The Real Draw Of PC Gaming

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Every once in a while I see a discussion or article weighing the pros and cons of PC gaming today versus console gaming. In the PC vs console fanboy arguments that inevitably ensue I think what ends up getting lost is the real reason people should get into PC gaming in the first place. It get’s lost in a discussion about graphics and framerates and hardware.

I touched on this a bit this past May when writing about people’s disappointment with The Witcher 3’s console development possibly affecting its PC development. I’d like to bring it out as its own independent subject though and maybe as something I can link to whenever the subject comes up again. Basically, I don’t think people should get into PC gaming exclusively to run AAA games better than the consoles can.

 

“Console Gaming With Sprinkles”

It seems like a lot of people these days think about getting into PC gaming so they can go ahead and run all their games at 60 frames per second with the best graphics. That seems to be the main reason I hear for people trying to build their first computer in lieu of grabbing a PS4. I won’t lie: that’s probably the reason I joined the PC side in 2007, but it’s not why I stayed.

I also often see people defend consoles by talking about all the big name exclusives they get — mentioning that UnchartedBloodborne, Nintendo games, and Halo don’t come out on PC. While I don’t like the arguments that some of those games’ beautiful graphics prove console hardware can stand up to PC hardware, they’re right that you can’t get the games themselves on PC. I’ll even go ahead and say right here that the PS4 is looking to get enough exclusives in 2016 to really feel like a worthwhile investment, even for someone who already owns a good PC. The point that also get’s brought up here though is that the “AAA” PC exclusive is sort of dead.

People who say that mean the PC game that justifies itself by pushing graphics and other technology to a level not possible on consoles — the games that left laymen in awe of and afraid of PC gaming. In the past you had games like Ultima UnderworldElite IIThief, Half-Life, UnrealSystem Shock 2, the first Deus Ex, and the original Far Cry that could in themselves be selling points for the power of PC. But since the developers of all those games were attracted to the larger console audience and the Xbox platform which was tailored to them, western video games started being developed around consoles first and PC second. Now all the AAA games you get on PC games are, as I heard someone say roughly, “console games with sprinkles.”

The last exclusive (at the time) that PC gamers could use as a horn to toot before this era began was probably the original Crysis. Today there are only two PC games I can think of with “blockbuster visuals” that I can point at and say “I haven’t seen a console do that yet,” — Star Citizen and ArmA. Both those games in particular hearken back to an age when the biggest western games felt like simulations that slammed gameplay systems together instead of building strict rules around the player.

The creator of the original X-Com game makes a good comparison between his version and the new XCOM. “I guess my original game was a bit more simulation-ny and the new game is a bit more board game-y,” he said. I would say the same difference exists between Crysis and Crysis 2, between System Shock 2 and the Bioshock games,Deus Ex and Deus Ex Human Revolution, and between Thief II: The Metal Age and the new THIEF. I’m going on a bit of a tangent here, but all those old PC franchises are coming back changed. Bethesda is just about the only old western company that made the transition to consoles while ensuring its games still feel like “simulations.” Star Citizen and ArmA feel like the only two that still do this in ways that feel out of reach of consoles. I’ve written many a blog post about how ArmA pushes military combat simulation far beyond anything Call of Duty and Battlefield have even imagined. PC games like that used to be more frequent, and I guess that’s the one thing PC gamers today can lament.

I got a new PC in 2007 instead of an Xbox 360 because it was where I could get the original Crysis as well as Call of Duty 4 with those extra sprinkles, and I think a lot of people did the same. A huge catalyst was the release of Nvidia’s 8800GT series graphics cards as well as Intel’s Q6600 CPUs. The 8800 easily and demonstrably smashed console performance at a relatively affordable price, and because of the new focus on console specs, both chips could comfortably run console-to-PC ports for years. There were games coming out as recently as 2013 that listed the 8800GT in their minimum system requirements. I didn’t replace mine until 2011 when Crysis 2 and The Witcher 2 came out — two games that finally focused more on PC hardware than console hardware.

I can see why the hardware and promise of constant 60 frames per second is drawing more people to PC these days though. It made sense around 2011 and 2012 when developers started trying to break beyond the aging PS3 and 360 which resulted in games that looked and ran great on PC but terribly on consoles like Crysis 3 or Far Cry 3. It had also become really easy to get a PC that left those two consoles in the dust. Today while the gap between the PS4 and PC is somewhat narrower, we’re still getting instances like Witcher 3 and Assassin’s Creed Unity where it’s impossible to get even a stable 30fps on consoles. Stability used to be the reason people chose consoles over PC, but when console developers can’t even guarantee that it makes PC look better. At least on PC each individual user can decide whether they want a good-looking 60fps game or a great looking 30fps game.

But like I said, this shouldn’t be the metric by which you judge your decision to invest in a GTX 970 instead of a PS4. Like any platform, what it should be about are the games. The selection of blockbuster games between platforms is looking more and more congruent today, but that ignores the inevitably higher number of exclusives on PC, even if almost none of them are what you might consider “AAA.”

