PC vs. Console Gaming 2012

by Mike Shea on 19 September 2012

Note on 17 June 2013: My opinions on this topic have changed drastically since I originally wrote this. Take a look at the article I Was Wrong About PC Gaming to see how I feel about it in June 2013. I am keeping the rest of this article intact for archival purposes.

30 second summary

While die-hard PC gamers continue to promote the virtues of PC gaming, consoles still provide a better choice. Consoles are cheaper, easier to use, optimized for gaming, and let you play games on your couch instead of an office desk. PC gaming will always be around, but the landscape for electronic games is changing. New consoles are on the horizon, mobile gaming will continue to grow at an exponential rate, and I predict at least one new platform, a download-only gaming console, that will change the industry over the next five years. Whatever happens, it's a great time to be a gamer.

The state of PC gaming

A few recent articles on the virtues of PC gaming got me fired up about the topic of PC gaming. My very first blog article talked about why computers suck, a topic I reviewed again in 2008. Over the past ten years, little has changed.

Looking at current retail sales, it is clear that most gamers agree with me. Of 14.6 million retail sales of Modern Warfare 3, 2.38% were sold on the PC (source: VGChartz). This doesn't include Steam sales, of course, but I seriously doubt that pushes the number up much higher than maybe 10%.

Why are PCs a poor choice for gaming? Let's take a look:

Computers are expensive. As typical home computers go further down in price, it becomes harder and harder to buy an off-the-shelf gaming PC for any reasonable price. Building one yourself puts you at risk for component failure, compatibility problems, and painful troubleshooting. The cheapest decent home-built gaming PC still runs four times the price of a console.

Compatibility still suffers. Even though PC operating systems have improved, much of the hardware in our PCs comes from the lowest bidder to keep the costs down. Device drivers are poorly written by sub-standard programmers who don't know the rest of the hardware you have or the software you plan to run. This results in compatibility failures and unreliable performance.

Software isn't optimized. Since game publishers have no idea what sorts of hardware will be used to run their games, they can't optimize their software for any particular build. Most PC games have a thousand little settings with identifiers no reasonable person should ever have to understand (mip-mapping, 16x anti-aliasing, trilinear interpolation) much less weigh when tweaking a system. The best publishers, like Blizzard, write for the lowest common denominator, ignoring the latest and greatest graphical improvements to improve performance and reliability.

You play sitting at a desk. A lot of people spend all day sitting at a desk looking at a monitor at work. Who wants to do that at home? Why look at a 24" monitor in an office chair when you can look at a 52" TV with a six-speaker surround system? Sure, you can move your PC to the living room but doing so goes far outside how any software designer expected you to use it so you'll have all sorts of other quirky problems.

Two things have happened over the past five years that improved the PC as a gaming platform. The first was Windows 7, one of the better operating systems Microsoft has released. The second is Steam, a console-like interface that makes it much easier for PC gamers to purchase, download, and update games. I like Steam a lot, but it's clear, even to Valve, that Steam isn't the future of gaming on PCs. They're going their own way.

The advantages of consoles

Over the past ten years, consoles have gotten a lot better than ever before. Built-in wifi networking, high definition video, and multi-channel audio all greatly improved the quality of the games we play on a console. The best shooters, platformers, and RPGs are all out on consoles. Only massive online games appear to be missing on consoles, which continues to surprise me.

Consoles continue to hold many advantages over PCs for gaming:

Low cost. Good consoles run about $300 for a top-end system. That's about a quarter of the cost for a decent gaming PC.

Easy to use. Consoles "just work". You don't have to monkey around with graphic settings or device drivers. Recently, however, console operating systems and games have required installations, updates, and account management that reminds us why we left PC gaming in the first place. Consider all the EA account wrangling with Mass Effect 3 as an example. Still, overall, consoles are much easier to use than PCs for gaming.

Optimized programming. Game publishers know exactly what hardware they're writing for. They can write, test, and optimize their games to run as intended on hardware they know well. Recently, however, publishers like Bethesda seem to have more trouble programming reliably for the PS3 but this seems limited to this one publisher.

A relaxing experience. Sitting down, whipping out a controller, and playing some Batman: Arkham Asylum is a pleasure, one very physically different from "work". We get to sit on a couch in front of our big-screen HDTVs with Dolby Digital surround sound and just enjoy our games.

The advantage of dictatorship

There is an inherent advantage to a platform where the same company owns and controls the hardware and the operating system. I argue it's the reason the mac is such an outstanding desktop and laptop computer. I argue it's the reason the iPhone is the single most popular phone and the iPad is the single most popular tablet. We libertarian hackers hate the idea that a single company should control the total pipeline from hardware to content, but when they do, the whole "system" runs better. In my mind, the Xbox 360 is the best product Microsoft ever put out. It's the only product they've ever put out that I truly love.

The future of electronic gaming

We're in a very interesting point in time when it comes to electronic gaming. Windows 8 has scared Valve, probably the biggest distributer of PC games, so badly that they plan to build their own linux-based operating system.

iOS gaming continues to grow at an exponential rate, eclipsing even console gaming. People seem to really love the convenience of buying, downloading, and playing a game on a handheld device. The publishers of these games who do well, do REALLY well. I predict mobile gaming will continue on this exponential growth for the next five years.

The Nintendo Wii U is the first of a new generation of consoles (though I sure as shit won't be buying one). Microsoft and Sony will both likely have new consoles out in the next couple of years and I bet they focus these consoles on downloadable games, a very successful trend we've seen with the Apple app store and Steam.

I fully expect Apple to come out with a gaming console in the next two years. Unlike Microsoft and Sony, they have no retail baggage to bring along with them so they will focus exclusively on download only games. This will dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of the console (imagine a console the size and cost of an Apple TV).

PC gaming isn't dying. There's no reason for manufacturers to abandon the platform, although Windows 8 may do more harm than good in expanding the popularity of the platform. 3% of the gaming market is still a profitable margin and a lot of game publishers still prefer the platform. Most of them, however, know who really pays the bills and will (or should) give the bulk of the efforts to the largest audience - console gamers.

Whatever happens, we have an interesting future ahead.

A view from the other side

Friend and compatriot, Mike Schiller, wrote an opposing view to this article I felt was worth of attention:

While the knuckle-dragging "Brosefs" and SmokeDogg420s of the world pay $60 a year to endure racist taunts from 12-year olds on Xbox Live, PC gamers are enjoying an unprecedented cornucopia of Free-to-Play titles, pay-what-you-want indie games, innovative PC mods, beta opportunities and technically superior versions of console games (using the same controllers.) Also, Farmville 2.