Seven years ago, I put together a noob-tastic piece detailing how one could get solid PC gaming performance for the price of a Playstation 2. I employed a set of rules designed to isolate the comparison to just gaming performance, since the big challenge of comparing a PC to a console is the specific combination of price differential and all the “other stuff” a computer can do. It was a little silly and the rules were restrictive, but it was a fun exercise to see how much value one could squeeze from a limited budget.
Since then, many have hailed the death of PC gaming, with multi-platform games receiving poor treatment when it came to their PC ports. But in recent years, the quality of the ports–at least anecdotally speaking–saw a vast improvement. We’ve reached a point where PC gaming is just fine again. What’s more, such “rules” as those I used in that old article have become less necessary, thanks to improving price-to-performance ratios and the shrinking price gap between consoles and able-bodied computers. There have been, and continue to be, scores of articles in PC magazines and online tech sites dedicated to building a “cheap ass rig” that perform at the same level as a console, at a comparable price. With Valve’s Steam platform for PC’s and its so-called “Steam Box” looming, we seem to be entering a world where a PC-based platform becomes a mainstream alternative for playing triple-A, cross-platform videogames.
But are we really?
It’s true that Steam’s Big Picture Mode goes a long way in standardizing a user interface for PC games that play nicely with a controller, not just from the perspective of Steam’s user interface itself but also in terms of getting developers to buy into the concept that people want to be able to play their games in their living room. If it’s multiplatform gaming you’re talking about, then with the power of Big Picture Mode, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be able to play the same cross-platform games which already exist on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 with a controller and without having to fumble for a mouse and keyboard to click on dialogue boxes.
Yet there are still issues–some of which are misconceptions, some of which are very real–that a huge portion of the gaming populace see as complete hindrances to making the leap to what can–from a hardware perspective–be a potentially more powerful and flexible videogames platform.
It should be noted that as we don’t have any confirmations on what Steam Box actually will be, we can’t say for sure that it’s just a “PC in a smaller box.” Gabe Newell of Valve implied that they may go with Linux as the base operating system, and create a tightly-controlled environment. So it may not be that Steam Box introduces the wide world of PC gaming to the living room, but the important thing that it could do is unite people who are both in the living room and at their desk or on their laptop. The emphasis of this post is on PC gaming at large, as opposed to the Steam Box itself.
I mined my friends’ thoughts–those who don’t currently play many PC games–for some of their perceived issues with PC gaming, why they didn’t take advantage of the platform. I’ve tried to parse what I feel are still true today, and what are kind of misconceptions. Here’s what they said.
(1) “Consoles are cheaper than computers.”
This goes without saying and, unfortunately, is still very true. From the hardware end. We’ll get to the variables below… in the Misconceptions section.
Yes, today you can build a complete box that costs $450, with performance that exceeds anything that the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U can put out, and very likely compare to the the first few years of the next generation of consoles. Take one look at how Far Cry 3 performs on the consoles versus a $450 box, and you’ll see the difference immediately.
But unless math has changed, $450 is still more than the $399 Xbox 360 with Kinect and a 250GB hard drive. (Strip away the Kinect, which I imagine a lot of people reading this would do, and it becomes cheaper.) The next step down is a $350 Wii U Deluxe set. $450 > $399 > $350, and that will never change. Plus, there’s another issue…
(2) “Hardware and software you buy isn’t always going to work with what you have. I just want to purchase a game and know it will work with minimal to no effort.” and “…crazy hoops to jump through in terms of random crashes, GPU driver updates…”
This is still a very real–and perhaps the biggest, from a tech perspective–hurdle with PC’s. Things are much, much better than they were over three years ago, but with specific regards to the pricing issue, the only practical way to guarantee great performance at a $450 clip is by… *drumroll* …building that machine yourself. And you have to make sure you’re building it properly so that everything works nicely. Reportedly, there was a Windows 8 issue where The Walking Dead wouldn’t load if you tried to use the Xbox 360 controller. I have not heard of a fix yet, other than, “Uninstall Windows 8 and reinstall Windows 8, lulz…”
Hmm. On one hand: Open the box. Take out the console. Connect it to the TV. Done.
