How PCs Have Already Won The Console War.

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.

Top 5 Friday: PC Gaming Is Still Better.

I’m supposed to be this blog’s “PC guy” but in several of my more recent blogs I’ve given you plenty of reasons to be turned off by PC gaming (notably, here and here).  Where’s my smug, better than you attitude gone?  Truth be told, I’d like to think of myself less as a PC gamer and more just as a gamer overall.  That said, I truly believe that right now, the PC is still the best gaming platform around, here’s why.

5.  Better peripheral & controller support.

Console lovers, is that a collective gasp I just heard?  How dare me, right?  For the longest time consoles won the peripheral & controller category, hands down.  Like Bob Dylan said though, “Times, they are a changin’”.  As of right now you can use your Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, or PS4 controller to play PC games.  In addition, there are a plethora of other PC controllers out there, not to mention the Steam controller just got a release date. Then there are all the peripherals that are completely bonkers, like the high-end flight simulator and car simulator stuff or the mouse with 400 buttons.  Want a GameCube style controller?  Done.  How about a SNES controller.  Done.  There are so many options when it comes to using controllers on a PC, so much so that I’d consider the PC the go-to platform for peripheral choice.

4.  Better purchasing options.

Anyone can go to a brick and mortar store to buy a game, and that’s perfectly fine.  If you’re looking to purchase digitally though, nothing beats the PC’s range of options.  With a PC you’re not limited to one manufacturers store, like you are with a console.  A quick story…  Last week I was jonesing to play The Witcher 3 but I really didn’t want to drop the full $60 on it right now.  I got online and in 5 minutes I found digital downloads for $30.  By contrast, I haven’t seen a console version of the game for under $55, and I’d assume you won’t find a deal like the one I found on either console’s digital store.  Steam has great sales, and so does GOG.com.  There’s greenmangaming.com and Desura.com.  With all that choice it’s hard to argue against the PC in terms of purchasing options.

3.  Better hardware.

Ok, here it is, the age-old PC argument. Yes, PC hardware, specifically PC graphics hardware, is better.  Primarily it’s better because it evolves more quickly than the 6+ year cycle that the typical console does.  PC hardware is better for a number of reasons that go far beyond just graphics cards though.  Solid state drives are amazing and the typical PC hard drive is huge.  Sure, you can install those drives in your console, but we’re not talking about pulling stuff apart and replacing pieces.  If you’re going to do that you might as well be on a PC anyway.  PC’s come standard with massive amounts of HD space, large amounts of RAM, and graphics capabilities that can be tailored to your needs.  If you’re into this sort of thing, you can even play games across multiple monitors at absurd resolutions.  Try that PS4!

2.  PCs aren’t stuck to the desk anymore.

One of the biggest detractions for console gamers is the idea that they have to be tied to a desk.  For the longest time that was a pretty legitimate argument.  Hooking up your PC to your living room TV meant all sorts hassles.  HDMI makes it so simple though.  One cable carries the video and audio to your television.  PC’s have TV style remotes that work great, wireless controllers, and all sorts of slick interfaces to navigate content you’ve downloaded, stream-able content, and even content coming from  your cable box.  With very little effort your PC can be as versatile as your Xbox One.  Your PC is capable of everything a modern console is and a lot more.  It takes less set-up than you’d think, and it works better than you might expect.

1.  PC’s are the future, just embrace it.

This makes me chuckle.

Let me clarify my point right off the bat here.  I’m not suggesting that PCs are taking over, rather that consoles are slowly morphing into PCs.  Back in the day there was a huge divide between the console player and the PC player largely because PC gaming was a hassle.  There were driver updates to do and firmware upgrades.  Games had to be installed and “patched”.  Some games even crashed without warning.  All of that starting to sound familiar, console players?  I thought so.  In this respect PCs aren’t better they were just first to the ‘gaming is a big hassle’ party.  By the time the next generation of consoles have hit the market, they’re basically going to be PCs. Consoles are already plagued by the same issues that PC gamers have been dealing with for years.  Again, I’m not suggesting that this is a good thing, but it’s how things are in an internet-connected world.  The days of buying a PS1 game at BestBuy, bringing it home and having it work perfectly seem to be gone.  Today you have to install your console games, and patch them, often on day one.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, I’m simply pointing out that what you call a “console” these days is just becoming a PC anyway, so if you’re going to deal with all the same PC-centric hassles, you might as well reap the benefits of being a PC gamer.

An Open Letter To Steam From a Dev (and a gamer).

Dear Steam,

Before I make any remarks that you may consider offensive or inflammatory, let me first express to you my deep and undying love.  Since you came into my life all those years ago you’ve brought me joy unimaginable.  Your staggering game selection, incredible sales, and unmatched download speed have made purchasing games digitally my primary means of purchasing.  Plus, your willingness to support indie developers has made you the go to place for interesting games.  If you were here I’d wrap you up in my arms, gently caress you, and tell you how wonderful you are.  I’d want you to know that everything I’m about to tell you comes from a place of love and compassion, not of anger or hate.  I want the best for you Steam, but some of the decisions you’ve been making recently make me wonder if you’ve started running with the wrong crowd.  For years now, you’ve been not just my darling, but the darling of all PC gamers, and the envy of console players everywhere.   Before you lose your way completely, I implore you to simply listen to what I have to say.

