Why I’m returning to the PC for the ‘next generation’

20130611-215842.jpgI have a long history with PC gaming; I was there back when you had to tweak your autoexec.bat and config.sys to squeeze that last 200K of memory to run specific games, and when we used to debate which DOS extender was the best. I owned consoles too, but my PC was where my serious gaming happened for many, many years.

That period ended when I badly injured my back in 2008 and had to limit the hours I spent sat in front of a keyboard / mouse – I could barely put the hours in for work (and open source), never mind spending my gaming time there too. So I switched over to the Xbox 360 for most of my gaming, and for a while that’s been fine.

But, a new generation of consoles is upon us this year, and E3 has been a major part of the news this week. Microsoft have royally screwed up and overpriced the Xbox One, as well as making many aspects of game sharing etc far too complicated. Microsoft have also been drifting away from the indie scene for some years, very much ceding that territory to Sony, and Xbox One is continuing that vein – I enjoy playing indie games so this is a problem for me. Plus there’s that Kinect thing which I have no real interest in paying for (you have no choice on XBox One), or having in my lounge all the time – gesture control is great for touch and maybe in fine control such as Leap Motion, but full body tracking and voice control isn’t something I want or need. In contrast, Sony have clearly learned from the debacle that was the first few years of PS3 (something MS seems to have chosen to emulate for some reason), announcing that the PS4 would be cheaper, have better hardware, have a more traditional approach to game sharing, and are actively encouraging indies. So Sony conclusively won E3 2013 – more because they didn’t kick themselves in the nuts like Microsoft did than any earth-shattering story of their own.

I don’t pin my banner to any one console brand like silly fanboys, and so wouldn’t have any hesitation making the obvious choice of switching my ‘allegiance’ from Xbox to Playstation this generation. I bought Xbox 6 years ago because it was the better deal – only the rabid faithful would deny that Sony completely fumbled the opening couple of years of PS3 – and I’d buy PS4 this time around for the same reason; the only difference is this time it’s Microsoft punching themselves repeatedly in the face. But, I probably won’t buy either, because the platform I’m most excited about next generation is neither of these – it’s the trusty PC.

Because of the way the industry is going, the only real advantage of owning a console in the XBox One / PS4 generation is the reduced initial cost outlay. Most of the other advantages of console ownership have drained away in the last 8 years:

  • Instant gaming – ‘switch on and go’. Mandatory installers and day one patches on consoles have got rid of that. Consoles that require a disk are actually less convenient than Steam’s media-less library.
  • Exclusives – it’s just too expensive for most developers to make exclusives these days, so there’s not that many of them. Certainly I didn’t see any exclusives at either of the Microsoft and Sony presentations that would influence my decisions, and almost everything announced had a PC version too.
  • Multiplayer – Steam, Playstation and XBox Live all basically do the same thing, but Steam is free while all the console systems now require a monthly subscription
  • Specialist Hardware – both next-gen consoles are just tweaked PCs. At launch you’ll get the equivalent of today’s $800-1000 PC for $400 (PS4), which is clearly a good deal at launch, but the days of consoles doing things no PC can for the first few years are long gone. You’ll probably pay the difference between the console and the PC over time anyway in higher game prices and multiplayer subscriptions.
  • Compatibility – an old bugbear of PC gaming which is much reduced in recent years. It used to be that you couldn’t run PC games unless you upgraded your hardware regularly, and you had to tweak a lot of drivers and settings etc. Bulk system analysis like that done by Steam and Unity, plus the fact that PC performance has stayed far enough ahead that you don’t always need the bleeding-edge kit any more, has made this far less of a problem – I’ve tried a few games on PC and Mac in recent years and never had to tweak anything. It’ll never be as perfectly predictable as the homogeneous console, but it’s not the deadly minefield it once was.

In addition to those shrinking advantages, I find myself regularly missing games on my PC. For a start there are titles which never made it to consoles like Trackmania and Team Fortress 2 (edit: OK TF2 had *a* version on consoles but it’s nothing like the current version which has evolved significantly – maybe take DOTA 2 or Torchlight 2 as cleaner examples), and a wide variety of indie games, only a few of which make it to consoles and usually much later. Then there are those that just play better with a mouse / keyboard combination or are just better on a platform that doesn’t stand still for quite so long (I enjoyed both Skyrim and Borderlands 2 on 360, but watching PC videos put things into context). Then there’s the whole modding community which breeds unique experiences of it’s own and which almost never make the jump to consoles, and they do, only in very, very limited form.