On the other hand: Open up multiple boxes. Ikea the contents of multiple boxes together. Cut your hand on the case trying to insert a piece of hardware before realizing you were trying it the wrong way. Install your existing copy of Windows, or Windows 8 ($40) which is the cheapest option if you need a new copy. Update the drivers. Gnash your teeth a little for good measure. Connect it to the TV. Done. Unless you did something wrong and a driver crashes. Then update to the latest driver which came out a few minutes ago and try again.
Which one sounds more appealing?
Sidenote: In addition to my home PC, I’m toting a Lenovo laptop which came preconfigured (obviously) and plays all multiplatform games better than my consoles ever could hope for, and has a full-size HDMI port which connects to any HDMI TV. No need to build it. But see item (1). How much did it cost? $1000. $1000 > $400. And it always will.
Sidenote II: I refuse to note productivity as an advantage that PC’s (like my laptop) have any longer. A $300 non-gaming laptop (handles Office and email just fine) + a $400 console = $700. See item (1): $1000 > $700. And it always will.
Sidenote III: “…know it will work with minimal to no effort” is also a problem with Kinect. ZING!
(3) “If you care about playing online with your friends (and a lot of people do), you’re not only limited by YOUR PC’s specs, but also by theirs. [With a console] You know that the exact same machine will play games released on day 1 up until the next generation takes over. You also know that (aside from home theater hardware differences), you and every other person will be getting the same basic experience.”
There’s no way around this truth. Ever. This is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Yes, as long as you meet some baseline minimum, you’re going to be able to play every game with every person who owns a PC with that baseline minimum. But not enough people meet that baseline minimum because they don’t game on PC’s. And the reason why they don’t game on PC’s is… well… item (3), which is this one. Not to mention the fact that such a baseline minimum is not documented anywhere. With the benefits of the PC being an open platform come the pitfalls of there being few, if any, documented standards (such as the “ultrabook” standard… perhaps we need a “gaming pc” standard).
(4) “I’m hooked on the achievement/trophy system, which isn’t implemented as consistently on PC.”
The Steam platform has achievements built-in. But does every multiplatform PC game? That’s the big question mark. The Assassin’s Creed II “trilogy” has uPlay points… but I haven’t seen any Steam achievements. Part of the appeal of a platform’s achievements system is that it’s universal. You look at someone’s Gamertag or PSN ID, and you see the achievements and trophies for all of that respective console’s games. But you can’t see my achievements for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations unless you look at my Ubisoft profile. Come on. Not even I care to look at my Ubisoft profile.
(5) “Draconian DRM.”
Steam takes care of all DRM, just like a Playstation 3 and an Xbox 360 have DRM by design (that’s what it means to have a closed platform). But here’s the difference: Console DRM is putting in the disc, or staying logged into your account. PC DRM is still a bit weird. When I launch Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, it’s done from Steam. But then Ubisoft’s uPlay application opens, and asks me to log into that. Once I’ve logged into that, I then have to seperately choose to play Assassin’s Creed: Revelations from the uPlay interface. Wait. Didn’t I already do that?
The days of rootkits that wreak havoc on your system are (supposedly) over, but inconveniences brought on by different publishers’ methods still exist. This truth, however, is becoming less and less problematic.
(6) “I think the bigger challenge that they need to overcome is moving it seamlessly to the living room. Networking is the answer, but people need an easier mass market plug-and-play networking solution from a brand they trust.”
You can play PC games in the living room much of the time. But not the same way with every PC, and not always seamlessly. Some people have their PC’s too far away for a long HDMI cable, for example. With a laptop, it’s generally seamless, but you run into physical hurdles elsewhere. I fit that “what, a long HDMI cable? get the hell outta here” use case. When I’m at home, I game on my PC. But in order to do so in the living room, I’d need to snake an extra-long HDMI cable from my bedroom to the TV. I could use my laptop, but then I’m not taking advantage of the extra horsepower my PC offers. (Yeah, I’m spoiled. Games look great on my laptop, but they look even better on my PC. Sue me.)
