Higher end experience

“But there’s no disputing PCs are a higher end experience.”

This year’s E3 is going on at the time of writing, prompting the Internet to fill up with opinions on the new Xbox One X, Microsoft’s final name for Project Scorpio. As is usual when new (fixed, powered) consoles are released these days, fans of PC gaming jump online and take potshots at the specs. They’re naturally not as high-end as the best PCs can be at the time, nor even as equivalently equipped as a same-cost PC can be, despite having PC-like components.

That cost-only facet gets picked upon in particular, without consideration of the completely different economies inherent to manufacturing each one. It especially avoids the inherent values being provided elsewhere in each case, away from the hardware bill of materials.

My thesis: that even if the console contained the exact same hardware as a same-cost PC, the value in the software would always make the console the more attractive purchase for gamers, despite its limitations compared to the more feature-rich PC platform. It’s that rich set of features that are actually the PC’s undoing, because they mean that my time as a gamer isn’t valued as highly.

That’s because the PC brings along so much extra baggage that it can’t help but get in the way of providing a great gaming experience, especially with Windows. That’s not a knock against Windows: even though I don’t like it personally, I very much appreciate the rich functionality it brings to PC hardware and what it enables people to do.

Windows Defender, always-on telemetry, the ability for any app to jump into the foreground at any time, filesystem indexing: all can — and sadly often do — get in the way of performance or the experience of gaming. Then you’ve got things like per-vendor GPU driver update mechanisms because Windows Update won’t deliver timely GPU updates for some reason (probably the GPU vendors' fault, not Microsoft’s), no concrete definition of what fullscreen exclusive means, or support for it, input focus stealing, resolution switching behaviours…

It’s death by 1000 cuts to any notion of it just getting out of the way to let you enjoy gaming quickly and efficiently. The rigid hardware platform and laser focus of the software on a console (although that’s less so as time goes by, as a general trend) means that it’s still basically just for playing games and little else. You could argue that consoles now have undesirable PC-like traits, such as regular updates. Apparently console games even crash or hang — I’ve never experienced that myself. Things like that are fair criticisms. But I’ll still take that kind of behaviour over performance of my game tanking because Windows is stealing all of my storage I/O again to perform a full filesystem scan for viruses.

Consoles aren’t perfect. Far from it, and that’s not my thesis. They’re just closer to it than PCs and, for me at least, that’ll always outweigh the higher available performance or the wider choice of input methods, even though that means the console is off limits for certain kinds of games. It’s still a better deal to limit my PC gaming to the kinds of games a console isn’t suited for, and play the rest on a console, honestly.

“Game Mode!”, you might cry. An excellent step in the right direction I’d reply. Indefinitely pause all but the most essential running threads, make exclusive full-screen a real thing, turn off the ability for any other app to interrupt me or steal input focus, and help deliver consistent performance from CPU, GPU, disk and memory and you’ve made a great start. That’s what Game Mode (mostly) promises today.

Take that and plumb in timely driver updates for hardware via Windows Update, and allow me to boot to Steam with Game Mode active and you’ve really got my attention. I know I’ve just described SteamOS for the most part, but economics and momentum aren’t helping it succeed yet. So PC gaming is getting there, and it’s partly why I joined a predominantly PC hardware vendor; maybe I get to help fix and enable some of what I’d like.

That’s because I love the PC as a platform overall. It’s the only one where VR could have happened in a way to make it a viable new medium for fresh experiences, dragging AR with it. It’s openness allows experimentation and malleability of experience. The inherent maximum power lets developers try things well ahead of the console performance curve, even with the console clawing some of that back with more direct and flexible access to the underlying hardware.

Improvements to the PC platform are very welcome, especially those that bring a more console-like experience to the gamer and games developers. Until then, though, the quote at the top is easily disputed. Yes, the PC offers more computational power, and thus higher potential. But “higher end” means something else to me. It embodies the experience as a whole, giving me something that values my time and gets me from on to game to off with the least friction along the way. The PC is miles away from the console in that respect, despite its inherent advantages in control system choice, overall flexibility, and available horsepower.

Back to working on closing the gap.