I am a console gamer. This has been true ever since a wide-eyed seven year old boy first unwrapped a Super Nintendo console on Christmas morning in 1992. A few years later, that gave way to a Nintendo 64, and eventually a PlayStation 2 and Game Cube. Flash forward to present day and my theatre set-up is home to every major modern console save the recently released Wii-U. Over the years I've experimented with PC gaming, and a PC has always been a part of my life, even in my youth, but aside from a handful of Blizzard titles and dabbling in the MMO world, the prospect of gaming on a PC has never really appealed to me. There are many reasons, of course, and they're likely the same reasons many other detractors of the PC give when asked about their choice of platform. I usually find mouse and keyboard controls uncomfortable, I like being able to play on a large screen rather than a small monitor, and most importantly, the entry price for consoles is so much more affordable.
Even as I type this, I am sitting on a sofa, a wireless keyboard and mouse resting on my coffee table. My 42 inch LED television sits across the room, acting as a monitor. It's a theatre set-up I adopted in late-February, and has been the source of a year-long experiment in PC gaming. It has been an interesting experience, one that has had its share of successes and follies, and it's one I would like to share with all the other gamers out there, whether one prefers playing on a console or on a computer.
This experiment began in the middle of January, when a colleague sent me a link to a new PC package about to be released by AlienWare. I was immediately intrigued. This wasn't the first time I'd considered acquiring a gaming-level PC, and indeed I've made the attempt on several occasions. During college I picked up a fairly powerful gaming laptop, which served me very well as a primary computer for many years. However, I was dismayed when, within a year, its capabilities were rapidly outstripped by titles that pushed graphics hardware to its limits. I quickly abandoned using it as a gaming PC, returning to the reliability of consoles. I made another attempt a few years later, acquiring a decent desktop tower. This system was certainly capable of handling the majority of modern games, but my other issues with PC gaming returned with it. Playing games at my desk on my smallish monitor simply didn't seem appealing. Even though it could push out higher-fidelity graphics than my Xbox 360 or PS3, what good was it when they were condensed down onto a tiny screen? And considering the price I'd laid down for it, console gaming remained, in my eyes, not only more palatable, but more economical as well.
The PC in question is the AlienWare X51. Although quite solid from a technical perspective, it certainly isn't a processing juggernaut. However, two things about it stood out to me immediately. The first was its price: AlienWare is known as a premium brand, and their PCs are almost always attached to a huge price tag. However, the X51 came in several models of varying technical proficiency, with the highest end model topping out at around $1300 at the time, significantly lower than virtually anything else in their catalogue. The second and most important thing was the package the system came in. It was tiny! The X51 comes in a sleek, matte black case whose dimensions are not much larger than a first-generation PlayStation 3. Its power source is an external brick, and the front of the machine bears a striking resemblance to the minimalistic approach of modern consoles, featuring a front-loading DVD drive, a few USB ports, a power button, and a stylish silver AlienWare logo. If you didn't know any better, it could easily pass for a new console system.
The advantages of such a rig were immediately apparent to me. I had contemplated hooking my PC up to my television set in the past, but the cumbersome size of a typical desktop system made it quite impractical. However, the AlienWare X51 solved that problem elegantly. The machine would easily fit into my existing entertainment unit, and a wireless mouse and keyboard would give me control from just about anywhere I wanted to sit. In a lot of ways, it was my dream machine—a way to enjoy the benefits of PC gaming without losing the advantages of a home console.
On February 1st, my birthday, I placed my order, opting for a $1000 machine with 8GB of RAM but no blu-ray drive. While a little pricier than a console, as a gaming PC it seemed incredibly cheap. Since I planned on using it as my primary work PC as well, its versatility made the extra cost more than worth it. It was at that time that the idea for this article began to emerge, and my experiment began. For the remainder of the year, this new PC would act as my primary game console. If there was any game I intended to play that had a PC version, I would get the PC version. Further, I would even go so far as to get a digital version—after all, if you're going to experiment, you might as well go all out. Near the end of the month, the machine arrived at my door and I started the experiment. It's been nine months since then, and here are some of the things that I've learned.
