By: Steve Zachmann, contributor
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about where I stand when it comes to how I choose to play my games. Growing up I was a console gamer. I never played Zork, or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or any of the other text-based adventure games. I was a Nintendo kid, through and through. In the 16-bit era I was a Genesis fan, and later an SNES fan. I was also the proud owner of a Playstation 1. At some point though, the PC weaseled it’s way into my gaming habits, planted it’s spiky tentacles in my heart, and shoved consoles out of my gaming world. For years and years I would have put myself in the hardcore PC gaming community. I wasn’t as hardcore as many, moreso than others, but I certainly was not a console gamer anymore. In fact, I probably put less than 50 hours into games on my Xbox 360, as opposed to the thousands of hours I poured into PC games. As the years have gone by though, I’ve found myself less and less attached to the PC. I would say that at this point, I’m truly platform agnostic. I’m in a place in my life where I no longer care enough about any single platform to defend it. I have no allegiance to the PC, the Wii U, or any other console. Show me a platform that quickly and easily allows me to play the games that I want to play and you’ve sold me. That said, I’m confident that the console wars are over, and that the PC has won, but probably not for the reasons you think.
Back in the late 90’s there were very compelling reasons to choose console games over PC games, many of which had to do with convenience. The process for playing a console game was simple; buy the game, play the game. The process for playing a PC game was significantly more complicated. You’d have to buy the game, install the game, possibly patch the game, possibly tweak graphics settings, hope that your 6 month old $500 graphics card could keep up, hope that Windows updates didn’t break anything, etc… You could then play the game, hunched over your desk like a troll.
The funny thing is, instead of the PC adapting to the console’s simple, minimalist approach to gaming, the console adapted virtually all of the PC’s annoyances. First off, consoles now all have hard drives with storage that you have to manage. Virtually all major triple-A games have significant install sizes, too. When you buy a console game, you have to make sure you have enough space on your hard drive for the install. That’s a PC problem if ever there was one. Then there’s the issue of patching. The words “day 1 patch” are uttered with such frequency regarding console games that I have to chuckle when I think of the quaint old days of popping in a game and expecting it to work. And speaking of working, gone are the days of console games that simply don’t hard-crash. Back in the day I remember my NES games not working, but 99% of the time it was because you had to blow on them, not because the software wasn’t made to run on the OS while the Facebook app was running in the background.
Consoles also have firmware updates now, too. Harkening back to the 90’s again, this idea just seems ridiculous. Your PS1 was your PS1. It didn’t even have firmware, for all we knew. It worked on magic and pixie dust, for all we knew, but barring hardware failure, it worked without exception. It never needed updates, or patches; it never crashed or slowed down because it was trying to multitask too much. The most hilariously damning piece of evidence to support my claim is the latest firmware upgrade for the Xbox One; it’s running Windows 10. To be clear, the Xbox one is actually a PC. At least in as much as the Steam Box is a console.
What I’m getting at here is that the PC has already won the console wars because every major console on the market is built on hardware and software paradigms pioneered by the PC. That doesn’t mean the PC is better, it simply means that the PC was first. You can choose to prefer “console” gaming or “PC” gaming at this point, but the truth is that they’ve been bleeding together for far longer than fanboys on both sides of the fence want to admit. The Dreamcast had a keyboard, that felt like a cardinal sin at the time. Xbox 360 controllers can be used (natively) on the PC. HDMI makes it just as easy to plug a PC into a television as a console. Virtually every digital game service overs automatic patching, cloud save, and other features that mimic consoles. As the years go by there becomes less and less difference between PC gaming and console gaming.
PCs and consoles have fewer and fewer exclusives as well. When the Genesis and SNES were duking it out it seemed like there were entire libraries of exclusives for each system. These days I can barely think of a reason to align with any console maker or the PC (except you Nintendo, you big non-conformist weirdo). Also, the term “exclusive” is often substituted for “console exclusive” which means it’s also available on PC. I see less and less in the way of games that distinguishes a given console. When I think of Xbox, I think Halo, when I think PlayStation I think Naughty Dog. Nintendo is certainly a holdout in this sense (which, by the way, is why I bought a Wii U) but neither of the others, or the PC, has any one library that is worth losing my mind over.
Finally, let’s talk about emulation for a minute. Backwards compatibility is a great thing, and it’s something that I feel is a great selling point for anyone with a large physical catalog of games, but any console that is re-selling digital copies of games isn’t using backwards compatibility, they’re using emulation. Nintendo sells all sorts of NES games on it’s eShop and those games are emulated. You can play those games on the PC as well, via the same type of emulation. The only difference is that when you do it on the PC you’re stealing. The point here is that emulation is not a PC term anymore, and will never be a PC term anymore. The PS4 can’t play PS1 games (which is completely reasonable, by the way), but I’m sure it could emulate them. Emulation is a fine concept, as long as it’s done legally, and it’s not one that console makers are afraid of. But again, it’s just another in a long line of reasons why PCs and consoles are a whole lot more alike than most of us stop to realize.
Personally, I believe this is all a moot point. I believe that someday, within the next 10 years, none of us will own consoles or PCs, but rather subscribe to services that stream games directly as we play them, like Gaikai. That type of service isn’t ready for prime-time yet, at least not in the US, but it will be one day, and when that day comes we’ll all just be renting time on massive game servers rather than owning pieces of hardware that sit in our homes. I, for one, welcome our digital gaming overlords.