I 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.