A PC Gamer’s Perspective on Same Generation Console Upgrades

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]ith the announcements of the PS4 Neo that is rumored to launch this year and Microsoft’s Project Scorpio that is targeting the 2017 holiday season, the developments in the gaming console industry can only mean a healthy future for video games and gamers. PC gamers in particular should encourage this new direction. Not only does the availability of more powerful hardware to the largest gaming segment make it easier for game designers to put out products that can challenge PC hardware, but driving console players to buy more powerful consoles sooner eliminates one of the biggest value propositions consoles have over PCs: cost. This new business model for consoles could create a new Renaissance for PC gaming.

[divider]Freedom Isn’t Free[/divider]

Like many gamers my age, I got my introduction to video games by playing consoles. I can still remember playing the SNES my parents bought me for my birthday and explaining to them how the graphics were better than the NES they were replacing. I don’t think I convinced them, but they were happy that I was happy.

As I grew older and with the internet becoming more ubiquitous, I spent more and more time on the PC. It just made sense that it would become my primary gaming device, especially when I was being lavished with groundbreaking games, like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Starcraft, Thief: The Dark Project, Half Life, and much more. These were games that were capturing the imagination, pushing the boundaries in storytelling, writing new rules for gameplay, and raising the limits of graphical fidelity. But every time the bar was raised for games, the bar for hardware was raised just as high.

The venerable GeForce 2 Ultra!

Before we got SpeedTree and PhysX, a new game would usually tout one or two graphical highlights that increased the verisimilitude of the game. In the early days we were wowed when sprites became 3D models. Then delighted in seeing less blocky shapes for faces and bodies. Then we marveled when teeth moved independently from lips when characters spoke. Later we would stare in awe at volumetric clouds, realistic water, ragdoll physics, destructible environments, mip mapping, bump mapping, motion blur, etc. But with every technology came an increasingly higher hardware requirement, and the customizable nature of PCs allowed you to accommodate that requirement – provided you could afford it.

I can still distinctly remember shelling out $600 for a GeForce 2 just so that I could have the shiny floors that the box art for Deus Ex promised. The game was absolutely playable and fun without the upgrade, but knowing that I could have a better experience and that it was financially within my grasp kept nagging at me. Looking back, it was not the best decision I’ve made when it comes to PC upgrades, but the point here is that I had a choice and the freedom to affect my experience, which I would never have to this degree with consoles.

[divider]A Paradigm Shift Away from the PC[/divider]

A couple of years after Deus Ex was released for the PC, Eidos released a port to the PlayStation 2. Compared to the PC version it was a compromised effort, with smaller maps and reduced gameplay, but still a great game in its own right. As a PC gamer, I was happy that console players got to experience it. But this arrangement of giving the PC the best version just seemed to make sense, and I’m not sure that anyone was upset by it.

It wasn’t until the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that things became confused, with developers adopting a “console first” mentality. Inventory menus became long lists instead of convenient grids. Quick saves became checkpoints. Maps shrank. Fonts grew. And the worst offense was that PC gamers felt that graphics were being held back.

For those of us who could run the original Crysis with graphics settings somewhere close to the E3 demo, we thought we were looking at a new minimum for graphical presentation. We were wrong. Instead, we got Crysis 2, which was a DirectX 9 mess, with blurry textures and blocky character models. But at least the game looked roughly the same on both PCs and consoles. Regrettably, platform parity has been the norm for so long that developers don’t bother showcasing new graphical advances. Then when the game comes out missing the bells and whistles shown at E3 – I’m looking at you Watch_Dogs and The Witcher 3 – the differences are excused away as “unplayable vertical slices” meant for sizzle reels. But whenever we hear developers slip and talk about holding back the PC for parity, it’s hard not to wonder what games would look and be like for the PC if it weren’t for this situation.

As I recall one PC gamer lamenting on a game forum: It’s like being a teenager with keys to the car, but being forced to take your 12-year-old brother with you wherever you go.

[divider]Consoles Are Growing Up[/divider]

My current gaming rig.
My current gaming rig.

Ironically, while PC gamers enjoy the freedom of customizing their rigs to strike the sweet spot between performance and budget, it’s precisely the static nature of consoles that make them so attractive. Consumers get a reasonably priced machine that lasts them five to eight years, and developers get a single predictable platform to make games for instead of the countless Frankenstein’s monsters wandering the PC landscape. Neo and Scorpio could be changing this arrangement.

One of the selling points of consoles is that console gamers never have to upgrade to get the best graphics for their system; they automatically get them. Upgrades for consoles have traditionally meant buying the next generation and gaining access to a new library of games. Since Neo and Scorpio are not next gen consoles, but rather better versions of current gen consoles that will allegedly run the same games, console players are now faced with the dilemma of freedom. What happens if console games start featuring graphic options, like PC games, and console gamers have to turn some settings down because their console isn’t the latest and greatest? Will they upgrade? If so, then depending on the length of future console lifecycles, the cost difference between PC and consoles begins to vanish. And if console lifecycles adopt something approaching cell phones and tablets, then the cost could actually turn in PC’s favor.

Furthermore, the point of Neo and Scorpio is to provide better hardware to accommodate the massive push for virtual reality. The more powerful consoles get, the less of a limiting factor they become in terms of graphics, physics, and gameplay. Honest gamers can all agree that the PC is the superior platform when it comes to raw power, and the hope is that consoles can make continual small strides to keep up year after year instead of making generational leaps. And while Neo and Scorpio will not erase the hardware deficit between PC and console, it’s a good first step.

It’s been a while since the PC and PC gamers maintained any relevancy at E3. This year, the PC market not only got some appreciation by Microsoft, but these new consoles could spark an evolution for the PC-console dynamic and begin to end the platform wars. Here’s to hoping that gamers and developers embrace this direction.