How PC games play in Europe. (Compute's Getting Started With: Entertainment Software)
by Mike Nelson
The PC game scene is quite different in England and Europe from that in the U.S. For a start, the PC isn't the only machine in the picture. Another factor in that England and Europe tend to lag behind the U.S. in many technical respects.
The European hardware purchasing public is less affluent than that in the United States and yet is faced with relatively more expensive equipment.
The low end of the market is made up of kids who would buy Sega or Nintendos in the U.S. Many European youngsters shell out around 100-200[pounds] for a console, though there's a significant overlap with a second group of youngsters who persist with the classical home computer. Commodore sells hundreds of thousands of A1200s and A600s, as well as, until fairly recently, millions of C64s.
PCs and Games in
Rarely are PCs purchased simply for game playing. The main reason is cost. A basic 386 PC system in the UK will set you back around 800-1000[pounds], depending on the amount of hard drive and RAM resources you get. This is without the obligatory sound card, speakers, and joystick gizmos, which will add an additional 100[pounds] to the total, giving you a layout of around $1600, before you've even fired a shot in anger at any alien scumbags. Is it any wonder why the English, hassled into poverty by the recession, would prefer to spend their hard earned cash on a $500 Amiga?
I think it's fair to say that there's a cultural difference between the two sides of the Atlantic in terms of PC usage and general computer literacy; U.K. users lag behind a couple of years. This is reflected in the number of personal computers required at home to keep us up to date with the office work, and since this group makes up the bulk of game purchasers, it's been a slow start for PC gamers over the years, a situation which is finally changing. Software sales are roughly 50-50 with those for Amiga computers for any given product.
It's only recently that the U.K. has seen widespread availability of 386 clones (about a third of PCs sold by games retailers are Amstrads, a third are badged Eastern imports, and the rest are IBMs). These PCs now are able to keep up with the fast graphics and wild sound that U.K. gamers demand.
Prior to 1993, few of the popular action games would even run on the older 286 EGA computers. Games on the PC were seen as mind-numbingly boring strategy affairs, with long drawn out scenarios that required a Ph.D. in warfare and twelve years to play. They took ages to get into and ages to lose, and the graphics were depressingly uninteresting to say the least. Flight simulators, which took advantage of the PC's superior number crunching, were easily matched by the other computers' graphics chips, and programmers often used tricks to noticeably speed things up. The dolphinesque clicks that emanated from the minuscule internal speaker were laughable to those used to 8-bit stereo sampled sound, thundering out of your stereo system as the last alien exploded into a flaming fireball of cycling color. So what if your game ran off three floppies, required 26 disk swaps to get past the title animation, and the copy protection meant one in three loads aborted - you could live with that, couldn't you?
What's changed? The PC still has mind-numbing strategy games with the graphic prowess of a house brick, but nowadays companies such as Gremlin Graphics, Team 17, and Psygnosis have woken up to the fact that you can do animation on a PC - it does have more that 16 colors to play with; and 16-bit sound cards aren't as rare as rocking horse manure. There's a new wave of computer games about to hit the PC, and they owe their origins to the fast action multicolored worlds of the other systems mentioned. Spectacular still graphics is easy enough with 640 x 480 x 256 colors, but moving it around at 30-50 frames per second isn't as straightforward.
A game developer who has to code for widely different platforms such as the PC and Amiga faces a number of tricky problems. Since a given game usually will appear simultaneously on all platforms, it tends to be developed concurrently, rather than converted. Consoles are easier to code for because they have lower resolutions than the PC. European game developers, who are accustomed to writing games for minimal systems where there's precious little RAM to play with and disk access must be kept to a minimum as the luxury of a hard drive can't be counted on, are among the best. Their talents for squeezing the most out of very little are being applied to the PC and its unique problems. Brute force and processor power seemingly can overcome the lack of dedicated video graphics chips with scrolling hardware, sprites, and fast rendering engines.
