PC Couch Gaming Sucks

Seriously. It’s shit.

PC gaming is infinitely better than console gaming except in two areas – startup costs (a decent PC is expensive – no, your $500 USD box that sometimes maybe with tweaking gets 60FPS @ 1080p isn’t much better), and couch gaming. Yes, couch gaming. I’ve been working very, very hard to make couch gaming work on my PC, but it always fucking sucks.

Firstly, my setup: I actually have a gaming laptop that I move between a desk and a static position next to my 1080p TV. This gives me the flexibility to game however I want without having to resort to multiple devices or some sort of streaming solution – a solution that I don’t particularly want because I’ve got a HTC Vive on the way that will get set up in the TV room very soon. My laptop houses a 6700HQ, 16GB of RAM, a GTX 1070 with 8GB VRAM, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth, Ethernet, and runs Windows 10 with 2x SSDs. It’s a highly capable device – far in excess of your average console. The weakest link is the mobile CPU, but for gaming it’s more than adequate. I output A/V to HDMI for the TV, and use the laptop’s monitor for when I’m not at the TV.

None of this is overly relevant to my complaints about PC couch gaming. Here are my complaints, and what we need to fix before PC couch gaming really challenges consoles – because right now, if you just want to park your arse on a couch and start playing, consoles are still beating us, despite their inferior hardware.

Controller support is still all over the place

Many games support the Xbox 360/One controller, but some are still fiddly with their support, and the exercise of getting the controllers to work reliably in Windows can sometimes be an exercise in frustration. Even then, the vast majority of titles that require keyboard input have no way around this except to actually use a keyboard. The worst offenders are Bethesda games like Skyrim or Fallout 4, because Steam’s onscreen keyboard breaks in each of these games. So if you’re sitting back on your couch and suddenly find you need to input text, and Steam’s onscreen keyboard decides not to work, you’re fucked – you need a keyboard, another peripheral to sit beside you.

There are also no decent ways to use a mouse and keyboard on a couch. The two most common ways involve some sort of table across your lap (which looks ridiculous, and you may as well be sitting at a desk) or a the Razer Turret, which is even worse. Decent controller support significantly improves couch gaming – yes, analogue sticks are inferior to mice when it comes to precision, but when it comes to something that can be held in your lap, they’re better. It’s far more comfortable holding a controller than trying to balance a KB+M setup.

Valve acknowledge this and released the Steam Controller plus a plethora of support for controllers with Steam… but it’s a fucking mess too. Firstly, the Steam Controller isn’t super popular like the Xbox 360 controller – and in some games its support is flat out awful. Again, Bethesda titles like F4 and Skyrim are atrocious on the Steam Controller – you either run it in Xbox emulation mode (trying to use the trackpads as thumbsticks, effectively negating any benefit from the controller), or you use it in KB+M mode and have to memorise chord combos, use onscreen menus, or come up with your own config.

Valve have also released software to allow you to hook into Xbox and PS4 controllers and use them under the (very cool) Steam Controller Interface – except sometimes it breaks and causes your controller to stop connecting. The Xbox controller is particularly bad for this at times – necessitating a restart of Steam, upon which time I’ve had it fail to recognise the controller, leaving me with stock standard Xbox controller mode.

By far and away though my Xbox One (rev 2) controller has given me the most problems. Random disconnects, random sync failures, issues with audio output, the list goes on and on. It doesn’t play nice with Steam in particular – trying to use the controller in Steam Controller mode is far more likely to cause these issues. When it fails, it almost always requires a restart of the system – another infuriating process that can also lead to HDMI connection errors, because Windows 10 gets confused very easily.

Why do I use the Xbox One controller? Why don’t I just use my Steam Controller? There are two reasons. Firstly, the Xbox One controller has excellent support by most games, so for something like Fallout 4 it works as expected. The Steam Controller is a pain in the arse to use for F4 (or any game where you can’t get simultaneous KB+M and controller inputs, really) and using the trackpads as thumbsticks is a terrible experience. Secondly, the second version supports outputting Bluetooth audio via the controller itself. This is pretty useful if I want to play with headphones and means I don’t need yet another device plugged in. Unfortunately, when it shits itself, it’s a massive PITA to get working.

Things go wrong more often

Chances are if I sit down at a PS4 or whatever, I won’t have to get off the couch again. If a game crashes, it dumps me back to the (controller friendly) dashboard, and I restart it. The only time I’m going to need to get up is if the system hard locks.