So, I’ve decided that with this next generation I’m making the transition back to PC gaming. Since I’ll never go back to sitting at my desk all evening, I still need something that I can use from the couch, but luckily Steam’s Big Picture Mode has solved that issue, and wireless controllers, keyboards and mice are abound. There are lots of HTPC cases designed to sit under the TV while not compromising modularity, and it’s easy enough to build a machine now with around the same power as a PS4, so long as you’re willing to pay more and put up with a bit more heat & noise generation – but hey, I had an early iteration 360, I’m used to a bit of noise and heat ;)

I’m still interested to know what Valve plans to do with the ‘Steam Box’, but on reflection I think a self-build is going to be better for me regardless anyway. Firstly it’s because I suspect I’ll want the ‘Best’ configuration anyway (out of the mooted ‘Good’, ‘Better’, ‘Best’ options) which inherently leans towards self-build, and secondly although I love the idea of a Linux-based console, the practicalities are that only about 10% of Steam’s library runs on Linux right now. So I’ll probably slap Windows 8 on this box for the moment and review that as things develop later.

Over time I think a PC box will give me an equal or better experience over a console this generation and won’t end up much more expensive overall once you factor in the lack of subscriptions and the cheaper games, and I can still play in the comfort of my lounge. Every 18 months or so I can slap in new components and get a performance boost if I want, or not if I don’t. Most AAA games have a PC version again now but will be based on the frozen PS4 level, which we can already match but there may be little extras as we’ve seen recently in the PC scene. On top of that I’ll have access to pretty much all the indie games as they come out, regardless of quirkiness and whether a publisher or console vendor thinks they’re worthy. Maybe I’ll buy a PS4 as well if something especially interesting happens there and the price is right, but on principle I’m going to default to a PC box and see how that goes.

I’m coming home.

  • Terminal58

    Team Fortress 2 is on PS3 and Xbox 360. Without all the hats I mind you

  • anon

    PS3 doesn’t require a monthly subscription for multiplayer, did this change for PS4 ?

  • pjcast

    While PS4 announced some openness, they can always recant later on with a firmware update (like how PS3 had Linux support, but then removed it :(.

    There’s also the ouya for an Android type game system supporting… seems like interesting market making indie games pretty feasible (much like there are so many tablet/phone indie games cause they can be more easily made by smaller teams/studios). Plus, I’ve been doing a lot of ARM / embedded / android / etc development lately, so it sparks my interest. Just, not a lot of exposure and/or owners.

    Anyway, I’ve always been a PC gamer (even though I’ve owned many consoles)! Welcome back :-)

  • stevestreeting

    Yes, multiplayer on PS4 requires a $5pm subscription.

  • stevestreeting

    TF2 has evolved so much since those versions it’s not really the same game. Plus there’s games like Starcraft 2, DOTA and Torchlight 2 that never made the jump.

  • klaim

    One good thing is that both PS4 and XBoxOne controllers have USB ports so it’s easy to use them on PC…. :D

  • Lee Harris

    I’ll be interested to see Steam’s Big Picture Mode in action.
    The only aspect that would every tempt me back to PC gaming would be if Valve released Half Life 3 exclusive to PC (especially if this were to boost sales of a Steam Box), but even then I doubt that I would pay that amount of money just for the 1 game. I can see the benefits of PC gaming from an indie perspective, but then again Playstation has been successfully courting indie developers for a while now and if E3 is anything to go by, then this looks to be continuing. They have also been taking a very developer focus stance, which again seems to be a good thing.
    As you’ve probably already gathered, I’m sticking with Playstation for the time being. the PS4 looks to be reasonably priced, well supported, not a DRM nightmare and will also have some of my favourite exclusive franchises (Uncharted, Infamous etc).
    It also has to be said that since I became a PS+ member at the beginning of this year, I have been extrememly pleased by the value that I have gotten out of this.

