Personal Computing, or: How I Learned to Stop Wasting Money and Love PC Gaming
A month or so ago, I wrote a Speakup post on Kotaku. It was... interestingly received. Some people, like Kovitlac, had salient points. Other people, like Ueziel, had terrible, terrible, stupid things to say. Then there were all the people who agreed with me, and I liked them very much.
Last night, over in our IRC, former Kotakuite PABastien (you may know him as the guy I once awarded the "most interesting commenter on Kotaku" award to) and I were talking about cool things like IMAX theatres and Cinerama and that sort of thing. I got to wondering why they were so much more desirable experiences than a normal tv approach. Why do people generally want larger televisions, for that matter, or HD video and surround sound systems?
One interesting comment made about IMAX films, aside from the fact that they're filmed on the largest film stock around (and thus have the greatest amount of detail), was that they put the screen closer to the audience, which allows for a more immersive visual approach. As the President of Immersive Games (tongue, of course, firmly in cheek), this clicked with me. I remembered watching FZD's two part video series on FOV in gaming, where the idea of being close to the monitor on a PC put part of the visuals in one's peripheral vision. This would, of course, enhance that sense of immersion. Coupled with the vast increase in image quality (known as IQ) due to the PC's graphical capabilities, and one can create an experience far more engaging than anywhere else.
It's worth noting that the people and developers I know of who tend to argue against immersive games are primarily console or laptop gamers, or, in other words, people who haven't really experienced immersive gaming. I think, ultimately, immersive experiences are a "you have to be there" kind of thing, kinda like how most people don't understand how incredible an IMAX theatre that looks like Bioshock's Rapture on the inside is until they experience it first hand.
That said, console gaming on a monitor is absolutely possible. I've got my PS3 and 360 hooked up to the same monitor my PC's hooked up to, after all (yeah, there's a whole thing about how you can't adjust console game FOVs and as such it makes console gaming on a monitor about as optimal as playing a bad port on a monitor, and another whole thing about how console games aren't generally designed with immersion in mind, but that's a topic for another day).
I began cogitating.
What makes PC gaming special? Why do I love it so much? Why do I, personally, believe it's better than console gaming?
I've finally come up with a few answers.
1. Cost: Contrary to what people will tell you, PC gaming is the cheapest way to play video games. I'm not just talking about Steam or Amazon sales, either. Guys like GreenManGaming, as well as Amazon and Steam, regularly offer sweet pre-order discounts of $5-25 off (Darksiders 2 for $35? Yes please!). Plus, many PC games still launch at $49.99.
Additionally, and more importantly, are the A and B-games. The idea of a middle-of-the-road price on consoles has pretty much died. Console publishers have to be risk-averse in this day and age, with game development costs being so expensive, but on the PC, mid-tier games are flourishing! Games like Serious Sam 3: BFE and Endless Space are absolutely tremendous experiences (I have put more time in Endless Space than I have in Gears of War 3, for instance), but they cost a fraction of a normal AAA game. A large part of the blame for the death of mid-tier games on consoles rests on the shoulders of console manufacturers, who place absurd fees and restrictions on things like patching, and the console audience, who tend not to buy experimental indie games, which leads to indie devs leaving consoles behind. What this ultimately means is that the PC audience has this broad variety of game types that release at reasonable prices. While 5-hour, $60 game experiences still exist on the PC, they're less common because of all a more robust overall release schedule. The fiercer competition and lack of licensing fees brings lower prices.
Then, of course, there's the elephant in the room: the cost of building a gaming PC. Now, I could take the cheap way out and point out that a PC is a utility, while a console is a luxury. You can live without a PC, just as you can live without a dishwasher or a refrigerator, but it makes modern life somewhat challenging. You can live without a gaming console. I could then argue that this would justify a more expensive PC, at, say, the sweet spot of $800. I could point out that you don't need to upgrade every few months (my computer is nearly half a decade old and plays The Witcher 2 rather nicely). I could point out a lot of things. But, to be honest: that's the easy way out.
In that Speakup I linked, commenter PR-0927 pointed out something kind of amazing: you can build a gaming PC that will blow consoles out of the water for just $300. Shazam. PC gaming is the least expensive way to game.
2. No Consumer Limits: You know what's really great about PC gaming? If there's a game type you want to play, chances are, it's on the PC. Want to alter a game's FOV to be more comfortable? You can do that on the PC. Wish your game came with more maps? PC gaming. Want your game to look as gorgeous as possible? Aww yeah, PC gaming's got you covered. Want to use motion controls that are more accurate than the Wii's but doesn't require a camera like Move? Well, you can use the Kinect or the Razer Hydra (which supports over 125 games). Would you like to look around independently of your movement? Check out TrackIR, which, as I understand it, is what CHKilroy uses in his Day Z series, The Days Ahead. Want to play on your TV? Go ahead! Want to game wherever you want? Well, you can go with a laptop or build a MicroATX machine and an Xbox controller. Feel free to use an HDMI cable to hook it up to a television if you want. For multiplayer gaming, you can host your own server for many games (establishing your own rules), or run things like a Mumble server, which allows for positional audio in multiplayer (meaning people hear you based on where you are and the distance between you). That's not even getting into territory like 3D gaming (which is more diverse than the console alternatives) or ultra-immersive widescreen gaming with 3D, professional-quality audio. Originally, I thought that consoles had an edge because they allowed local multiplayer, but it turns out that the PC does that too; I don't own a single PS3 game with local MP, and very few 360/GCN games that have it--in fact, some developers have said that modern console games don't need splitscreen.
