For pretty much as long as people have been using PCs to play video games, it’s been common to mythologize the idea that the PC is the place to be for so-called “true” gamers.
A big part of this comes down petty posturing and gendered-gatekeeping. Tribalism is timeless, as it turns out. The debate between hardcore and casual gamers raged just as fiercely back then as it is today.
However, at the same time, it’s hard to shake the idea that the PC is the place for players who want to take things further than the constraints of console gaming can allow for. For many, the complexities of the PC gaming experience has always held part of the appeal.
An Xbox is a product. PC gaming is a hobby. And if you’re looking to play PC games, you’re almost certainly looking at a computer that’s running on Microsoft’s Windows operating system. That’s just the way it is and the way it’s always been.
If you want to play the latest and greatest PC games, you have to play them on a Windows PC. There is no real alternative. Even when you factor in workarounds like Parallels, Microsoft’s operating system remains an inseparable part of the PC gaming experience.
Nevertheless, more and more, I find myself thinking about how little stands between this long-standing status quo and a world where that isn’t the case.
To be clear: this article isn’t about proclaiming the impending-death of the PC or PC gaming.
The PC isn’t going anywhere and PC gaming sure as hell aren’t dying. If anything, the rise of livestreaming culture and platforms like Twitch are fueling a new PC gaming boom. According to a recent from Jon Peddie Research, the value of gaming PCs is expected to grow to $37.69 billion by 2020.
There are always going to be people who want to invest that little bit of extra time and money in order to secure the right components and get what they consider to be the best experience possible. Often-times, I’d call myself one of them.
The kind of person who asks why you would buy a PC you want when you can build it. The answer, for most people, is that it’s inconvenient. It can also be intimidating and expensive compared to the alternatives.
In a world driven by mercantile consumerism, convenience is one of those invisible forces that quietly pushes you in the direction of one product over another. There’s a reason that most people just buy AirPods instead of shopping around and a reason that most people listen to streaming services like Spotify rather than lug a pocketful of FLAC files around with them.
Do you want to play a game?
If you just want to play games, building a PC can be inconvenient.
Still, as mentioned before, the persnickety nature of PC gaming tends to draw in a certain type of user. The kind of person who sees all the extra challenges that come with PC gaming as exactly that: a problem that they can excel at solving.
But, again, if you just want to play games, maybe you’re not into that. Maybe you can’t afford to be picky. Gaming is ultimately a leisure and a luxury hobby but, PC gaming has always been the more expensive way to go and that’s going to be a natural barrier for a lot of potential PC gamers.
In 2019, PC gaming remains too expensive and too inconvenient, even as the alternatives have drifted in the opposite direction.
At launch, a 60GB Playstation 3 cost $999. These days, you can grab a Playstation 4 with a terabyte of storage for less than half that. The cost of walking into a store and walking out with a Switch, Xbox or Playstation isn’t just what it once was.
Stuff like Microsoft’s Games Pass (and all various contemporaries) reduces cost as a barrier to getting your game on even further. Sure, console gaming has always been the cheaper way to go but they’ve never been quite as affordable as they are nowadays. As someone who grew up struggling to game on a budget, the amount of bang-for-your-buck that console gaming offers nowadays beggars belief.
Since everything on the AAA side and a large swathe of popular indie games tend to launch on both consoles and the PC, you simply don’t need to build a cutting-edge gaming PC to experience most games. There’s no Crisis, Battlefield or Witcher game that you absolutely need to upgrade to a new PC or upgrade your graphics card in order to experience.
The new Call of Duty might support 4K resolutions and ray-tracing on the PC but you can totally play it without those things and not feel like you’re missing out. You can even do so using a mouse and keyboard on the Xbox One.
What’s more, the way that most people play games has changed. These days, it’s all about the long tail. More and more players are sinking their time (and money) to a single or a handful of ever-evolving games rather than a dozen different titles. For some people, that game is Fortnite. For others, it’s Overwatch, Destiny or Apex Legends.
