Debating the hardware
Ben: We’ve talked a lot about hardware, and you make a strong case that Microsoft’s Xbox money has helped increase the technical sophistication of PC graphics processors and chipsets. Obviously this is a way that the Xbox has helped PC gamers, right?
Ben: The Xbox may not have increased competition in the graphics market, but is the motherboard chipset market a different story? NVIDIA didn't just use Microsoft's money to build the Xbox's graphics processor, the NV2A, they also supplied the Xbox's initial chipset.
(The chipset is the most important component of a motherboard; it lets CPU, memory, and other components talk to each other.) And just as NVIDIA leveraged its NV2A expertise to make the GeForce 3, it used its Xbox chipset experience to create the nForce chipset for PCs.
Alan: The motherboard chipset is a very different story. If we can agree that Microsoft had a substantial role in the development of the original nForce, then we can recognize that a lot of good has come out from that investment.
Before the nForce, your options on the Intel front were limited. You had Intel chipsets and then second-tier VIA, SiS and ALi/ULi chipsets which were best used on budget systems. When it came to AMD, you usually had AMD's own chipset which offered the most reliability. If a feature was unstable (i.e. USB), AMD would completely disable that feature. Of course, while your system didn't crash, you had no native USB support with the AMD Athlon MP chipset and no native USB2 support for the AMD Opteron chipset. The problem with AMD's chipsets is that AMD never wanted to be a chipset manufacturer. They were forced to do so in order to support their own CPUs. The VIA, SiS, and ALi/ULi chipsets for the Athlon were all good, but not up to the level of Intel's designs.
NVIDIA may not have been perfect with the nForce releases (the even numbered releases always seem to be better), and there were recent issues with their firewall. That said, the nForce 2 was what made the AMD Athlon XP the super-gaming platform that it was, and nForce 4 was what made SLI gaming possible. The nForce really established itself as the high-end alternative to the Intel's chipsets. In fact, even Dell uses NVIDIA chipsets for their flagship gaming rigs – that's a big deal since Dell receives so much marketing support from Intel.
Since motherboard design doesn't require quite as big of an R&D budget, the entrance of nForce has led to a renaissance where we now have a wide range of choices, including those from ATI as well. I won't say that Microsoft was instrumental for this resurgence of motherboard chipset options, but the success of nForce was probably a driving force to motivate ATI.
Not so fast. The ultimate value of gaming, PC or otherwise, is fun. And an increase in the speed of graphical innovation does NOT make gaming more fun! Now bear with me a few moments if you think I’m insane. Think back to your favorite game from five years ago. Are you actually having more fun playing games now than you did five years ago? Probably not. Do you spend much time playing games that are five years old? Again, probably not—the graphics would look too primitive.
The solution to this paradox is that gamers have grown accustomed to 2005-level graphics, and now need better graphics for the same amount of fun. If you had never seen a game from after 2000, you could have fun with 2000-level graphics. Saying that gamers are stuck on a hedonistic treadmill may sound like hippie mumbo-jumbo. But the basic principle that enjoyment is referenced-based is widely accepted, helping to earn Daniel Kahneman a Nobel prize in economics. (And who has less flower-power than economists?)
You know, Daniel Kahneman
actually looks like an economist. To answer your question though, I'm actually playing Final Fantasy VIII …
I agree with you here. Whether a game looks pretty and whether the game is fun are two different things. Is Quake 4 actually better for deathmatch than Quake 3? Probably not. We're all guilty of demanding better and better graphics. Still, graphics and gameplay aren't mutually exclusive. Better graphics can add to the quality of the game and help to make the setting that much more cohesive. More powerful CPUs has helped us build gameplay devices like rag-doll physics in Half-Life 2, and the "do whatever you want" scenario in a game like GTA: San Andreas probably wouldn't have been possible on a Super Nintendo.