Or: Why they’re still being purchased.
For a lot of 2016 I played games on a PS4, something I’d considered blasphemy back in the day. I’d grown up with PC games, I’d always built my own systems, and I’ve suffered through the Dark Ages of DOS (and the arcane, forbidden knowledge of boot disks), the Golden Years of 3D Acceleration, and the Rise of the Consoles. I’ll always have a capable gaming PC. But my period spent with a console taught me quite a few things, that I think are worth setting down. For the record, I don’t care what people choose to use as their system of choice. From a technical perspective, the PC is superior to consoles, depending on the PC of course. My i7 6700 and 1070 will destroy any console out there – but they came at a significant cost by themselves, let alone the rest of the hardware. So what did I learn from consoles, and why are they still relevant despite many PC gamers calling them “dead”?
“Good Enough” has become acceptable.
Every generation we seem to pick something new for graphical fidelity and target the hell out of it. In the early 90s it was 3D, culminating with true 3D architecture with Quake. Then we started upping the texture detail until around the time of Doom 3 and Half Life 2, when it was all about real time lighting and physics. Move on to the next era around the launch of the Xbox 360/PS3 and it’s all about HDR/Bloom and open worlds, with graphical effects smeared across the screen until you can’t even see what the hell is going on.
The new target is 4k, with display panel HDR being thrown in the mix too. True 4k is 2160p – practically double 1080p which has been the PC standard for ages now. Getting modern day PC games to run smoothly at 4k is still a pretty big ask of even high end PCs (save for the highest of the high end) – particularly if you want to target 60FPS with high detail, which you probably do if you’re a PC gamer. So when the PS4 Pro promised 4k gaming, everybody scratched their heads. How the hell can they do that? Spoiler: They can’t. Well, for most titles they can’t – those that run at a native 4k resolution quite frankly should in this day and age (Skyrim, I’m looking at you).
Instead, the PS4 Pro uses a technique called checkerboarding to upscale from lower resolutions to 4k. Any given PS4 Pro title probably won’t render natively at 4k; instead, it’ll render at something lower (usually still quite higher than 1080p), and the PS4 Pro will upscale it to output a 4k image. The technique is a little complicated to explain, and it’s hampered by the fact that exact details still aren’t online – most people refer to Temporal Filtering or Valve’s plans to make VR less taxing and assume it’s the same (and it might be similar). The general idea is to render half (or some fraction) of the pixels in a checkerboard configuration, and fill in the blanks from previous frames or rendering tricks. This produces an image that looks close to 4k, but isn’t native – and held up side by side with a native image, if you look a little bit harder, you’ll notice the difference.
But what’s remarkable is how good the effect actually looks, and how well it runs on a box that costs about $550 AUD, typically with other stuff thrown in to sweeten the deal. For a PC to run at native 4k you’re looking at a minimum 1070 GPU, and even then you’ll be playing with the graphical fidelity settings to get a smooth FPS (or targeting 30FPS more likely)… and you’ll pay for the privilege, too. At the time of writing, a 1070 is still well over the price of a PS4 Pro, for the GPU alone (around $600). If you really wanted a decent 4k experience, you’d be looking at a 1080, which start at around $800 AUD. And you need the rest of the PC too.
Granted, you can scale back the resolution to 1400p – a reasonable compromise that a 1070 can eat up – but you’re also not gaming at 4k, so the point becomes moot. If you’re trying to play 1400p on a 2160p panel, you’re upscaling anyway – and relying on fairly basic upscaling techniques too. The point here being that the PS4 Pro, while far from being native 4k in most titles, does some clever trickery to achieve something that for most consumers is “good enough” for their 4k expensive TV sets, versus paying for an expensive PC to target true 4k.
That said, this race can only go on for so long before the resolution stops making a difference – eventually, the screens get so high-res that we stop being able to see the difference. This is likely to peak in TV screens where we sit way back from the screen as opposed to PC monitors, but the day will come when there’s no real benefit to increasing resolutions. Eventually “My resolution is higher than yours” stops being an argument.
The MP Community Lasts Longer
I’m writing this around 1300 on a Saturday (19/2/2017) – Australia’s weekend when a lot of people have time to play games. Here are some player counts, rounded down:
BATTLEFIELD 1: PC – 24,000. XBO – 88,000. PS4 – 93,000.
SW BATTLEFRONT: PC – 2,000. XBO – 15,000. PS4 – 18,000.
DOTA 2: PC only, 450,000.
CS:GO: PC only, 272,000.
TF2: PC only (effectively), 59,000.
