PC Dreams in a Console World
In the churn and wake of the impending launch of two new major console systems, an interesting side discussion is happening. That discussion is around what the release of these systems means for PC gaming. Experiencing something of a renaissance lately, PC gaming isn’t just “not dead” but has returned to a state of genuine viability. Still, conventional wisdom implies that viability has as much to do with the current generation growing long in the tooth as it does with any kind of cultural or market shift.
Extending the conventional wisdom a little further though, there is an implication that new, faster, cooler consoles could mean a shift back in the momentum. That’s not just because of how games on new consoles will look. It’s also because the new consoles will broadcast games over services like Twitch.tv, contribute to the rapid growth of independent gaming and offer media applications like Netflix, Pandora and Hulu. These were all things that weren’t that important when this gen launched, but which eventually became so. And when this ending generation began, they were things that either only the PC could do, or the PC did better. It took a long time for consoles to catch up with similar functionality. Now, these things are going to be a fundamental part of the console experience, which could be seen as undermining the relevance of the trusty old Personal Computer.
So, what does the launch of these new consoles mean for the stalwart PC gamer? Frankly, if you ask me, I think it only makes things better.
I’m not sure I agree with the cultural wisdom here. It’s hard to look at the 360 or PS3 and think they’ve become antiquated dinosaurs, barely capable of generating a reasonable 3D landscape. That said, the PC is still capable of a better visual experience than the almost-last-gen consoles. More importantly, it’s become a lot cheaper to buy a decent gaming rig these days.
But at the core, it’s folly to try to compare PCs and consoles as direct competitors. The basic assumption is that for one to succeed, the other must flounder. It’s treated an either/or proposition by many, even if they don’t explicitly state it as such, but from my vantage point it’s a completely false dichotomy. I would argue that a strong console launch would not negatively impact the resurgence of PC gaming. I would even go so far as to say the launch of these systems will improve PC games themselves.
Here’s the reasoning: For a long time now, a lot of high-profile releases and franchises are for both the PC and consoles. These are games built to work on all systems, designed to sell in mass quantities. From the mindset of a developer or publisher who wants to get my game in front of as many people as possible, I can’t aim at the highest of what’s technologically achievable. Rather, I have to either aim at the lowest or spend a huge amount of effort and money into making different versions that work different ways to suit each platform.
In the realm of multi-platform development, the need to develop for a seven-year-old console means that you have to dial back your expectations in places, even though at least one platform is capable of so very much more. The weakest platform sets the ceiling for your game’s abilities. It’s a little disappointing as a PC gamer, but it’s also completely reasonable.
What the new consoles bring is new technology to raise that ceiling. The limitations that have held developers back from exploring the power and functionality of my system will be adjusted. Cross-developed games are going to better utilize the technology available in our laptops and desktops, because the ceiling has been raised. Particularly in the coming year as we grow toward games that are only for the next generation, there won’t just be the technological leap in the console space. It’ll happen for PC gamers as well.
The PS4 and XBox One are capable of a whole slew of new things that the previous generation was not — bigger worlds, more players, better AI — all things that the PC has long been ready to accommodate.
That said, I don’t think console makers like this copesetic view. With recent news of consoles unwilling to play nice with PCs as media extenders or DLNA support, it seems clearer that, while game publishers want one big, happy family, console makers want some clear market differentiation. What remains to be seen is actually whether the opposite of the norm will happen. I can’t help but wonder if the rebirth of the PC as a stable, consistent, gaming platform will actually undermine the sales of new consoles. With Steam Boxes on the horizon — to say nothing of the fact that advanced users can already create a living-room couch experience with their PCs — the pressure may be going the other way for once.
That’s not to say I live in some imaginary fantasy world where the PC was a dominant force in shaping and leading video gaming as an industry. If anything, the way PC has recovered its stature is by adopting a console-like strategy in delivering games, and Steam Box is an extension of that. Steam Box doesn’t say that we’re going to deliver high-concept PC gaming to your living room, it says we’re going to compete as a console experience with the benefits of a PC. It suggests you play the next Elder Scrolls game on your TV like always, but with more access to mods, to convenient community structures, to the special flexibility and open platform that a computer provides.
Given some of the recent decisions around limiting the next generation systems as media extenders or devices that can stream media to your television, a Steam Box looks like the best bet to deliver a centralized media experience. Arguably a PC will now be better equipped to be a DVR, a center for music delivery, a way to stream your video to your television, and a way to play games without having to buy into a single proprietary system.
That’s not to say that it’s a solution for every user, and I’m not suggesting that Steam Box and the lack of DLNA support on consoles will suddenly make people move away from the Xbox One or PS4 en masse. What I am suggesting though is that the market pressures are very different than they were when the PS3 and 360 launched. The spectrum of media solutions people are looking for isn’t what it once was, and having to put up with the arbitrary limitations that console makers are likely to inject — having to use their service to watch movies, or subscribe to the platforms they have exclusive deals with — can and have already proven to be a turnoff in a market where more flexibility is the expectation. I am suggesting that the PC has a different place, and with Steam Box a different opportunity to expand, than it once did.
I think it’s going to be a good time to be a PC gamer across the board. For a group who were feeling for a long time like they were being marginalized by an industry that very much wanted to see more closed systems, the momentum has shifted, and even though the industry still obviously wants to push the closed system idea, the appetite for that is waning for consumers. In the end, the PC platform supports the trend of market desires, and that’s always a good place to be.