E3 2006 Preview: The showdown between consoles and PCs

Console games and PC games go separate ways

A look at the NPD games sales charts for the month of March 2006 tells you everything you need to know about how consoles and PCs are dividing like drifting continents, with game genres split between them like separate species. The weird hybrid of anime and Disneyland, Kingdom Hearts II, took the lead spot again in the console sales charts, with mainly action combat games - among them, mostly first-person shooters - and sports titles following. Meanwhile, the PC games chart - whose titles now sell with one-third the quantity - is dominated by simulated worlds and gothic role-playing, with the add-on Sims 2: Open for Business leading the top spot, and Sims 2 itself at #7. Interspersed among them are all the major genre franchises we've come to know, with the powerhouse World of Warcraft clinching tightly to #5, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion at #2, and Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, D&D, Age of Empires, and Civilization IV all well represented.

Are PC games becoming a minor player? Not really, believes Parks Associates' Michael Cai. While that continent may continue to drift, he believes it's in a state of transformation, and may yet have its just revenge. The secret is in the online component. Consoles and console games dominate the retail market today, he explained, and because of that, they command the spotlight. But as the online business models for PC games change, away from the "per-box" retail model and more toward subscriptions, gaming-on-demand, and ad-subsidized services (more on that later), the big franchise games and role-playing simulations that are already well established on the PC side, are perhaps best suited to these models. They fit like a glove.

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A "blood elf" - a kind of well-endowed Darryl Hannah/Christopher Walken hybrid, due to inhabit the long-awaited Continent of the Upgrades in World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.

Welcoming the new business models to E3 this year could be an absolute blitz of PC games franchises, all of which are battling with each other for the biggest splash. I would say there's a "blizzard" ahead, but that name's been taken already. Blizzard's The Burning Crusade expansion to WoW, expected at E3, actually will create an entirely new continent, called "Outland," where one might find a new race of so-called "blood elves." (Oh, you never will believe where those Keebler cookies come from.) Meanwhile, Namco - yes, the company that introduced the world to Galaxian and Pac-Man - will actually try to knock WoW off its throne, with its much-anticipated Warhammer: Mark of Chaos. The company describes it as dealing particularly with "WAR, focusing on the armies and battles while de-emphasizing the tedious aspects of base and resource management." Which should already win this title some followers at the Defense Dept.

Sticking a finger in the notion that first-person shooters are entirely migrating to console-based platforms, CryTek is likely to demonstrate its even-more-perfected rendering engine, in a demo of its upcoming sequel to Far Cry, entitled Crysis. This is the game that should prove the viability of Microsoft's DirectX 10 rendering library, due to become one of the foundation components of its upcoming Windows Vista operating system. The difference between DirectX 10 worlds and DirectX 9 worlds (for Windows XP), gamers are led to believe, will be clearly visible.

But if the first-person shooter crowd is all gathering together around consoles, and if shooter games are more adapted to the retail model than the online sales model (How long can a gamer go on subscribing to the right to keep shooting down the same thing?), then could Crysis be less well received among publishers and retailers than it's likely to be among fans? This could be a bright comet of a game that burns out fairly quickly, as franchise role-playing and strategy titles such as Midway's Unreal Tournament 2007 appear well positioned to command and conquer - to borrow a phrase - the resurrected realm of PC gaming.

And there's one more little thing: While fans of the Star Trek movies will happily remind you that it's generally the even-numbered films that are the best, and the odd-numbered ones that are as cursed as a red-shirted security officer in a dark cave, they'll also tell you that there has never really been a completely perfect Star Trek game, for any genre, in the last quarter-century. So the question on at least some people's minds at E3 (they'll be the ones in Starfleet uniforms) is whether Perpetual's Star Trek Online - which is likely to be previewed on Tuesday - will break this curse. Set 20 years after the last "Next Generation" movie, with slightly updated ships, set decoration, and uniforms designed under the direction of no less than Trek veteran artist Andrew Probert, the screen shots of this MMORPG look perhaps even more stunning than some of the odd-numbered films (Trek V comes to mind). But with the promise of away-team exploration of multiple worlds, and true 3D combat among fleets of starships, manned by multiple live players simultaneously, the question transcends whether this game will feel like a Trek movie, and becomes whether it places the gamer in anything resembling his understanding of the Trek universe.