Unfortunately, player counts are harder to come by depending on the game (some rely purely on Steam stats), but I think Battlefield 1 provides a good metric versus the other three. The player count on PS4 is three times that of the PC for Battlefield 1, same for the XBO. SW Battlefront is effectively dead on the PC; a population of 2000 is abysmal, you’re unlikely to find a suitable game. This is the story for a lot of online PC games – the MP community tends to spike on release, and then quickly dries up as time goes by. This is true even of AAA releases like Battlefield 1, but especially true of smaller or less well known games. You can see this trend a lot on the PC during Steam Sales. Something like Killing Floor 2 will go on sale, there’ll be a spike in players, and then a few weeks later it’s back of being effectively dead (and thus unplayable).
If you aren’t into DOTA 2/League of Legends, Counter Strike, or TF2 (or similar popular online PC games), you’re going to be facing a very small community, and may have trouble finding a game. Given how many games these days focus on multiplayer gameplay, it’s kind of depressing. I generally didn’t buy MP-focused titles on the PC, because I couldn’t be sure that I’d have anyone to play with after the first week or so. My time is limited, so I definitely won’t buy a game that I can only play once in the first week and then never again because the servers are depopulated.
You can argue as much as you like about whether these games are any good or not – and I know the PC community in particular is especially harsh with criticism of B1 and SW:BF, sometimes well justified – but the fact is that if you like the game, you’re more likely to be able to actually play it on a console. The apparent low tolerance for PC MP games means that the community will die off without hesitation if it fails to capture the attention of gamers. I think an interesting one to watch will be For Honor – while it’s receiving a lot of attention and praise now, who knows if it’ll be the same story next month? As I said, I’ve effectively stopped buying MP titles on the PC because of this. It’s too hard to pick what will have the longevity to make it worth the purchase – because more often than not, the game is basically dead after a month, and you’ve wasted your money.
PC Couch Gaming is Still Awful
Despite the increase in options, PC couch gaming is still pretty bad compared to consoles. While lots of games support gamepad input, and while the Steam Controller can help where there is no support, there’s still a lot of problems with couch gaming, particularly with older games. You’re going to have to have a keyboard somewhere nearby – if only when things break or when you need to input text – or you’re not going to get very far. Trying to use a keyboard on a couch is awful, and there are lots of ridiculous solutions that basically amount to putting plastic across your legs and forcing you into particular postures for it to work. Some games just don’t scale properly to large displays, particularly at higher resolutions, so you can be staring at a tiny UI sitting across the room from your TV.
I have a Steam Link, a Steam Controller, and my gaming rig is actually a laptop so failing that I can just plug it into my TV… but they’re all a poor substitute for using a console when I’m on the couch. When everything works properly – and I don’t have to touch a keyboard – it’s better than a console. When it doesn’t, and it turns to shit, it’s infinitely worse. Even something as simple as inputting a character’s name in Fallout 4 requires me to pick up a keyboard – and this is a modern title! My solution is to have a little tiny, cheap arse keyboard, which I can barely operate, for situations like this. And it doesn’t matter if you pick up a 360 pad (the defacto standard for PC), a DualShock 4, or whatever else – sometimes the game just demands a keyboard.
And where games demand keyboard input, you’re going to get stuck with trying to use a keyboard and mouse in some sort of compromised position. A Steam Controller can help, but if the game doesn’t want to play nice with Steam, you’re stuck with the KB+M. In these cases, I just stop trying – I go back to my desk. If I need a hard, flat surface to play, I might as well just go sit at my desk, because shoving a plank of wood across my knees amounts to the same thing. And this is the case even for some games that were cross platform! The Mass Effect series have awful controller support, unless you mod it in.
For some people this isn’t an issue, but for me it is. I like to play games from my couch – it’s more relaxing than holding myself upright in an office chair, and I say this as a veteran PC gamer. Consoles are purpose built for that task, and it shows – everything just works properly from the controller.
The PC is technically the most proficient of the platforms – if you care about visual fidelity and framerate, the PC is your first, last, and only hope. We are the most technologically advanced platform. We have the best backwards compatibility and the best “future proofing” of any of the platforms. But we also have some pretty big deficits, and that high end joy that we dangle in front of console users comes at a cost. It’s a fallacy to suggest that a $550 PC will perform like a PS4 Pro – it won’t, and to suggest so is disingenuous or comes with a massive compromise attached. The MP communities of the PC are abysmal – they’re practically dead in all but a handful of games, games which stay on top for incredibly long periods, kicking out any hopeful newcomers. And couch gaming? It’s still the realm of consoles – the PC has too many compromises.
But despite all that, I still love PC gaming. It has its limitations outside of things that can be beaten by raw performance. But when I can pick up games for half the price of the consoles, watch them struggle to hit 30FPS at 1080p, and look at the lower resolution textures they include as “current gen”, I feel validated in my choice. My gaming laptop cost an awful lot more than my PS4 did, and to build a high end PC from scratch would still cost an awful lot, but I’ve come to expect high performance. I won’t accept anything less. And if you’re in that sort of mindset, the PC rules.