  • stevestreeting

    Sony are definitely better at indie titles now, they’re basically like XBLA was a few years ago, but it’s still a very small selection compared to what you get on PC – with the indie Humble Bundles you’re lucky if one of them is available on a console. I have a list of PC-only games (non-indie too) that I want to play but none that are exclusive to consoles, and I’d like to get the flexibility back of using a thumbstick controller or a keyboard/mouse when I choose – a lot of the PC games that didn’t make it to consoles are because the interface wouldn’t work well.

    Both Sony and MS seem to be going down the ‘free games’ route on their subscriptions, but I think Steam’s regular sales are a better deal overall.

    And there was no doubt in my mind you’d go for PS4 this generation ;)

  • Jordan

    I agree with most of your points — I didn’t get a current gen console (PS3) until the end of 2011, and by then even my built-in-2009 PC could produce better visuals.

    In my opinion, consoles do still have one advantage: As a dedicated gaming machine, it helps me trick myself into sticking to my work when I’m on the PC. Before I got the PS3, I’d always be much more tempted to open up Steam when I really should have been coding. Maybe Big Picture Mode would also help with this (and FPS’s are certainly more enjoyable with a keyboard + mouse), but for me, I think having a gaming console has actually increased my productivity when I’m on the computer.

  • stevestreeting

    Since I still plan to do all my gaming on a separate machine in the lounge this isn’t a problem for me :)

  • Spiritogre

    You don’t know many console games, do you!?

  • Spiritogre

    You forgot to mention that this is for PS+, one subscription counting for PS3, PS4 and Vita and you get full priced games for free along with it.

  • Spiritogre

    I hate Steam and DRM and that. I really hate what Valve turned gaming into! Without the success of HL 2 we wouldn’t have this shit. We would still OWN our games.
    I have about 2000 PC games, collected over the years and I’m proud of them.
    Now, with new download only or even account connected games I have nothing of value. The moment the server goes off all my money and my collection is gone. I didn’t buy the game I just borrowed it. It’s okay for a game that costs 5 € but I would never ever buy a full price game with such restrictions. I can’t even sell my games there – a prevention I see as illegal in my book as a pirated copy of a game itself!
    That’s why I got to love my consoles during the last few years, I value the games there a bit more. Because I know I can still collect them and play them in 10, 20 or 30 years again.

  • Lee Harris

    I also thought it was worthwhile mentioning that Trackmania also came to consoles, both portable and home consoles in the form of Wii and DS versions of the games.
    I didn’t play either version though, so can’t comment beyond this.

  • Lee Harris

    Well, I started playing “The Last of Us” last night on my PS3, and so long as Naughty Dog continue this same level of quality with their PS4 releases, then yes, I know where my gaming will continue to stay!

  • stevestreeting

    I can see this argument, it’s just not something that bothers me. I rarely play a game twice and have stopped buying movies and music altogether in favour of just streaming subscriptions. There’s always enough new stuff out there that I never have the time to revisit old experiences – I have a shelf full of old DVDs and game boxes that I never touch and just clutter up the place. The few times I have gone back to revisit old classics I’ve generally been disappointed – the memories were better ;)

  • stevestreeting

    Still not on any consoles I would actually buy ;)

  • stevestreeting

    Sure I do. It’s just that 95% of the ones I’ve cared about in the last 2 years are better on PC.

  • stevestreeting

    Sure, and assuming you haven’t already bought those games and like them, I guess that’s a good deal. I’m content with the cheaper games and heavy discounting of Steam sales where I can choose what I buy.

  • stevestreeting

    Can you name much other than the odd Naughty Dog game every couple of years worth buying a PS4 for though, for a person like me for whom it’s not an automatic main choice? If I wasn’t so keen on getting back to the things I’ve missed on PC I’d definitely choose the PS4, but other than ND’s impressive output I didn’t see much that I wouldn’t rather buy on PC.

  • Spiritogre

    You only mention low budget titles, though. And of course if you prefer strategy games it’s understandable that you play them on PC, I would do the same. However I especially like games like Yakuza or action titles like Devil May Cry, Enslaved and so on.

  • Spiritogre

    So, why are you so much against Playstation?