First off, we need to address your recent loss of self-esteem.  You are beautiful; there is no reason to feel like you have to accept every single submission made to you.  “No” is a word that you’re allowed to use.  Not every game needs to be on your platform.  Games that began their lives as free-to-play mobile games might be better off simply staying that way, especially when their mobile-centric controls haven’t even been retrofitted to work well on anything but a touch screen.  You’re better than this Steam.  You sell Grand Theft Auto V, and The Witcher 3.  You don’t need to sell all of these quick-buck ports.  It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with mobile games, but we both know full well that you don’t belong with them.

These decisions are yours to make, I can’t stop you.  But your recent willingness to accept virtually any game submitted to you has some concerning implications for us developers.  Your new releases queue used to be filled with interesting titles, and we were all eager to see what you’d deliver to us next.  These days it seems like we need to weed through an endless array of demos, DLC, and mobile ports just to get to the good stuff you used to be so proud of.  Developers, especially small indies like me, are getting scared Steam.  We’re worried that our products — the hand-crafted independent titles that we used to see on the front page right next to the triple-a’s — are getting swallowed up.  If you want to see the destructive results of this behavior, you need only look to your mentally challenged little brother, the iOS App Store.  There you can still find more knock offs of Flappy Bird than any of us would ever care to play.  Look at the App Store my dear, is that what you want to become?  You’re no app slut, so stop acting like one.

I believe that the above problem is merely a symptom of your overall disease.  I’m sorry to say but you are being overcome by greed.  Your cavalier willingness to start charging money for mods seems to be more than enough evidence of this, but if you’re looking for more, consider the completely useless system of Steam Trading Cards.  Over the last few years you have seemed more than willing to add feature after feature that all aim towards bringing you more money; money that you clearly don’t need.  We love you, and we want to buy our games from you, so why not just stick to what’s always made you so perfect for us?  We need you to be the Steam we fell in love with, the Steam that was content to rake in boatloads of money by simply providing us with the best platform for our digital game purchases.

I understand that you removed the paid mod system, and it’s much appreciated that your father took the time to address the issue with us directly.  It’s still concerning though.  The things you do affect all of us, and you’re developing a reputation for being very sly and deceptive in the way you gouge customers.  Things like paid mods and trading cards don’t necessarily hurt anyone, we don’t have to participate after all.  They damage your image though, and by doing so they damage the community and the marketplace.  That has a very clear negative affect on my possible sales.  It makes me less likely to want to sell my game on your platform.

To be fair, you’re still leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else in the market.  You are most certainly still the belle of the ball when it comes to buying games digitally.  It’s because of this that I feel like this etter is so important.  It’s definitely not too late to change, and it really wouldn’t take much.  The recommendation and curator systems both work fairly well, and could be stellar with a bit of tweaking.  The review system is relatively helpful or at least entertaining.  Most of what you offer is pretty good, in fact.  You’re the big kid on the block now though, so every tiny thing that you do is analyzed, scrutinized and turned into the week’s biggest news.  You’re a bonafide celebrity, Steam.  You can’t sneeze without it making headlines.  Whether or not you mean to, these changes that you make have drastic impacts on the landscape of the digital distribution economy.

What you have to offer is amazing, and we all love you, but there is a growing darkness in you that we’re all beginning to sense.  Your greed has begun to motivate decisions that are hurting all of us, and though you tend to err on our side when those decisions turn out to be bad ones, I think we’re all on edge when it comes to how you’ll handle the next situation.  When you refund money for games that developers lied about, you go a long way to make us feel loved and wanted.  But when you subsequently flood us with unneeded games, and attempt to quietly implement new systems that pad your pockets even further we get nervous.  I’m nervous, Steam.  You’re great, and I love you, but it’s time for you to do a little soul searching.

Developing for the PC, cause and effect, and how I realized that I’m an entitled, petulant child.

Last year I read Outliers and ever since I’ve been obsessed with the idea of finding hidden connections between the causes and effects of stuff happening around us.  Continue reading “Developing for the PC, cause and effect, and how I realized that I’m an entitled, petulant child.”

Top 5 Friday: #PCMasterRace Problems

Look, we all know that the PC is the superior platform.  Every console generation that rolls out just further confirms this fact.  While consoles lag behind with chipsets that are outdated before they even launch, the PC continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible in gaming technology.  As much as I like to stand on my PC soap box and rant at the plebs (read: Chris), we’re not without our own problems, first world gaming problems, to be sure, but problems nonetheless.