The Gamepad is Key
My first attempt at a major PC release was a disappointing one. At roughly the same time as I received my new hardware, the long-awaited Mass Effect 3 arrived in stores. This seemed as good a place as any to start my PC gaming experiment, so despite having played the first two games on the Xbox 360, I decided to opt in to the PC version. This would prove to be a mistake. While most PC developers have long since embraced controller support for their games, EA, despite their title being designed primarily for consoles, decided that the PC version of Mass Effect 3 didn't need this support. I had, unfortunately, not read of this decision previously, and upon loading it up, I discovered that my controller simply would not function. Though I tried experimenting with a workaround that would map keyboard bindings to the controller, it proved to be unsatisfactory. In the end, I requested a refund from EA and wound up getting the Xbox 360 version after all.
This wasn't the only time a lack of gamepad support irked me. This year also saw the release of Diablo III and Torchlight II, similar, hack 'n' slash style games designed with a keyboard and mouse in mind. Since a console option was unavailable for either title, I made do with a keyboard and mouse, but I can imagine it would be extremely difficult for many to play in a living-room environment. Without a solid surface for a mouse and keyboard to rest, it's simply not very feasible. My coffee table works for me, but it wouldn't work for everyone. The majority of modern PC releases, especially multi-platform PC releases, do include controller support, so this isn't as common an issue as one might think. However, for people like me, console gamers who prefer the feel and comfort of a controller in their hands, it's a vital aspect of the experience.
Forget About Japan
As an RPGamer, I consume a lot of Japanese games. While many of my colleagues at RPGamer have an explicit preference when it comes to Japanese and Western RPGs, my tastes are split down the middle, and in a given year I tend to play a fairly equal number of titles developed in both regions. It's telling, then, that despite my goal of using my new living-room PC for as much gaming as possible, it was used for less than half of it. Of all the PC games I played this year, only two — Ys Origins and Cherry Tree High Comedy Club — had Japanese roots.
There is an explanation for the Japanese aversion to the PC platform, and it's simultaneously an explanation for PC gaming's proliferation during the recent console cycle. This current generation of consoles has been particularly unique in that none of the competitors held the majority of the market share in North America. Instead, it's divided quite evenly between Microsoft and Sony, with Nintendo carving out its own, separate niche. With no obvious platform to focus on, the "platform exclusive" model that has dominated the market for two decades evaporated and evolved into the multiplatform model that we have today, with the PC becoming a natural extension of that model. In Japan, however, something different happened.
Despite the best efforts of Microsoft to cater to the local market, the Xbox 360 was effectively dead on arrival in Japan. Its sales were consistently pathetic, and its presence in the country is virtually a non-factor. With Nintendo's hardware notably inferior in specs, this left Sony as the dominant force in the console market. On top of that, rising development costs left smaller Japanese publishers struggling, and most gravitated towards handheld systems, where development costs were cheaper and the highly condensed population allowed the systems to proliferate wildly. As a result, after Microsoft essentially gave up on the territory in 2008, virtually every Japanese developer designing for consoles did so exclusively on the PS3, with a few major ones also providing Xbox 360 versions for their western audience. PC versions for major titles — your Resident Evil's or Devil May Cry's — sometimes exist, but more often than not they arrive several months after the original console releases. Games like Tales of Graces F, Final Fantasy XIII-2, or Persona 4 Arena, all major titles of great interest to RPGamers, cannot be found on the PC. Sadly, it doesn't seem likely that this will change.
Preorders Are Totally Worth It
There's been a lot said about preorders ever since GameStop and other retailers first adopted the practice. Most of the talk has been routinely negative, with consumers espousing a distaste for pushy salespeople and pundits questioning the true motivations behind it. Well, the PC, or more specifically, the digital frontier, has found a way to make it worthwhile. At a retailer, no matter how early you might preorder the latest blockbuster game, a lengthy line consisting of the other hundred people who also preordered it inevitably awaits. However, on a platform like Steam, preordering actually takes the waiting part out of the equation.
By preloading the game after purchase, it's possible to dive right into the game as soon as it launches. Even if the game takes three days to download on a low-end internet connection, it doesn't matter because it'll be done several days before it's even unlocked. It's a funny irony that preordering a physical copy offers no tangible benefit other than guaranteeing oneself a copy, while preordering a digital copy, which by definition cannot sell out, offers a significant one. The ability to pre-download games is not yet available on consoles, even on their digital storefronts, making this a feature unique to PC gaming, at least for now.
