Growing up, I had the privilege of access to both game consoles and home computers, so I never had to plant my flag in a decision and yell at others about why it was better.
Our first home computer was an Atari 800, and we eventually had a basic 386 PC as well. And in 1987, the NES found a permanent spot in our living room.
In this bygone era where internet debates didn’t really exist, and game magazines depicted what seemed like luxurious paradise offices full of TV’s, piles of games, and journalists who got paid to play for a living…I didn’t really know that the PC and the NES were supposed to be fighting a war.
They were so different.
From the control interface, to the style of games, to the level of production values…they were two different worlds. They were not even worthy of being discussed as if they were somehow in the same bracket.
The Sega VS Nintendo fight was strong on my 90’s childhood playgrounds, and fighting game ports were all the rage, but at the time, I was also playing point-and-click adventures and air combat simulations. I was exploring the early days of first person shooters and real-time strategy games. I was pouring through bins of shareware disks at local software stores. I was excited about the first 3D accelerator cards, and convinced that MPEG playback cards were also going to be a big deal.
That second prediction didn’t really pan out.
As the gaming industry matured, and budgets ballooned in size, the massive gap between PC gaming and console gaming shrunk to near zero.
Now, we have two home console platforms in the PS4 and Xbox One that are built from off-the-shelf PC hardware. Controllers/Gamepads are normalized in the PC space, and the Xbox One just got support for mice and keyboards. Numerous middleware engines possess easy environments for developing a game and deploying it across all the major platforms.
And then there’s the Nintendo Switch, a weird other thing with a portable mode, detachable motion controllers, and a touch screen. But even it has hardware crafted by Nvidia, a big PC hardware maker. And it’s powerful enough that several indie titles from PC have still found a home there.
Although the PC still gets its share of weird, fascinating, complex games that don’t ever find a home outside of its more capable environment, it’s no longer the sole home of certain genres like it used to be.
Microsoft has tried to push these platforms even closer together by abandoning exclusive games entirely. Every single Xbox One exclusive out of Microsoft now also gets a competent PC version, and that’s…really weird? It’s always cool to have more games on more machines, but at the same time, it puts the Xbox and PC in an awkward spot next to each other.
The biggest advantages the Xbox One X has over a gaming PC are Xbox 360 Backwards Compatibility and the ease of use that comes with a closed platform…and that’s it, at this point.
If you don’t need those things, you don’t really need to choose an Xbox One for gaming over a PC. People often say that PCs are more expensive than consoles, and while that might be true depending on the specs you go for, they’re also dramatically more flexible. You can customize them. You can rip them apart and get up to your elbows in guts. You can replace aging hardware on a whim.
And a PC can do about a million things that a console can’t. It’s a media creation tool. It’s a work machine. It’s a better home theater hub. Etc.
Every time I sit down and play a well-made PC game or console-to-PC port, I think “Wait, why am I messing around with consoles again?” PC games are often the best-looking on the market. They offer more control options. You can tweak and mod them. And they’re almost always sold cheaper, with plenty of great digital deals out there.
You make back on the long term in software savings what you might spend initially on hardware.
Sometimes though, I don’t want to fiddle with things. I want to turn my brain off, turn on a game, and go. I realize that this is the ultimate privilege to have, but that’s how my brain works. That’s still an area where consoles are perfect, even if modern PC’s have come within 5 percent of that experience thanks to streamlined settings and helper software like the GeForce Experience.
Still, I have all three consoles in my house, and I use them. With eyes slightly squinted out of skepticism.
My Xbox barely holds on to life because I sometimes want to play a 360 game, or I want to see how an Xbox One X title holds up compared to my PC.
And then there’s Sony and Nintendo’s exclusives.
The two Japanese companies have kept a tight hold to the concept that Microsoft now ignores: Exclusives Sell Systems. The Switch and the PS4 both have massive libraries of excellent exclusive titles that have huge budgets and will never make their way to the PC.
With the Switch, Nintendo has also capitalized on the novelty of portability, something we all somehow forgot about even though most of us have capable smartphones in our pockets.
My friend Andy always jokes that the Switch is the perfect place to play games that are at least two years old, but now on the go! And while that has an edge of cynicism to it, it’s also spot-on. The Switch has so many ports of older games that it’s now a running joke online to wish for older games to come to the platform.
PC’s provide an objectively better gaming experience than consoles do, with better graphics, better control flexibility, and cheaper pricing. There’s no real easy way to deny that. The mass shift from proprietary hardware to PC hardware in console designs shows that at some level, gaming companies recognize this too.
But without big budget exclusives to call its own, the PC risks losing its luster a little bit in the face of games like Spider-Man, God of War, Mario Odyssey, and Breath of the Wild.
Microsoft clearly believes in the old “one platform future” concept, and they’re hoping that Windows 10/Xbox will be your ecosystem of choice. They’re playing a long game that removes all the specialness of the PC in favor of software being the star.
While I understand the business sense of that, and how this homogenized ecosystem makes things easier for big developers, I also really miss those days in the 80’s and 90’s when the PC was home to all kinds of wacky business, and console ports were often entirely different games.
I thought that Nvidia might be making a go of it with RTX, and although they showed a big slate of raytraced games, there’s still only one with actual proper support (Battlefield 5) and card prices mean mainstream adoption will be tough. I see the cards sitting in my local Best Buy and start moving things around in my budget in my head, but then I remember that I’m not all that in to Battlefield. Maybe Metro will be good?
At least they still think the PC is worth some attention.
Apple has had remarkable monetary success with closing off their environment, reducing upgrade options, and going after people that try to repair their machines. I hope this doesn’t happen in the PC space. Its flexibility and power are its last remaining assets. And I like them too much to see them fizzle out in the name of homogeneity.