The game's the thing

The marketing people at Intel are singing and dancing like frenzied pygmies over their P4 chip, clocking as it does at around 1.3GHz. But who needs this kind of performance?

Compare these two systems:

1: Pentium-II, 266MHz, 64MB RAM 4MB video card, 10GB HD, Windows 98SE

2: Pentium-III, 866MHz, 256MB RAM, 32MB video card, 30GB HD, Windows 98SE.

The first is a machine I bought just over two years ago, whilst the second is one I bought last month. Both machines are in regular use, running much the same set of applications, but there is only one area where all the extra performance and power of the second machine is even noticeable - in games.

The marketing people at Intel are singing and dancing like frenzied pygmies over their P4 chip, clocking as it does at around 1.3GHz, and the AMD people are just as frothingly promoting their equivalent processor running at even faster speeds. But who needs this kind of performance? Certainly there may be a handful of people out there using CAD packages and other demanding applications, but I would guess that more than 95% of all users would find that the majority of their day-to-day computing tasks would still be performed perfectly adequately by the first system I described.

Thowing millions of extra CPU cycles per second at Microsoft Office seems slightly absurd, even though that accursed paper clip probably consumes quite a few just by itself ... In fact, it may just be that I'm short on imagination, but I can't think of any commonly used applications in which you might see a marked difference in performance, perceived or real, between those two systems - except games.

Time for me to 'fess up, I guess: I'm a game player from way back - I remember fondly playing games on CP/M systems, including such venerable titles as the original "Adventure" (I wonder - if I said "xyzzy" these days, how many people would know what I meant or where it came from?), and I find my interest in them undiminished today. Different people will offer different excuses for playing games. In my case, it seems like a relatively harmless way for me to exercise the competetive side of my nature, especially since there's nobody I like competing against more than myself.

Games are a mixed bag - there's a lot of dross obscuring the absolute gems, but their overall quality has been steadily rising over the last three or four years, and much of the credit for that has to go to Microsoft. I'm not famous for having nice things to say about Microsoft, but I'd like to think that I'm fair enough to give credit where it is due - and DirectX has resulted in a revolution in game play.

As the quality of the games has risen, though, so has their rapacity. There are very few current-stock games that will even run now on the first system I described, and those that will probably won't run well enough to provide enjoyable play. It's interesting to see that the basic specification for Microsoft's much-hyped XBox is not very far removed from that of the second above, including a 733MHz Pentium-III processor. Isn't it ironic that Microsoft's set-top games machine, which will be viewed as a toy, packs considerably more processing power than the majority of office systems in use today?

Now, I'm sure that there are plenty of game players out there, but I can't see that there are enough of them, or that they have enough money to be buying high-priced hardware on a regular basis. We've already established that the majority of mundane tasks do not even remotely need the performance of a chip like the P4, so who is Intel planning to sell these systems to?

At a time when computer sales are already slowing worldwide, this question takes on some major overtones, I think. If the P4 ends up being a flop after all the money and hype Intel has invested in it, then that is likely to mark a shift in the emphasis of the market, away from research and development, and towards consolidation and protection of market share. Could it be that the heady days of unlimited growth are over? Unfortunately, my crystal ball is still in at the TV serviceman's being fixed, so I'm not willing to hazard a prediction, but I think the old Chinese curse ("May you live in interesting times") is flexing its muscles again.

Oh, and just in case anyone is even slightly interested, here's my list of the 10 games I've enjoyed most over the years, in order:

  1. The Marathon series
  2. Civilization II and clones
  3. Starcraft
  4. Deus Ex
  5. Half-life
  6. The Might and Magic series
  7. Duke Nukem 3D
  8. System Shock II
  9. Quake III Arena
  10. Thief II
Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet email package Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris.

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