  • Spiritogre

    You don’t buy games at Steam, you borrow them.

  • Spiritogre

    It’s a point. Personally I have lots of old music CDs that I plug in once in a while and listen to them again. I agree that I have a ton of DVDs that I only watched once or twice and have only several movies and series I definitely want to keep and also still watch once in a while. On the other hand I could sell the ones I don’t want.
    So if you see a Steam game as something temporary and only buy in sales for under 10 bucks, well okay. I also rarely play old games. But I don’t want to miss the feeling looking at my SNES or other old games and dwell in nice memories. Also many games in fact are still fun to play. However, I certainly prefer consoles over PC for my retro nights. I guess it’s just a different feeling. PC games feel more arbitrary, except a few classics maybe.

  • Lee Harris

    Obviously it’s difficult to comment on exclusive worthwhile exclusive games for the PS4, as only a select few have been announced so far, for me it’s Infamous: Second Son which I’m looking forward to (as an exclusive), as I enjoyed the previous games on the PS3.
    It’s fair to say that some of the teams that worked on PS3 will be migrating to PS4 (well for first party teams its a requirement), as such, looking to the future I’m looking forward to whatever comes from the following:
    Quantic Dream (Beyond/Heavy Rain)
    Nippon Ichi (Disgaea series)
    Media Molecule (Little Big Planet)
    Team ICO (Hopefully Last Guardian idc)
    Naughty Dog (obviously)
    From my perspective (not being a heavy PC user), the fact that indie games are being actively encouraged onto the PS4 is also a great thing, especially in viw of the fact that I am unable to play them on anything other than a console.

  • Lee Harris

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you DID buy a Wii, and I believe that you (or at least your wife) owned a DS…
    That is unless you have invented a time machine and altered the course of your past (always possible – I wouldn’t put it past you)?

  • stevestreeting

    I’m not – I’ve said multiple times it’s won the next gen console war; I just want a PC to be my main machine this time around.

  • stevestreeting

    Both long since retired and I wouldn’t buy either today.

  • stevestreeting

    Not games I enjoyed when I tried them. All the games I enjoyed most recently on consoles were available on PC too – Skyrim, Arkham City, XCOM, Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Bioshock Infinite – and they looked nicer too.

  • stevestreeting

    Same with downloadable games on consoles, really. *shrug*

  • stevestreeting

    All depends on what type of thing you like of course – out of that list only ND’s stuff interests me. It’s the same with the XB1 exclusive list, there’s really nothing there that pulls me and all the stuff I do want is getting a PC port (like Thief 4, Watch Dogs). The fact that the XB1 and PS4 architectures are so similar to a PC I reckon there won’t be much that isn’t ported outside of the first-party studios just for financial reasons.

  • Spiritogre

    Have you seen The Order 1886?
    Of course you can select PC genres and say “nah, consoles don’t offer games I like” – but that’s just you, isn’t it? I play almost all kinds of genres and enjoy all kinds of games and I have over 20 PS3 exclusives I really love and wouldn’t like to miss.
    Well I also can’t figure the hell out why people like Minecraft or Dota … ^^

  • Spiritogre

    I don’t pay for downloadable games because I don’t own them. I only buy game on discs.
    For example I’m finally thinking of getting Journey since it came out on disc as well a while ago.
    And I also won’t get PS+ because I simply don’t play online on console, anyway. In my opinion that stuff is more interesting for the console only gamer.

  • Spiritogre

    I somehow understand what you want to say but also at the same I don’t understand. I understand that you can get all the games YOU like to play on a PC so you have no need for a console. But why the hell are you sounding as if that statement was a general truth? You sound like consoles don’t have good exclusive games. And that is plain wrong! It sounds like you need to assure yourself that consoles don’t have interesting games so you don’t get tempted! But that’s not the consoles problem, it’s yours. ^^

  • stevestreeting

    I never stated in my blog post or comments that this is anything other than my personal decision, backed up with my reasoning. It’s you who seem to have taken this as an affront to your own personal choice. ;)

