You can feel it in the water. You can smell it in the air. You can hear it from bloggers, game developers, and industry analysts: PC gaming is dying. Game studios are shifting their focus to consoles in droves, decent gaming PCs can cost several times the price of an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and keeping a game-worthy computer upgraded to play ports of recently released console games will dig even further into your bank account. Worse yet, many of the perks of PC gaming—eye candy, high resolutions, multiplayer, and voice chat—are now available on consoles. PC die-hards can keep on pointing out that the old mouse and keyboard combination works better than a controller for first-person shooters, but that didn't stop Halo 3 from outselling every PC-based FPS last year.
So why bother with PC gaming at all? Over the past few years, I've often asked myself that same question. After all, I'm quite open to the concept of consoles, and yet I haven't actually played games on one in ages. Why is my PC still my primary gaming platform in this day and age?
While talking to a friend of mine who uses a laptop exclusively the other day, something became clear to me: there's just no way I'd be able to do without my desktop. For the work I do, which ranges from writing to Web and graphic design with frequent and heavy multitasking, I need a speedy processor, two gigs of RAM, dual monitors, and a large, clicky keyboard. In other words, even if I didn't game, I'd still need a desktop with almost every ingredient required for gaming. All I need to play games on my nice monitor(s) while sitting in my comfortable chair is a decent graphics card, and that'll only set me back $200 or so. Heck, if I didn't mind turning a few graphics options down, I could get away with spending barely over $150. That's definitely less than what I'd need to shell out for a console capable of playing the same games.
Of course, that observation leads us to one of the other advantages of consoles: life span. Where a game-worthy PC will probably last a couple of years at best before starting to choke on newer games, consoles have five-year life cycles during which users generally don't need to invest in any costly upgrades. I won't argue with that, but then again, I upgrade my desktop PC every couple of years anyway—I can use the extra speed and responsiveness in everyday work. Again, the only real investment required to keep my PC game-worthy is the graphics card, which comes down to a couple hundred bucks (or euros, as it happens) every two years or so. That adds up to around $400 every four years, which really compares quite favorably to the console world.
"But Cyril," you might say. "That's dishonest! Don't you also need to spend more on your processor if you play games? And what about memory?" The truth here is that you really don't have to buy a faster processor just for games. Yes, you'll see significant differences between chips in our benchmarks, but we run those are run lower resolutions with eye candy disabled specifically to highlight CPU performance. Turn up the resolution and graphical detail, and you may be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a sub-$100 dual-core chip and a quad-core screamer even in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. No matter what Intel would like you to believe, games just aren't all that bottlenecked at the CPU level these days. The graphics card is where the magic happens, and with Nvidia set to move physics processing to the GPU soon, that's unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
As for memory, well, games might make you spend a little extra. But with memory prices as low as they are today, we're hardly talking about a huge expense—more like buying an extra controller for your Xbox 360. Besides, some of the non-gaming software I run is pretty memory-hungry, and so is Windows Vista. I certainly wouldn't want to have anything less than 2GB, and I'm already about to throw in an extra 2GB just to keep things running smoothly when I'm working. So much for games making me blow all my money on new hardware.
No. For me, gaming on the PC is a matter of convenience. I need a reasonably fast desktop machine no matter what, and if I toss in a new graphics card every couple of years, I get to play games like Team Fortress 2, Portal, BioShock, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Call of Duty 4 (when I actually get around to buying it) without having to invest in a whole new device, an Xbox Live subscription, and what have you. Yes, I might enjoy playing some of those games on a big-screen TV, but that's another thing: I don't have a TV. If I bought a console, I'd have to either purchase a TV or plug the system into one of my monitors and play at my desk anyway.
There's also an aspect of convenience attached to PC games themselves. Instead of having to run down to the store or place an order on Amazon, I can grab many new titles on Steam—and chances are the PC version will cost less than the console one. With a digital copy, I don't have to worry about losing the disc (or the console damaging it), and the game is instantly accessible at the click of a button. And let's not even get into the whole business of mods, which can considerably extend the amount of enjoyment I receive from a single game. Us PC gamers even get the odd additional perk, like extra content in some games and some extra eye candy here and there. None of these things really vindicate the PC as a gaming platform on their own, but put together they do present some pretty compelling reasons to keep me playing games on my computer.
To sum up, despite what's often said, I find the PC to be a both cost-effective and convenient gaming platform. I'm sure not everyone can say the same thing—not everyone needs a good desktop PC regardless of whether they play games or not, for starters. However, you'd be surprised by what actually constitutes a good gaming PC: even a cheap desktop machine can be turned into a decent gaming rig by just tossing in a good graphics card, just as long as it's sharing the ride with a dual-core processor and a couple of gigs of RAM (hardly outlandish requirements nowadays). And the advantages to playing games on the PC are many, as I've pointed out above. Yes, there are equally compelling advantages to playing games on consoles, but I'm not saying the PC is a superior gaming platform. What I'm saying is that it's a compelling and sensible choice for me and likely many others—not just millionaires and propeller heads.