Most of the Stigmas Are Gone
There are a lot of stigmas associated with PC gaming that console gamers such as myself have used to explain why we prefer our consoles. In recent years, however, many of these stigmas have been reduced or outright eliminated. The most obvious one is that of cost; until recently, a decent gaming rig was absurdly expensive. Coupled with the cost of a good monitor, it wasn't uncommon for a gaming rig to market for upwards of the $2000 range in the early to mid-2000's. Costs could be cut by shopping for individual parts and building the machine oneself, but that was a prospect that many people, console gamers in particular, found daunting and pointless when a console could offer up a simpler, more user-friendly experience.
Today, the costs have dropped significantly. My AlienWare rig cost me $1000, was preassembled, and ready to out of the box. While still significantly more costly than a console, it also has more utility, offsetting the investment. And since, with the living room set-up I'm using, my television — something virtually everyone already has — acts as my monitor, a significant additional cost was eliminated. The digital landscape of Steam, Good Old Games, and other storefronts also offer regular and significant discounts on games, and the savings in that area can quickly make up for the higher initial purchase price.
PC gaming is more user-friendly than it has ever been as well. Services like Steam provide easy access to every game in your library, and even deal with tedious chores like updating drivers for you, allowing PC gamers a console-like gaming experience. Steam has even recently released its Big Picture mode, a full-screen interface designed to be displayed on television sets and mimic a console. In that mode, everything can be controlled with a gamepad, cementing the console experience.
PC gaming is in the best state it's been in since the mid-nineties, and thanks to new technologies, can now become part of the living room console experience for the first time in its lengthy history. However, while the PC has proven unquestionably that it can coexist alongside consoles, much of its recent success can be attributed directly to consoles. Can it take the place of a game console as the central part of the living room? I remain doubtful.
The current state of PC gaming owes its success to a combination of lucky factors that were unprecedented and unpredictable in this console generation. The split market share between Sony and Microsoft ensured that multiplatform releases became an industry standard. As such, virtually every western game released in the last few years, with the exception of first-party exclusives, has had a PC release as well. And thanks to the primary focus on console development, technical requirements have become minimized thanks to the standardized environment. Without these helpful factors in place, it's difficult to say what PC gaming would look like today.
However, the PC is still lacking in important areas, ones that, until rectified, hinder it from truly becoming a welcome part of a console gamer's living room. Exclusives are a big factor; there are fewer blockbuster titles released exclusively for the PC than any other platform, and the ones that are released, like this year's Diablo III and Torchlight II, rarely have gamepad support, making them less than living room-friendly. The PC does have a colossal selection of independent games at its disposal, but most of these can be run on the budget computers gamers already own.
Japan is another factor, one that is of particular consequence to RPGamers. I can think of only one major JRPG this generation — The Last Remnant — that received a PC release alongside its console counterparts, and it met with mediocre reviews. As long as Japan ignores the platform and continues the pattern of console exclusivity, the PC will have a very hard time competing. Though the territory is not the gaming juggernaut it once was, for RPGamers at least it will continue to play a very important role.
Finally, with the dawn of a new console generation rapidly approaching, we have to question what will happen when the console wars begin anew. Exclusive titles will, as always, be a major factor, and the PC is going to have a very hard time competing with the established franchises of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Worse, if history repeats itself, this new console generation will once again bring with it a war for bigger and better graphics, a war that inevitably requires more processing power. This will, of course, mean higher prices for competitive gaming PCs, prices which cannot hope to compete with that of consoles.
While my living room PC offers me a number of benefits, it's difficult to justify the cost when it has yet to offer me a gaming experience designed for my television that I couldn't already get on a console. I will continue to use it for multi-platform games, and my set-up has proven particularly useful at saving space in my new apartment, but if the new console generation brings with it games that exceed its capabilities, I doubt I'll find myself compelled to upgrade right away. Gabe Newell recently expressed a desire to release Steam-enabled, low-cost living room PCs to compete alongside the next console generation, and it may prove to be a great move on Valve's part. The era of the living room PC is unquestionably on its way. However, from where I'm sitting, it's not quite here yet. But if Final Fantasy XV releases on the PC alongside its console brethren, I'll be the first one to welcome it.