So yeah! You can play games on a PC any way you want! Not only that, but you can do other things, like create your own machinima with ease (or just record games without unnecessary hardware), or even create your own games.
3. Best Game Variety: Speaking of playing any way you want, what good would life be if you couldn't play a huge variety of games? Well, fortunately for PC gamers, the broadest possible variety of games can be located on the PC. While consoles have troubles with backwards compatibilty, PCs can play basically anything and everything. For PC games that have troubles working, there are services like GOG that often fix them. On top of that, there's just the inherent superiority of the PC as a platform: because it can use any control scheme ever, any game possibly conceived of can be played on the PC. There are gametypes that don't work on consoles, like real-time strategy games. There are other games that have to be gimped to work on consoles, like first-person shooters. To top it off, there's the vast number of MMOs and F2P titles that can be found everywhere on the PC. The only games that can't be played on PC are exclusive titles, and saying that exclusive titles are a reason not to play PC games (by the way, there are more exclusives released on the PC in any given year than all the other consoles combined) is like saying that cassettes are better than digital music because some bands never released their stuff digitally. It's a silly argument. The PC has literally thousands of games and every conceivable genre to play, and you don't have to worry about companies removing software backwards compatibility so they can encourage you to buy their HD remasters.
You can fully customize your PC gaming experience. No complaints about terrible dashboards here, folks.
4. No Developer Limits: You know what else is great about PC Gaming? The fact that developers don't have to pay $40,000 to patch their games. Also, developers don't have to worry about getting approval to publish their games. Sure, Steam may give developers a hard time, but there are other avenues to explore if they don't relent. Plus, as mentioned above, there are tons of different game peripherals to use--far more than one would find on a console. In other words, developers can do practically anything they can think up, and now, with tools like Cryengine, UDK, and Unity, as well as mod tools for games like Skyrim or Portal 2, making games for PC has never been easier. It also helps that people can bypass publishers and rely on things like crowdfunding to make their own games. Plus, by avoiding publisher requirements, developers can create whatever they want without having to rely on ratings boards. Some games might be denied classification or given an AO rating by the industry-mandated ESRB (or similar games rating board) or console manufacturer submission process, meaning they can't be sold in stores or even released on a platform--this isn't a problem for games sold on the PC. Then, of course, there's the fact that developers can make whatever they want without the extreme constraints of a console.
Then, of course, there's the audience. With so many developers having shut down this gen, it's nice to hear that developers can make back their budgets within 48 hours on the PC. It's even nicer to know that PC gamers are simply more supportive of a wider variety of video games, supporting extremely diverse titles. Even better is that PC games aren't limited by how many copies of a disc get printed or how long a console continues to be made. That means selling fourteen year-old games is still a viable option. Developers can keep making money on old games, buoying them in times of trouble.
If you care about video games, then you should understand just how great PC gaming is for games development. Time and again, I've heard people whine about how games are becoming less diverse and more risk-averse. Well, that's a console problem, not a PC problem.
5. Ease: Lastly, I'd like to talk about just how easy PC gaming is. Oh, sure, I've heard the complaints: people talk about how you have to upgrade every six months, or know all this stuff about how to run a PC, or what have you, but the truth is that it's extremely easy.
Building a PC is as easy as reading a simple guide and playing with legos. Or, if you're not into that, you could just buy one. After all, computers are utilities. You use them for work, for play, for communication, for photography, for lots of things. I use mine as a media center as well. I said I wasn't going to do this, but, to be honest, it's worth spending a bit more on a PC simply because it can do so much.
When it comes to system maintenance, all you need to do on a PC is run anti-virus scans (which you'll need to run on any computer you have regardless) and update drivers. The only drivers you will need to update are going to be video drivers, and Windows may upgrade those for you automatically. If they don't, then Nvidia and AMD's current driver suites have the ability to let you know that you're in for an upgrade. Steam offers a similar service.
When it comes to playing games, most of the time, all you have to do is download the game on a service like Steam, click play, and off you go. That's it! It's just as simple as playing a console game. You may have to enter a code, but, hey, you'll have to do that on some console games as well. Even better: PC gaming doesn't have to worry about any sort of Project $10 shenanigans! Steam games don't even do any installation (they have a first run DirectX type check, but you only have to click a button or two to make it work)--just download and play, which makes it easier than PSN's slow, non-background downloads coupled with slow installations. Plus, if you want them to, Steam games will patch automatically, meaning you don't have to wait for any lengthy patch installations. That said, I do realize this problem is exclusive to PSN, where it can take upwards of two hours to patch a game; 360 patches are always really small and fast.
6. It's Yours: There is something distinctly satisfying about ownership. With my consoles, things are never really mine. I have to play their games on their terms, and if I don't, well, tough. If I get a headache playing a game with a narrow FOV, there's nothing I can do about it. If I don't like the user interface--and I abhor both XMB and the 360 implementation of Metro--same thing. I can't customize my box beyond a paint job. I can't control my experience.
It's not just about control, though... it's about something deeper. I'm not really sure how to phrase it, to be honest. When you put sweat, and sometimes blood, into building your own computer, its yours. Nothing can take that away from you. You built it. You put every part there. You made this. It is yours.
That's a beautiful thing.
I look forward to seeing some excellent counterpoints on why your platform of choice is the best way to game!
A special thanks to SirMarth01 for helping me come up with a good, inoffensive title for the article.