 

Small And Mid-Range PC Exclusives

Even though I jumped into PC to play console games with better graphics, spending a lot of money on beefy hardware, I’ve spent a lot of time playing games that don’t really push that hardware but were still really fun and didn’t come out on consoles (or came out on consoles much later).

Of course you have the obvious super-popular games in genres that just don’t work on consoles like MOBAs and real-time-strategy games. There are probably people who become attracted to PC gaming through DOTA 2 and StarCraft. The Free-to-play first-person shooters that are much more prevalent on PC count in this section too. The main face behind Gears of War is working on and heavily promoting one — LawBreakersTeam Fortress 2 has evolved into an entirely different game than what’s available on PS3 and 360. Any one of these games can occupy someone’s entire gaming life and make them by default PC gamer.

Even though the PS4 and Xbox One are getting a bigger share of indie games than their predecessors they’re still really only scraping the cream of the crop. I know people roll their eyes at the dizzying stream of games Steam lets through its gates every day, but every day I look at my Steam que and frequently find at least a couple new games that look good or interesting. People won’t like to sift though the sea of crap, but I’ve seen some of the smaller indie gems in it, many of which have not or will not be released on consoles.

A major one is Stasis which just came out. Virtually everything I’ve written about under the “Indie Game Radar” label fits into this category, like Snakebird for instance, or Sky Rogue. I don’t have a great idea of what Assault Android Cactus is, but a friend of my has been evangelizing it. If you’re willing to deal with Early Access that’s another ocean to leap into. There’s a lot of crap there too but there’s also Nuclear ThroneDayZRustBeseige, Exanima, or The Long Dark. Some of those are on their way to consoles, but on PC you can play them right now. And these games aren’t really all pixel-style graphics anymore. Development tools have gotten strong enough to grant many of them at least decent 3D graphics, almost to the relative level of the middle-budget games console users miss from the PS2 era. With tools like Unreal Engine 4 getting out there, the frequency of this is just going to increase.

The old simulation-driven style of design still exists on PC, but it’s coming from smaller developers. It’s what has brought us things like Cities: Skylines, XenonautsTruck SimulatorCrusader KingsMount & Blade, or Football Manager.

Are you a fan of oldschool-style Japanese console and arcade gaming? PC gaming today is trying really hard to have your back. Almost every time I look at Steam’s game que I see another visual novel, shoot-em-up, or RPGMaker game. Some of those RPGMaker games have to be at least good. I’ve already heard a few JRPG-style modern indie games get good word-of mouth, and almost none of these games are making their way to consoles. Steam even has a few fighting games that you can basically only get on PC like Yatagarasu.

Again, yes, indie gaming on PC is a big pile to sift through, and PlayStation has started to look like a filtering mechanism of sorts. I’m just saying not everything that’s good is making its way through that filter yet. Blogs like this one will keep trying to bring attention to the rest.

 

PC Gaming Classics

And then lastly, if you’r really willing to dig, you have the near limitless, 30-odd-year back catalog of PC games easily available on Steam and GoodOldGames. There are some very good reasons console users won’t bother with these games despite the fact that they’ll practically run on toasters at this point. They tend to have complicated and obtuse controls, and some people just really don’t like playing games with a mouse and keyboard. That’s fine, but if I’m willing to put up with the controls and mechanics of Ultima Underworld and Elite II, I think at least a few other people might be willing to as well. Hopefully the Steam controller helps change things.

Just this week everybody’s talking about the re-release of the original System Shock. Every time the original Deus Ex or Thief or System Shock 2 is on sale I try to convince newcomers to try them out. I try so hard because I ended up enjoying those games a lot more than most recent AAA console games. Even by today’s standards they’re pretty beefy experiences that can draw a lot of play time out of you. Let’s not even get into all the fan-made maps and campaigns that exist for those three games.

A huge portion of my “Late To the Party” posts, probably most of them in fact, are a result of the journey I’m taking through entire genres of classic PC games like first person shooters, RPGs, tactical shooters, and space simulators. I’ve still got a long way to go on that pursuit too. I think a lot of these games are more important now than ever because they’re influential, if not direct predecessors, to a lot of today’s most popular console games. Not only that, but there’s a lot in those old games that their modern successors have lost which I talked about above. The classics aren’t just more primitive versions of today’s games. I’ve found ideas in them that still feel unique.

 

Conclusion

In my May post I said the real advantage of PC gaming isn’t necessarily better hardware, but rather the freedom and flexibility. The better graphics and hardware are just one result of that freedom. Well, another result is the software library you get, which is why I made this post all about the games.

One advantage is that you can get the games you normally get on consoles but run them however you want. However, if that’s all you want then what you wan’t isn’t really PC gaming. You’re just trying to play console games without the restrictions of consoles. I guess that in itself is a justifiable pursuit, but it also misses out on the broader scope of PC gaming. Sure you miss out on the big exclusives the console manufacturers constantly push, but you get quite a bit in return.

BULLETS:

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