I Was Wrong About PC Gaming

by Mike Shea on 16 June 2013

30 Second Summary

I believed that dedicated gaming platforms were superior to gaming PCs. I was wrong. While previous consoles wallow in eight-year-old computing hardware and new consoles threaten to remove the basic freedoms we've always enjoyed, PC gaming offers the widest range of games at the lowest prices with the best performance. PCs aren't perfect. The cost is high and Windows isn't exactly an open platform. When it comes to a platform for gaming, however, the PC is currently the king and may be so for quite some time.

Why the Turn Around?

Twelve years ago I wrote an article on why computers suck. More recently I wrote my 2012 state of PC vs. Console Gaming. There are truths to these articles but I was blind to a few things that, recently, changed my point of view. The biggest thing I missed was the growing popularity among both developers and gamers for Steam. Steam changed PC gaming fundamentally. It made it easy to buy, install, and play games on a PC. Steam provided publishers with a fantastic platform to sell games, big and small, from both independent developers and big triple-A publishing companies. You can play games as big as Bioshock Infinite or as small as Awesomenauts.

PC Gamer recently wrote an article that does a better job than I in describing why your next generation console should be a PC. Here's a good quote that shows the value of a platform like Steam:

If youd have bought your third party games on PC, not only would you be able to play them on your new PC, theyd be better. Its not just backwards compatibility: think of the side compatibility benefits. Your game library can exist over multiple machines and form factors. You can have a PC in an office, bedroom or den, or under a television, and a laptop, and in a few years time, an affordable Haswell powered tablet with broadly the same specifications as an Xbox One. Your game library is guaranteed to work across all these machines. And any future machines you buy.

There is a danger and a touch of irony here. Steam is a DRM-focused platform. The games you buy are tied to your account and your account only. You can't sell them, you can't trade them, and if Steam goes away, there's no guarantee that your whole library of games won't go away with it. This is the big argument against Microsoft's draconian Xbox One policies. Steam is a locked-down platform, it's just a platform that can move from one machine to another.

There's another whole new variable in the value of the PC as a gaming platform — Kickstarter. Kickstarter has the potential to offer a new pathway for independent developers, both new and old, to fund and deliver games to a wide and open audience. Former developers like Chris Roberts and Richard Garriott have used it to fund new ventures from a classic portfolio. Crowdfunded games like Torment: Tides of Numenera, Wastelands 2, and Star Citizen won't likely get released on consoles. It's simply too expensive and too limited a platform for crowd-funded games to move to consoles.

All of this means PC gamers will have the widest range of potential games to play.

It Isn't About Marketshare

I made another big mistake when looking at the state of PC gaming vs. console gaming. I overestimated the importance of marketshare. Even though console games often currently outsell PC games, and likely will in the future, it doesn't mean PC gaming can't or won't be profitable. Companies who sell games on PC can get a much higher cut of the price of a game, probably between 70% and 95% depending on their payment and distribution options. I doubt they will get that same sort of cut on future consoles. While a game can't necessarily reach the same number of people, each person it does reach turns more profit per copy. This is the 1,000 true fans concept in action.

Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame had this to say in an interview on Now Gamer in regards to Kickstarter and gaming:

"I dont think the console manufacturers are going to have the same advantage, before they were willing to lose millions of dollars on the hardware and making it up on the backend and Sony cant afford to do that and I dont think Microsoft is going to support it that much either."

"So theyre going to be on an even footing with everyone else, whether its Steam Box or whatever, and then whats the best platform? Is it a closed platform, which is controlled and curated like Microsoft, Apple and Sony, or is it an open platform that isnt controlled? There are good and bad things about both sides but thats basically the PC platform."

Here he is again in an interview with Gameindustry on the value of a publishing method like Kickstarter:

"In the old model as a developer I would have captured 20 cents on the dollar," Roberts said. "Ultimately that means I can make the same game for a fifth of the revenue, a fifth of the sales, and I can be more profitable, and I can exist on lower unit sales. I think that's good for gamers, because crowdfunding and digital distribution are enabling more nichey stuff to be viable. It's also allowing gamers to have their voice heard, and have their influence earlier in the process. You don't really have your input into how Call of Duty's being made."

