saw a flurry of activity on tech and mainstream news outlets alike on the developing Google Chrome OS story. This more ‘official’ confirmation that Google intends to release this product into the wild in the next year or so has been met with quite a bit of yelling and chewing over the utility, feasibility, pros/cons, etc. of extending a web browser into a platform autonomous of any other OS. The idea is to connect people straight to the web, eliminate anything on the client side not essential to that task, and have all applications hosted from the network. I think the vast majority of people who have been reallyquick to poop on the idea are missing the intent of Chrome OS: it’s not supposed to replaceALLof the functions that a fully-fledged desktop rig and OS is capable of. That is going to be impossible for some time. There are things that just can’t be done ‘on the cloud,’ such as video editing, or heavy graphic design and CAD work, or application development…or gaming.

If you know a few things about the progression and history of PC gaming, you know that Windows more or less stumbled into being the computer gaming platform of choice. If it werent for a few developers at Microsoft realizing that games development would be particularly hard for Win95 without some sort of framework to assist, games would continue to be developed for DOS or – even worse for them – on a different OS altogether. DirectX was born from this and is why Windows has been the only choice for any serious computer gamer.

Point is, Microsoft didn’t see the capture of the gaming market as a key part of making Windows successful in the grand scheme of things, it was more of an afterthought. (The Wikipedia article on DirectX gives the gaming market far too much creedence in this regard.) Windows’ success hinged on their domination of the corporate computing world. This is a domain that they’re going to be reluctant to give up, and they’re certainly not going to be keen to relinquish it to Google.

If that means a paradigm shift in how Windows is conceptualized and deployed…so be it, they’ve got to stay competitive. Where the corporate market goes, so will the home market as well, that’s self-evident. So if the corporate market goes to the cloud, it’s only a matter of time until casual home computers go that way as well. Of course there will always be a sizable ‘power user’ market that needs that quad core rig fully loaded and sitting on the desk next to them, for applications mentioned above, and there will always be Mac fanboys/girls who just need that shiny piece of marketing to do their computing on. But when you get right down to it, cloud computing makes a great deal of sense for casual users that only need their computer for email, browsing, video watching, and some other light tasks. And when it comes to paying $100+ for a Windows licence…you can’t argue with free.

WIRED today asked: “”why ever pay again for a Microsoft operating system, unless you are a gamer or run custom, legacy software?“” I ask, why would there be any games left for Windows?

The problem for PC gaming is this: as the casual home computing market goes the way of the cloud, that means a way smaller market for PC games. The most attractive part of cloud computing is the ability to lower the price point on machines because they don’t need a lot of raw computing power – anything that’s non essential goes, and that includes the graphics boards, the sound cards, the physics units, even larger hard drives or large amounts of ram won’t be needed.

It’s easy to see where the dominoes fall on this one, and while I’ve not even convinced myself entirely that this is inevitable, I also can’t say that it’s a long shot either. Between the casual home user and the serious computational ‘power user’ will sit the gamer, and the gamer will fall through the gap inbetween. As the target market that can run high-quality retail games on their PC shrinks, so will support from publishers. Companies that manufacture gaming hardware for PCs will also start to fall off the map, unless they’re able to make the leap over with the rest of the market from manufacturing PC components to manufacturing for…

Consoles.

Sorry, I don’t particularly like the taste of that either, but that’s the reality. And why should Microsoft make any attempt to keep gamers on Windows when they have the XBox, and when Mac and Linux pose next to no threat of picking up the slack? (Save it, Mac fankiddies, my fiance’s $1300 MacBook can’t even handle Sims 3 with everything on low, and I can get a Dell XPS m1730 for that cash.) Consoles are not just simple arcade machines anymore but basically specialized high-powered gaming computers, which by the way are also free of heavy operating systems, and with standardized hardware loadouts make the task of developing a hell of a lot easier. Hook in a mouse and keyboard instead of a controller and we’re basically there already.

Don’t get your pants in a knot just yet. I’m not predicting the impending collapse of PC gaming this year, next year, or even in five years. But I think further down the line, as we start talking a decade or more forward, we’re going to be seeing a major divergence in the platforms and hardware that major retail games are played on, with PCs either being cloud dependent ‘netbook types’ that can’t run the games, or super machines designed for commercial applications, not gaming.