There are adapters that work like Wi-Di does: Plug it into your TV, set it up with your PC, and you have wireless display streaming–like the Wii U does for its Gamepad controller–from your computer to your big screen. But that’s an added cost, and it’s not console-simple. “Seamlessly” is the key word here.
(7) “More of my friends play on consoles.”
It’s also undeniable that any one person’s cadre of friends won’t magically appear on a different platform overnight. But I don’t consider it a fair criticism against one particular platform (the PC in this case) as much as it is a problem of market fragmentation as a whole, which is why I listed it under Misconceptions as well.
(8) “I can rent games for consoles but not PCs.”
Undeniable. Not until a successful subscription game service comes out for PC’s will this ever be turned around. (OnLive? Yeah, not doing so hot.)
(9) “I have a Mac.”
That’s your fault, buddy. #lulz
A note before I go into this: These are misconceptions, but they’re not the fault of the person as much as it is the fault of the platform not having its champions effectively dispel them. Computers are still seen as mythical beasts, and the fact that they really aren’t anymore isn’t necessarily effectively communicated. The point of the following list is not to call my friends stupid and ignorant, because they’re not, but to emphasize what the platform’s champions need to set the record straight on to show people that PC gaming isn’t nearly as much work as it once was. And maybe it’ll help some folks learn a little.
(1) “When I look at the system requirements for the latest game and how fast they change between games it’s intimidating.”
Fortunately, this is no longer the case given the rise in popularity of cross-platform ports that make the leap from consoles to computers. These days, if you go into obtaining a computer (either by building or purchasing) with the mindset that you’re going to want to play Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 on it, you’ll most likely have the minimal hardware required to play all of those other lovely cross-platform games. In a way, I feel that the Xbox 360 had a lot to do with that, by establishing a development environment similar enough to Windows that developers can feel comfortable enough in porting games cross-platform.
(2) “…you have to install games and tweak graphics settings and whatnot on the PC.”
This isn’t really true anymore unless you are fiercely loyal to buying your PC games on a disc. With Steam and today’s other digital distribution services (Electronic Arts’ Origin service, to name another), the games pretty much install themselves once they’re fully downloaded.
Furthermore, today’s cross-platform games will automatically detect your computer’s hardware and tweak the settings for you. PC-only titles will also do this. (Unfortunately it’s more or less a recent trend–not as many PC games from the previous generation, if you’re counting in console years, do this.)
The best part about Steam’s platform is that any updates and patches are automatically updated when they’re ready. In the console world, because of each platform’s closed nature, it’s not uncommon for a fix to a debilitating game issue to wait in a certification queue before it actually gets implemented. Publishers and developers have some more control in the PC space, and as a result, you stand to benefit.
(3) “I’d rather sit on my couch and play games on a 42″+ screen than at computer monitor.”
Truth (6) applies here if you’re not equipped with a port that outputs to TV. But any hardware worth its gaming salt today–and in the past few years, even–comes equipped with a full-size HDMI port, or at least a DisplayPort. In the same way that you’d be a fool to buy that “new” Wii Mini, which doesn’t even allow for component cables, you wouldn’t want to shop for or build a PC that couldn’t output to HDMI. With Steam’s Big Picture mode, you have a gaming platform on your computer that is navigable completely with a controller, from your couch. The challenge is making TV output a standard, something that chipset makers need to buy into. It’s very, very widespread and you’re 95% likely to get a machine that can output to TV–but Intel and AMD need to make it a documented standard to guarantee it 100%.
(4) “More of my friends play on consoles.”
It’s true, and it’s listed up above as such, but this is also highly personalized. Here’s where the truth becomes a problem when it’s leveled as a criticism of the PC as a gaming platform directly. If you own an Xbox 360, you can’t play with your PS3 friends OR your PC friends, and vice versa, and vice versa. So you go to where most of your friends are… and again: That really depends on your own group.