Idealism vs. Practicality

Another major gap in my consideration of the value of PC gaming comes from idealism vs. practicality. Dedicated computing platforms should offer a better experience than universal computers playing games. At a technical level, this is still true. If a programmer knows exactly what sort of computing hardware she's writing code for, she knows how to optimize that code to make it perfect. She knows that playtesting will work much better because she only has to test on one platform. She doesn't have to worry about seven layers of APIs, platform layers, and device drivers all working well together. She can write as close to the chipset as she wants.

Except that's not how game development really happens anymore. Big games are written to run across platforms. Most big games are written around multiple types of hardware, different APIs, and with different libraries. Console games can and will ship just as buggy as PC games.

In our practical world, console games don't run nearly as well as PC games on high end PC hardware because consoles haven't kept up. Console costs are still very low but for dedicated gamers willing to spend the money, PCs offer much higher quality games with better visuals and higher framerates.

Windows as a gaming platform offers a better experience for high-end gaming than consoles.

The Current Problems of PC Gaming

Though it's the more practical solution, PC gaming is far from perfect.

For one, PC gaming still requires Windows. Windows is expensive. Windows is locked down. Windows is far from optimized. There's a ton of code being both stored and executed, code that uses up CPU cycles and memory, code that ensures you aren't circumventing DRM, code that doesn't help gaming at all. We've simply overcome this by pushing hardware further and further. Current high-end PC hardware has gotten cheap and powerful enough that, even though Windows isn't optimized, we've blown past it with sheer processing power.

A good PC gaming rig is still very expensive. A decent gaming rig still runs about $800. A high-end rig runs about twice that. That's nearly four to eight times as expensive as a good gaming console. Sure, you can use a computer for a lot more than gaming, but gaming alone is the one activity that pushes the need for higher-end computing performance for most home users. If all you want to do is surf the web, you can spend a lot less.

If you're a dedicated gamer, however, that's the cost we're willing to pay.

Windows 7: The Platform for Open Gaming

Looking back twelve years, I never would have guessed that Windows would become the preferred platform for open gaming. This has less to do with any advancement of Windows and more to do with the fact that every other platform became more closed. As a game publisher, you stand to make a lot more money selling games for Windows because no one else can take a cut. As a gamer, you get a lot more selection of games and a lot less digital rights restrictions than you do on other platforms.

Windows 7 also proved to be a lot more stable. A big improvement for PC gaming over the past decade.

This might not last, though. Microsoft is already looking to lock down Windows 8 and future operating systems. This is enough of a problem that Valve wants to move to their own platform instead. Here's what Gabe Newell of Valve had to say about it in an interview with All Things D:

"I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think well lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people."

If Microsoft succeeds in locking future platforms down, we'll be back to square one trying to figure out the best platform for us to get the most games. Valve is working to build a Linux-backed Steam box but I'm not sure if they can get publishers to support it over the short term. Instead, we could be back to game developers losing the majority of their money to the fat-cats who hold the keys to our living room and gamers who only get to play variants of Call of Duty for the next twenty years.

The Wildcard: The Playstation 4

In the 2013 Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3), Sony clearly came out the winner of early rounds of the next generation console wars. Most of this came down to providing the same freedoms consoles already offered. Games aren't locked down to individual users, systems aren't region locked, the system doesn't need to phone home to ensure you're not up to any funny business. Sony also seems very interested in courting independent developers while Microsoft would rather court Comcast to bring more privacy invasion into your "TV watching experiences".

It's quite possible the PS4 will win the next console war and offer PC-like performance for a lot less money. That said, I imagine there will be more games the PS4 won't be able to play than there will be PS4 games that PCs won't be able to play. I'm guessing those who have both will be happiest.

An Apology for Ten Years of Bullshit

I've been an elitist jerk over the past ten years. I focused on the ideal that game consoles were superior to gaming PCs. I ignored Steam. I ignored the turf-grabbing of closed-infrastructure consoles. I focused so much on these ideals that I missed the advantages of PC gaming in the modern world. For those to whom I held up my nose and made snide comments, I apologize.

At the end of the day, the platforms we gamers use matter little. Whether we use an iPhone, an Xbone, a Playstation 4, a high-end PC, or anything in between, we're still all gamers. Whether we play forty seven hundred hours of Eve Online or twelve seconds of Doodle Jump, we're still gamers. However we play and whatever we play on, we have a lot more in common than we have differences. From now on, I'm going to worry less about our differences as gamers and focus on the things that bring us together.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some device drivers to debug.