These days, most games require at least VGA, and while many will run on a 640K machine, most of the decent ones will tax 2MB of RAM and take a 3-5MB chunk of hard drive out of your way.
Price and Piracy
Games in the U.K. are, on average, more costly than in the U.S. Usually you find a direct swap of the pound sign for the dollar sign, and it doesn't take Lotus 1-2-3 to see the exchange isn't favorable. However, things are changing with many of the best older titles being re-released at budget prices, usually 10-20[pounds], and these really represent good value for money.
It has to be said, and I'm ashamed to say it, but we have the best pirates in the business manning all kinds of bulletin boards. It's not unusual for a fully cracked game (that is, all copy protection vanquished and, somewhat cheekily, a whole host of cheats built into the code) to be up on a BBS before the game is launched officially. Clearly this is detrimental and is one reason why many companies are moving to the PC, where the problem is less acute. (Amiga versions of a top quality game may only ship 30,000 units in a potential market of 1.5 million machines.)
The PC world definitely is changing its face in the U.K. More of the top companies are porting their stuff to the platform, and several are developing exclusive titles for it.
U.K programmers are quit adept at squeezing the last ounce of animation power out of their computers, and to this end, you'll be seeing many more excellent action games. Platform games, football (or rather, soccer) games, blast-'em-to-bits-and-beat-the-living-daylights-out-of-the-Ninja-Nasty type of programs also will become commonplace.
TOP 10 CD-ROM
The Journeyman Project. The pre-release runs slow, but the graphics are the best I've seen. Looks to be the best conceived of the bumper crop of science-fiction CD-ROM games.
King's Quest VI. One of Sierra's best games, enhanced for CD-ROM with dialog, a high-resolution interface, and a 50MB opening animation.
The 7th Guest. Most celebrated and innovative CD-ROM game of the first half of 1993. Great musical score and eye-popping interiors paved the way for the current wave of stunning titles.
Day of the Tentacle. Wacky graphics and humorous storyline makes this spoof of 1950s sci-fi movies a joy from start to finish. Cast includes Richard Sanders of "WKRP in Cincinnati."
Rebel Assault. Combine the excitement of X-Wing with high resolution graphics and a movie-like score, and you have the first high-powered arcade game for CD-ROM.
The Chessmaster 3000. Simply the best way to learn chess on your own. The spoken instructions make the CD-ROM version extremely easy to use.
Space Quest IV. Roger Wilco is back, and this time in full voice. Garry Owen, of "Laugh-In" fame, provides the commentary. Even more fun than the disk version.
Hell Cab. Great graphics and a cunning sense of humor make this the game to show your neighbors.
Microsoft Multimedia Golf. Though it doesn't have the high-resolution backgrounds of Links 386 Pro, this CD-ROM version of Microsoft Golf for Windows includes spectacular flybys of each hole and video golf pro tips. Compatible with Access' Links golf courses.
Under a Killing Moon. Given the strength of early previews, this looks to be one of the top CD-ROM games of 1994. It's the first CD-ROM game to use several well-known actors include virtual reality technology.
TOP 5 EUROPEAN
Lemmings: This Psygnosis original releases as many as 100 of these stupid creatures, which duly walk over the nearest cliff, through the closest drowning pool, and into the most convenient trap. Only you can save them. The graphics are wonderful (imagine 100 sprites all doing their own thing at once). Just perfect.
Populous: Marketed by Electronic Arts and recently released at a budget price. For anyone who wants to be God - for just a while.
Zool: In this platform game from Gremlin Graphics, a cute Ninja-type character bounces around avoiding the bad guys, collecting the goodies, and killing the end-of-level guardian.
Alice in Wonderland: A great adventure in the type-in-and-go traditional sense. Graphics are extremely detailed, but the charm of the game is in its superb parser.
Lotus, The Ultimate Challenge: Flying around various circuits in an Esprit is OK, but the game really accelerates away from the rest if you play with another person. It's great fun, and the graphics whizz by so quickly the slightly rough scrolling is forgivable.