It also is meaningful to ask: What are you playing? If you’re not huge into Halo or Call of Duty multiplayer, but live, breathe and eat something like, say, World of Warcraft, Mount And Blade or Minecraft, how worried are you about the tens of millions of people on the console versions of Call of Duty?
So this one counts as both a truth and misconception, in a way. For those in a group of friends that won’t touch PC games, it will always be a truth. For someone like me, who dislikes most multiplayer gaming in the first place, it will always be a non-issue.
Sidenote: Let’s not avoid the fact, though, that Xbox Live is exceedingly successful and well-populated in general. No matter how many PC games have healthy player counts, XBL is a popular choice.
(5) “Do we use a mouse-like device, or a controller? I just never converted to mouse and keyboard controls to appreciate it.”
The controller issue has long since been resolved in multi-platform games, but has only been recently been resolved from an operating system perspective. Windows, MacOS and Linux, obviously, stand in the way. Steam’s Big Picture mode gets the nod here again for fixing the issue, since you can navigate around the entire environment, and launch and buy games, via controller. It’s even got a marker that denotes whether a game is fully compatible, partially compatible, or not compatible with a controller.
That there are partially compatible games is the big annoyance here. The “partial” comes from certain things–like pre-game startup windows–requiring mouse-and-keyboard input. This is rarely an issue with cross-platform games, but if a PC-only game is controller compatible, then it should go the whole way and not pester the user with these dialog boxes. Take care of that stuff in the game environment, or at least make these boxes controller-compatible.
The “not compatible” part is less worrisome. If you’re purchasing a game that’s not controller-compatible, it’s likely because the genre is tailored towards more than a controller can handle, and at that point you know what you’re getting into. After all, nobody will buy a World of Warcraft expansion pack expecting it to work with a controller.
…at least, I hope not.
(6) “Consoles are cheaper than computers.”
If we’re going by the same philosophy that says a $199 Galaxy SIII on Verizon is cheaper than a $299 Nexus 4, then yes, in every situation a games-capable PC is more expensive than a console, and will probably continue to be. That’s why it’s still listed as a truth.
But think about the phone contract you’re tied to and you realize that the hardware is NOT the only thing you pay for. If we talk about a phone, we have to think about the contract; with a car, the gas mileage; with a shaving razor, the additional blades. In that “added costs” vein (and ONLY in that vein), so it goes for gaming: The hardware is NOT the only thing you pay for when you buy into a platform. To really get an accurate picture, you’d have to tally up how much you spent on every game in your console library, plus Xbox Live or Playstation Plus costs, plus how much you spent on your console, and compare it against the same things on your PC (hardware, upgrades, per-game costs, MMO subscriptions). Quite often, you can find games on PC for less than their console ports. You aren’t 100% guaranteed to find a situation where if you stay with one platform or another, you will definitely make out having saved more money, but that’s exactly why this is partly a misconception.
As with with the friends thing, this really depends on your use case: when it is that you feel the need to buy games, and what it is you’re playing. But there are examples of great savings on the PC that I don’t see on consoles quite as frequently. I bought Mass Effect 2 the same year it came out on a Steam Sale for $10. It still currently retails on Xbox 360 for $20. Skyrim for the Xbox 360 costs $53 today on Amazon. It costs $31 for the PC copy, and it was frequently featured in Steam deals for that same price–including one sale close to when it launched. (Right now, Steam has it for $60; chances are that Valve’s waiting for its winter sale to drop it by 66%.)
