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keyboardsmallThis is the first of two articles about PC gaming. In this episode, I’m going to cover the advantages and disadvantages of PC gaming (and, yes, there are disadvantages). In the sequel, I will provide a realistic PC gaming rig build for under $1,000. I’m not going to try to artificially hit some lowball figure by leaving out parts or dumbing down components.

First, a word from our sponsor (me)…

I’m a Gamer

I’ve been playing games since I was a teen, which means my first shiny new console was an Atari 2600. In the late 80s I got an NES. I followed that up with a Super NES. In the mid-90s I purchased my first “modern[1]” PC and started playing games on that. I was primarily a PC gamer from about 1996 through 2006, building my systems after my first one got old and tired. I skipped the N64/PS1 generation entirely and only got a Gamecube in the middle of that generation. I switched back to console gaming in January 2007 when I got a Wii. I upgraded to a PS3 in late 2008 and now have that PS3, a Vita, and a PS4. I still have a gaming PC, but it doesn’t get used much.

All of that provides my bona fides and my bias. I have “played both sides” of the debate. Right now I prefer console gaming, but I keep my PC upgraded enough that I can play the occasional indie game or older PC game. I buy the vast majority of new games for PS3 or PS4. I don’t dismiss PC gaming out-of-hand; but, I don’t think PC gaming is the Master Race. It’s just another option, one with advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of PCs for Gaming

Graphics

Games on a good PC look better than on a console. Period. If you’re into eye candy, a PC is the only way to game.

Mods

DLC is nice, but PC games—especially some of the AAA games—get user-made mods that are so much more fun than DLC and often make the game better. I can’t imagine playing ES4: Oblivion without the mods to make the game mechanics better. (Well, actually, I can imagine it, since I also own a copy for the PS3.) For games with an active mod community, the PC version is usually the best version.

Upgradeability

You can add and replace parts in your PC to keep new games looking fresh; and, as the life cycle of the current consoles grows longer, PC games on an upgraded (or new) PC begin to look even better. Skyrim on my current rig looks a lot better than Skyrim on my PS3. However, when DAI comes out, I’ll be getting the PS4 version since my current rig is a little long in the tooth and probably won’t play it nearly as well as the PS4.

Disadvantages of PCs for Gaming

Price

Contrary to what people will tell you, a decent gaming PC costs more than a console and it will need constant upgrades to keep it running newer games. Developers can’t (and have no reason to) optimize their games for PC in the way they are optimized for consoles. Thus, it only takes a few years before your mid-range PC is going to need a new graphics card or more RAM, and that might require a bigger power supply. Etc.

The pace of technology advancement has slowed a little in the last few years, but you can’t rely on a PC to keep up with games as long as a console. The gaming rig I built in 2002 especially to play Neverwinter Nights was already choking on Elder Scrolls IV a mere four years later. Meanwhile, every new PS3 game runs great on my 8-yo console.

Because of the different development cycles and the ability to optimize for consoles over PCs, a PC meant for gaming will be a constant money sink.

Note: The extra money required to subscribe to Xbox Live or PlayStation+ does not offset the cost of keeping a PC running the newest games. Case in point, the $800 PC I describe in the other part of this series. That PC has a shelf life of about five years, and then it will need to be replaced. So…

$400 PS4 + 1 extra controller + 10 years PlayStation+ (Sony consoles have about a 10 year lifespan) = $960

$800 PC for five years + $800 PC for another five years = $1600

There are several advantages to playing games on PCs. Price is not one of them, and PC apologists need to stop trying to insist PCs are “as cheap as consoles.”

Technical Knowledge

No matter how much developers try, and no matter how much Steam tries to automate the process, getting every game to work on every PC is a lesson in frustration. If you just happen to have that one specific combination of CPU/GPU/Drivers that set off a bug in the game…Well, it can get complicated. Steam does make it easier to get games running on your PC, but it’s not perfect. There are just too many variables, and, unless you’re acquainted with tinkering with your PC, you’re going to get frustrated.

There’s a perception that everyone who is a gamer is also proficient with computers, and that is just not the case. Lots of people, myself included, like the ability to just pop in the disc and play without running into headaches. And I work in an IT-related job. I just don’t want to mess with that when it’s time to play, and neither do many others.

Exclusives

It’s bad enough to own a PS4 and not be able to play the latest X1 or WiiU exclusive, or vice versa. To own only a PC, though, and not be able to play ANY console exclusive? Well, that just stinks. There certainly is an argument that exclusives are bad for gaming as a whole, but as long as the console hardware manufacturers are also game publishers, there will be exclusives. If you want to play Super Mario, or Halo, or Uncharted, you have to own the appropriate console. It’s great to have a PC as well, but you’re locked out of a lot more games if that’s all you have.

Neutral Issues in the Debate

Controllers

Keyboard/mouse or console controller? It’s really personal choice. I like KB/mouse for RTS games, a controller for pretty much everything else. If you do really prefer KB/mouse controls, then a PC is the only option. If you like controllers, you can get those for PCs (though not all PC games will work with a controller).

Backwards Compatibility

Yes, if you just bought a shiny new PS4 or X1, you have a very limited game library, while a PC will come complete with an extensive back catalog of games. On the other hand, for the price of the PC, you can add a PS3 or X360 to your entertainment system and get the huge libraries of games for those systems. Also, backwards compatibility on PCs is somewhat overstated. In order to get older games to run, you often have to run virtual machines, or otherwise work around the fact they were written for much older operating systems. It can be done, but it takes the “Technical Knowledge” requirement up a few notches. For the most part, people are going to stick with newer games, and in that case there’s not a huge difference between PCs and consoles.

Conclusion

Like the console wars, there’s no “right” answer. When it comes to gaming, there are many great options. (My kids almost exclusively game with handhelds—except for Minecraft.) Smartphones/tablets, consoles, handheld consoles, PCs…as El Guapo would say, there’s a plethora of gaming goodness!

[1] I had a TRS-80 Model III, but that’s like an abacus compared to even my first IBM machine in 1996, much more the power-packed PCs of 2014.

Image courtesy of freeimages.com