Can the PC compete in the living room?


— 2:12 PM on November 24, 2006

I've been kicking around a puzzling question for the past week or so that some of you may have considered as well. As I mentioned in my mega uber blog post the other day, I built myself a pretty nice home theater PC earlier this year, and I'm now trying to decide whether it's up to the task of serving as the primary gaming device in our living room. This box, with Window XP Media Center Edition, has unquestionably been an upgrade from our TiVo and has served its purpose on that front very well. I also bought a pair of Logitech wireless gamepads to go with it, and it has been serving as a gaming platform for my kids—which means playing mainly Lego Star Wars and some old arcade games via MAME.

As Christmas approaches, though, I've wanted to expand the selection of games on this system to see whether or not it makes sense to avoid purchasing a game console for the kids—more specifically, a Nintendo Wii. My kids are now ages 5 and 7, so Nintendo is the logical choice in a gaming system for them. (I think the average age of Xbox 360 buyers is probably about 52.) I'm a PC gamer all the way, so my preferences don't really figure into this decision too strongly.

I've approached this question from several angles. First, I'm fairly certain our current setup isn't good enough. I once thought a vast catalog of MAME games would keep the kids happy for the next few years, but their expectations have been raised by Lego Star Wars and by other games they've played on desktop PCs (where a mouse and keyboard are required). Besides, too much of the MAME catalog is comprised of games designed to keep playing time short before another quarter is required. Turns out that when the quarters are free, the shallowness of games designed according to that principle becomes all too apparent. MAME's emulation isn't always perfect, either, and operating the virtual controls of an arcade machine can get pretty complicated, enough to prompt the kids to start shouting for help from dad every three minutes.

Second, I've discovered that an awfully large proportion of PC games aren't suitable for the living room—even if they aren't especially violent or otherwise kid-unfriendly. Our TV is not of the high-def variety, so we're pretty much stuck at 640x480 screen resolution. Way too many PC games simply refuse to run at 640x480. Those that don't object are too often impossible to set up and control without the aid of a keyboard, mouse, or both. I'm talking about mostly simple games, some of them even console ports. I've been through a bundle of game demos from FileShack, and the success rate on the HTPC is dismal.

Confronted with these problems, I stopped by a store at the mall the other night with the kids in order to, er, sii the Wii. The store demo was running Excite Truck, in which you steer by holding one end of the Wii-mote in each hand and pretending like it's a steering wheel. I can't say that controlling the game in this way felt intensely precise like a good laser mouse in a PC game, but it was very natural and easy to pick up. In fact, my seven-year-old was able to begin playing and steering competently almost instantly, which sold me on the Wii-mote scheme.

As an aside, judging by Excite Truck, the graphics on the Wii are not what you'd call, you know... good. Some folks have optimistically expressed sentiments about the games looking not so bad, considering the specs of the console's hardware. You may not care about such things when enjoying a game on this console (I certainly don't think my kids will), but I see no reason to sugarcoat it. The thing's graphics are weak compared to any remotely modern GPU. Once we got home from the store, I attempted to replicate the fun we'd had with Excite Truck by installing a PC racing game on our HTPC. The Colin McRae Rally 2005 demo seemed like a good candidate, and yikes. Our HTPC has a cheap little passively cooled GeForce 6200 AGP video card in it, and the thing served up a veritable visual feast compared to Excite Truck on the Wii. There's at least full generational gap between the two graphically.

Then again, Colin McRae Rally proved entirely unplayable for both me and my son while steering with the gamepad's analog stick. Utterly pointless. So the Wii might not pump out the eye candy, but it's easily a better gaming device anyhow.

My PC gamer roots go deep, though, and I haven't given up just yet. My hopes now reside with a couple of services intended to make PC games more accessible. One of them is DISCover, whose stated mission in life is to take PC gaming mainstream via Windows Media Center PCs. I installed their My Games app on my HTPC, but the first demo I tried crashed on startup because the display resolution was too low. Perhaps their other games will be better. The other service is GameTap, a subscription service that allows "unlimited" access to a large online catalog of PC games, console ports, and arcade classics. I'm not sure whether paying seven bucks a month is a good deal given how little our kids play games, but the concept is intriguing enough to keep the PC in the running. I need to investigate these two options further, but honestly, I'm not wildly optimistic.

I'm wondering whether any of you all have successfully used a Windows Media Center box as a primary gaming system for the living room, and if so, how you managed it. Have you used either of these services? Both together? Can the PC really compete in the living room, or should I just give up now and starting hunting for a Wii to put under the, uh, Christmas trii?

   
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