A small sample of some multiplatform games I got over the last three years, on PC, for…
- $5 or less: Rainbow Six Vegas 2; GRAW 2; Alpha Protocol; F.E.A.R. 3; Hitman Blood Money; Command and Conquer – Red Alert 3; Assassin’s Creed; Trine 2 ($6.24)
- $10 or less: Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, Warhammer 40k: Space Marines; Oblivion; Crysis 2; Alan Wake; Alice: Madness Returns; Bioshock 2; Blur; Bulletstorm; Dead Space; Dead Space II; F.E.A.R. 2; Far Cry 2; Red Faction: Guerilla; Fallout 3 GOTY; Need for Speed Hot Pursuit; Resident Evil 5; Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition; RAGE
- $15 or less: Batman: Arkham Asylum; Batman: Arkham City; Dragon Age: Origins; Metro 2033; Assassin’s Creed 2
- $17 or less: Darksiders; Darksiders II; Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Again, it’s not a 100% guarantee one way or another, but even after spending money on hardware upgrades, it’s very feasible to–over a five year period–spend the same total amount of cash on a PC and games as you would on a console and games, or perhaps even less. Anecdotally, and bear in mind that I’m a sale whore and frequently check up on prices for the games that I want on Amazon, I’ve had a much easier time finding games discounted for a significant chunk (50% or more) for the PC version as opposed to the console versions–and on PC, Steam makes it very easy to see the discounts when they happen.
(7) ”I was raised on my father’s work PC, so I grew up with the idea that ‘PC’s are for work, this Nintendo is for gaming.’” “Comfort. Laying on the couch feels more relaxing. Computers feels like work.”
This one is exactly the kind of thing we’re trying to analyze and dispel here. But how can you argue against the emotional ties to a culture in which you were raised? Back in the day, I, too, used my PC mainly for WordPerfect, my Commodore 64 having long been sent to the closet and Super Mario World being the hero of the day. I suppose I’m different, though, in that I got PC ports of Golden Axe and Altered Beast (yeah, they existed) from my computer-loving uncle. Games never, ever left my computer, even if there were periods during which they waned. Everyone knows (or should know) that there were games on computers before they were on what we recognize as consoles today, but its public perception as an appliance is still, today, a hard one to shake off.
I’m hoping that with Steam’s large presence in the PC space, Valve finds some way to address both the truths and misconceptions. Steam is in the position to set a standard, going forward, that every game must also align to Steam’s own achievements system in addition to the publisher’s. I hope they do this. It’ll also need to ensure that publishers include an “auto-detect” mode in every forthcoming game that appears on Steam. At some point, it will need for all “partially controller compatible” games to become “fully controller compatible.” And while it’s never going to be able to magically bring Xbox Live gamers over to its ecosystem, one would hope that Valve can negotiate with Microsoft and/or Sony to enable some kind of cross-platform multiplayer. We can already link Playstation Network accounts and Steam accounts with each other. Let’s keep moving forward.
Looking at the variety of games, recent build quality of said games and the trend towards user-friendliness, right now PC’s are a viable enough gaming platform for those who choose to stay on it. PC gaming is no longer “dead”–for the time being. With consoles being based more directly on off-the-shelf PC architecture, I’m confident that the “arms race” trend of “needing” to upgrade your video card every two years will mellow out, relative to years past. But I still feel that there’s value in dispelling the myths, and more importantly removing the obstacles. Because we’re better as consumers when we’re more properly informed. Because things can and always should get better. Because PC gaming shouldn’t be at risk of dying again in the future. Because PC gaming shouldn’t seem as intimidating as it once was, for those who have wanted to delve but were too afraid. Because if newcomers want to put a gaming PC in the living room, they should know that it can be done easily, but the experience should also continue to become easier for them. Because Steam is a great platform with frequently great pricing, and everyone should be able to benefit. And one day, in some starry Utopia, maybe Steam will make more headway into an effort that Games for Windows Live failed at: creating a world where people on multiple platforms can play together.
Post script: After posting I noticed a few comments about the particular person not “needing” to go to a PC for gaming. Because this is the same comment levied by many a PC gamer when talking about why s/he feels consoles are inferior, I didn’t think this should have been in either list–though it certainly bears mentioning. At the end of the day, it’s all about what games you care for. Here, I wanted to focus on the perceived and real technical hurdles. I suppose the last “misconception” on the list is just an exclamation point on the “many of these problems are only perception” idea.