  1. Stuck in the office.

    All my device driver manuals and World of Warcaft combat logs.

For the longest time, PC gaming meant using a mouse and keyboard; it meant sitting at a desk, hunched over in front of a monitor.  Console gaming, on the other hand, was represented by a comfortable couch, controller in hand, enjoying a nice, big 1080p TV.  Things like Steam’s Big Picture mode, and massively increased controller support for PC’s in general help to move PC gaming away from the home office.  We still have a way to go, though.  Unlike our console underlings, it’s not easy for us to just go to Best Buy and buy a PC that we can just plug into a TV and go.  There are media center PCs out there, but typically those aren’t the workhorse gaming PCs that we’re looking for.  If you truly want the best of both worlds (a top end PC that also plays well with your TV) you likely have to build it yourself, or at least upgrade a store bought model.  As Valve pushes it’s Steambox though, and gaming as a service becomes more viable, I think this will become less of an issue…hopefully…probably not though.

  1. Everyday PC problems.

    Hacking the Gibson.

The great thing about consoles was always the idea that you could simply buy a game, put the disc or cart in and play it immediately.  There was no install, there were no “minimum specifications” to worry about.  You bought a PSX game, you played a PSX game.  Consoles have since begun to move away from that, requiring installs of games, firmware updates, etc… but even as consoles become worse in the plug and play department, PCs aren’t getting any better.  PC gamers still deal with all sorts of PC-only problems like viruses, minimum specs, etc…  This especially true if you live in a house that isn’t a dedicated PC gamer household (luckily I do).  What I mean is that if you share your PC with, say, your 14 year old sister, who likes to download whatever new Kardassian game she found on ThisIsAVirus.com you may end up with all sorts of PC problems that you’re not going to encounter as a console gamer.  That said, the DDOS attacks to PSN and Xbox Live over the holidays were proof that consoles are becoming more vulnerable in their own right, and to be clear, that’s not something I’m happy about.  Bad things happening to gamers, regardless of platform, is bad for all of us.

  1. It’s more expensive.

    The flames represent your money burning up.

There is no doubt about it, PC gaming is more expensive (at least hardware-wise) than console gaming.  The lifespan of a console is typically longer than that of a gaming PC (assuming your console doesn’t die).  Video cards alone can be about the same price as a console, and you’d be hard pressed to find a video card that would last you upwards of 8 years.  In addition, CPUs and their interfaces change all the time, so there’s a good chance that if you want to upgrade your processor, you’re also going to have to upgrade your motherboard.  Those interface changes extend beyond just CPUs too.  Remember when motherboards switched from using AGP slots for video cards to using PCI-E slots?  Often times upgrading a single part of your PC quickly turns into upgrading the entire thing.  It’s not cheap to do that, especially when some of the hardware can feel outdated so quickly.  To be fair, graphics technology has slowed down a lot in the last few years.  Gone are the days of video cards producing double the performance every six months.  My current video card is 3+ years old and still runs pretty much any game I own at 1080p with no slowdown.  It’s still not enough to make us as economical as consoles though.

  1. You have to be a tinkerer.

    Nurse I need those needlenose pliers STAT!

Unless you want to pay the ridiculously over-inflated prices of places like Alienware, you’re going to have to learn a bit about PC hardware and it’s installation.  Truly, installing something like a video card is quite easy, but that doesn’t make it any less intimidating to the uninitiated.  Cracking open that PC case can be daunting.  What’s more, things can quickly get out of control.  As I mentioned above, upgrading a video card or a processor can turn into replacing a whole motherboard.  That is a far more intricate task.  Getting into jumper settings and plug ins for HD light, reset button, etc… is no joke.  What’s more, often times the manuals that come with motherboards are less than helpful.  It all amounts to avid PC gamers having to be avid PC users.  I haven’t even touched on OS installation, drive partitioning, driver updates, etc…  True PC gamers become tinkerers whether they like it or not, so if you don’t have a natural affinity for taking stuff apart then PC gaming is always going to bug you.

  1. It’s all more complicated.

    THIS ISN’T EVEN MY FINAL FORM!

So, this might seem like kind of a cop out for #1, but basically the amalgamation of #5 through #2 makes the entire idea of getting into PC gaming feel like a gargantuan undertaking.  There’s money to spend, skills to learn, and countless awkward hurdles to overcome.  PC gaming is great…once it’s set up…and it works.  The road to that end game (PUN!!!) is no easy task though, especially if you’ve never attempted it before.  What’s more, the PC gaming community is about as elitist as it gets.  That may be because since we’ve already overcome the hurdles we think we’re better, or maybe it’s because we have to somehow justify all the time and money we’ve spent.  Regardless of the reason, PC gaming has a stigma that extends beyond the facts about what PC gaming actually requires.  I can imagine that any prospective PC gamer would most likely be put off by this, and I can’t necessarily blame them.  There’s a lot to like about PC gaming once you’re in it, but literally everything up to that point is annoying.