  • stevestreeting

    Your choice of course – I find swapping discs very annoying now that I’ve had the experience of not having to do it. The whole ‘who owns downloadable content’ issue is very much still to be resolved, no doubt it’ll be debated more over the years. I I’ve said, I’m not attached enough to owning a physical copy forever more to care *that* much about it – I’m not a collector and I generally prefer electronic stuff because it doesn’t get in my way and the experience is better (instant access). If I lose access to all my content later that will kind of suck, but in practice it’s unlikely and even if it happened I probably wouldn’t notice because I’d be playing new things. YMMV

  • Spiritogre

    Yeah well, nothing’s valuable anymore, we’re in a digital throwaway society. Okay for me if the stuff was cheap, for example 5 $ but in case I paid 20 or more – sorry not with me!
    Well, it’s not my money but I know people who spent a few thousand bucks on Steam. And one day the servers will be shut down. All the money down the drain and nothhing left. Suits them.

  • Spiritogre

    I just don’t think you make it that clear in your blog post …

  • stevestreeting

    The thing is, if you bought something on Steam in 2003 you can still use it today and probably for years to come on your brand new PC, compared to if you bought something from XBLA or PS3 Store which you won’t be able to use on the next gen. I understand this fear that the Steam servers will just disappear one day, but to me that’s a very remote possibility compared to the guaranteed obsolescence of a generation of consoles. Not that I play old games very much because they usually ruin my treasured memories, but it’s something to consider. The only way to avoid any risk at all is to not buy anything online, like you do – but for me that’s undermining my experience too much to be something I’d choose to do (some of my favourite games are downloadable).

  • stevestreeting

    Fair enough – for the record on my blog everything is my opinion ;)

    Outside of my personal preference for individual games though, I do think there’s a general rule that there are fewer exclusives than ever before. That’s just the nature of the industry now, AAA games are incredibly expensive to make and releasing them for only one platform is not a sensible business decision – especially when porting in the XB1/PS4 era is easier than ever. The only permanently single-platform games are first-party titles now, and that’s not likely to change.

  • Gian

    I usually have the PC as the main gaming device, then i buy consoles when they are on the market for some years (3-4 miminum) so i can buy games for cheap. I even bought the PS2 when the PS3 was out for a long time and found many used games for almost nothing.

    Usually i buy console games because they have different gameplays than the “mouse+keyboard” ones and this is interesting for me. I generally don’t like console FPSs (only Condemned 2 and few others are nice, unavailable on PC) because they are bad played with controllers. But i also play some PC games with the controller, like Dark Souls that was a console-only game and was ported to PC thanks to an online petition. I played tons of hours on it and even the sequel will be on PC. I suggest it for your PC gaming with a controller, if you haven’t experienced it yet on Xbox.

    Probably many people like to store their games even when they’ll never play them again in the future, so it’s somehow useless, but i can say i like it the fact that a PC game is more or less compatible with more modern systems or that it’s possible to hack the files to fix (almost always) imcompatibilities, when with consoles you know you will lose everything you own when your hardware will break and it is not more sold anywhere. It’s sad because i think that there are lots of old console games that are good even today and they continue to sell those on modern console without any care for the customers (they don’t consider that people may have already that game in the old format). When i invested 60-70-80 $€£ on a game i’d like to have more “durability” ;)

    This compatibility helps also mods (there are some that take years to be done), HD remakes (see Doom & co.), longer multiplayer support (now is disappearing even on PC but you can run a server yourself of old FPS games and continue to play with people even when the game is not supported with official servers for years). I love seeing gamers have more options for enjoying their payed games. And of course i’d like to play more games that i feel i want to play for years (well, not continously, eh eh). For example System Shock 1/2 (and Dark Souls in the future) are good examples of games i like to play sometimes again.

    I also am looking at creating a small PC (i need to bring it to another house sometimes and my tower case or notebooks for gaming are not an option for me). I have seen interesting mini-ITX builds on YouTube and forums. Using closed loop liquid cooling radiators (it’s not an entire liquid cooling system, nothing complicated, it helps just to move then radiator/fan to a more convenient place instead of placing it near the processor) and good (aluminium) cases you can have decent peformance with silence :) Look for example at this video http://youtu.be/dWAeZYB9DGg

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  • kinjal kishor

    Finally you saw the obvious :)