Attempting to do this with my gaming PC is far less foolproof – especially depending on if I use Sleep mode or shut the system down. Here’s a few of the issues I can run into that necessitates either using a KB+M or getting up to fuck with the connections:

  • Fails to output video via HDMI
  • Fails to output audio via HDMI, but video works fine (seems to love doing this after resuming from sleep – even if the display was never disconnected, or attempting to reconnect the display)
  • HDMI signal error causing weird colours (usually fixed by reconnecting the cable – usually happens after resume from sleep without display connected)
  • Xbox controller fails to sync (may need to unplug/replug in controller)
  • Xbox controller syncs, but after 2 minutes desyncs (usually requires a restart, or sometimes it’s Steam screwing with the device)
  • Background app or Windows process steals focus
  • Game or app crashes, but crash dialogue box doesn’t appear in foreground (or worse – can’t get the dialogue to appear because the full screen game retains focus no matter what)
  • Steam desktop controller profile fails to load properly
  • Steam fails to recognise controller (Xbox controller in Steam Controller mode)
  • Game has a shitty desktop launcher

There are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. The worst, by far, are those that require a connection adjustment. I don’t know if this is an issue that’s particular to my laptop or not, but in the past when I’ve had dedicated media units, I’ve had issues with Windows and outputting via the correct device, especially HDMI and when resuming from sleep mode. Sometimes I’ll boot everything up and it’ll work fine – and I laugh at the pathetic PS4 console sitting below the TV (last powered on weeks ago). Then something shits itself and I start to think it’s an exercise in futility.

By contrast, my PS4’s biggest problem is that its download speeds are glacially slow and apparently randomised. Well that and it’s an inferior experience overall.

The UIs are still awful

Steam Big Picture Mode is… well, adequate, I guess. I actually tend to use the regular interface more often (except when I have no choice) because it’s cleaner. Outside of that though, using Windows on a TV is a pain in the arse. Yes, Windows 10 supports UI scaling, but more often than not it simply causes more problems – particularly with websites where the scaling results in rendering artefacts (particularly under Chrome). Some apps just don’t respect scaling and end up not scaling at all, or scaling up with blocky UI elements. So your options are basically something that looks like arse, or something that’s harder to navigate.

Yes, there are third party solutions like Kodi, but Kodi only just recently got an official Netflix plugin – and for the most reliable streaming, chances are you’ll still be using a web browser for the PC. Despite having HTPCs for a really, really long time, we’re still really, really bad at developing decent UIs for them. And it’s a shame, because Youtube on the PC is by far the most complete experience – with annotations, cards, and everything else working as they should.

Browsing Netflix on my PS4 is a breeze and works remarkably well with a controller. Doing the same on my PC plugged into the TV is a pain in the arse. Same with YouTube, although I tolerate YouTube because the experience is much richer on the PC. Otherwise I just don’t use my PC for Netflix et. al. connected to the TV, because the UI is shitty for couch users. I just use a Chromecast instead.

 

The experience always feels like a compromise

When it all works as expected, with a game that has good controller support, the entire thing feels good. It just works, and it’s fun, and I get that 60FPS high fidelity goodness that makes PC gaming great. I get my games significantly cheaper and I can do whatever I want with my rig. But when it doesn’t work, it feels like a massive compromise – an expensive compromise that doesn’t quite do what you want it to do, or feels like a thin facade that quickly cracks when the slightest tremor occurs.

Some of this I’ve managed to fix with a few simple rules – usually making sure the PC is on first, then connecting devices, and then starting Steam… but sometimes a random issue still results, and I’m back to square one, playing with connectors or just rebooting the whole fucking system. When this happens, I stop having fun, and my will to keep playing is drained really, really quickly. No wonder so many can’t be bothered and succumb to the Call of the Consoles – designed for couch gaming and entertainment first and foremost.

It’s annoying, it’s frustrating, and sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth the effort anymore. But I can’t sit at a desk and play games for extended periods anymore – I’d rather sit on my plush couch with a big screen, it’s much more comfortable for me. But getting up to fix an issue, even if it only happens once every so often, is still frustrating. The fact that we are still suffering through these issues in 2017 is absurd. We’ve had long enough to not have I/O issues, or display driver issues, or to develop a UI that actually works on a TV. For all of the superiority of PC gaming, we still haven’t conquered the couch to any meaningful extent.

Maybe we will soon. But unfortunately I’m running out of hope.

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