In the future, it could well be something like Diablo: Immortal, Call of Duty: Mobile or League of Legends: Wild Rift.
The shape of things to come
The hardware in your smartphone isn’t at the level of an Alienware laptop quite yet but you’d be a fool not to notice how fast the ceiling for the kinds of experiences mobile gaming can reliably deliver is rising. We’re starting to see more mobile games that feel big, developed and mature in the way that they traditionally haven’t. There are plenty of gamers out there for whom mobile and tablet gaming isn’t their sideshow but the main gig.
Add to that the emergence of things like Apple Arcade, and mobile starts to look like a real contender when it comes to competing for your spare time. And, really, isn’t your spare time the most valuable micro-currency in gaming?
There’s a naive tendency to think that things will never really change in the gaming world. That’s demonstrably false.
There was a time where text-driven titles like Disco Elysium lived only in obscurity. There was at time where socially-driven AR experiences like Pokemon Go literally weren’t possible. There was a time where Sega was considered a serious player in the hardware business.
The idea that the players change but the game remains the same is a comforting one but it’s fundamentally untrue. The generations who grew up with the build-your-own-PC experience aren’t going to abandon it any time soon but those who didn’t are going to shape what comes next.
If the rise of Fortnite has taught us anything, it’s that the next generation of gamers aren’t going to be saddled to the way things have always been. They’re going to naturally zero in on the winning combination of quality, cost and convenience.
When I sit down and think about the things that I’m attached about PC gaming, the Windows operating system isn’t one of them. The kind of experience offered by a good gaming mouse and keyboard means far more to me than the software I’m using those peripherals to interact with does.
For a company arguably built on its software offering, Microsoft rarely seems to embody that inter-generational expertise. When it comes to looks and feel, Windows 10 lags behind the other options in a real way. Even when you give it the benefit of the doubt and at the best of times, Windows 10 is no Windows XP or Windows 7.
Maybe it's partially down to marketing, people don't get excited about new versions of Windows in the same way that they do new version of Mac OS. Hardly a month can go by without Microsoft rolling out a routine software update that breaks PCs. And, honestly, if you could play the games you want to play on a PC that ran anything else - MacOS, iPadOS, Android, ChromeOS, Samsung’s DeX interface - would you?
I think I would at least consider it.
If you’re the kind of person who loves using their Windows PC the way they’ve always used a Windows PC, I don’t begrudge you that. But the way that I use and think about personal computers has changed in a way that Windows fails to match - and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
The final piece of the puzzle here is cloud streaming services like Google Stadia. Now, look, a few caveats that we have to touch on here.
Yes, the rollout of services like Stadia is absolutely going to run into adverse conditions when it comes to the Australian market. Our infrastructure is literally not built to handle the kind of seamless future that Stadia promises to deliver. That’s not going to change overnight or even in a year or two.
However, if we squint ten years down the track and it’s easy to imagine things looking a little different. In a post-NBN Australia where 5G is as widespread as 4G is today, maybe services like Stadia could be reliable and affordable enough to displace and replace the status quo of owning a gaming PC?
If or once that happens, the future of PC gaming starts to look unrecognisable.
Mobile games are getting bigger and better, consoles are getting more affordable and PC-like with every iteration and cloud-streaming services are lurking on the horizon. When all three of these trends inevitably collide, the traditional gaming PC just isn’t going to make sense in the same way that it has for the last few decades.
Today, the idea of PC gaming and Windows having a messy break-up is more of a fun hypothetical than anything else. Nevertheless, once you have the ability to divorce the Windows operating system experience from PC gaming, you have to ask yourself how much the former really brings to the experience.
Maybe that’s a good thing. A lack of meaningful competition rarely brings out the best in tech giants like Microsoft.
For pretty much as long as PC gaming has been around, it's been an inseparable part of the Windows operating system experience. You think PC gaming, you think Windows. But Windows isn't the only operating system competing for your time and money in 2019 and the future of PCs isn't necessarily going to follow the blueprint of the past.
Bring it on.