Turn Based #5: Losing Steam with Console Woes

Professor Icepick: Hello everyone and welcome to another installment of Turn Based. Considering that this is our fifth article in this series, it seems only fitting that we tackle a topic of the utmost importance. For years, a war has been brewing within the medium of video games as a whole. One that goes well above and beyond the petty console wars of our childhood. One which both KI and I actually have personal stakes in. I speak, of course, about the schism between PC and console gaming.

Can one of our classic arguments finally settle which platform is superior once and for all? …I wouldn’t count on it, we’ll probably just end with another stalemate. Regardless, it’s a topic that is still worth exploring. With that being said, KI will start arguing his preference for console gaming.

SNES Master KI: Consoles simply work better for gaming, their dedication to gaming (yes, I know they can do other things now, but those are afterthoughts and things that take less effort than running games) results in many direct and indirect benefits. These range from the simplicity and guaranteed function of standardized hardware to the motivation for companies like Nintendo to make so many great games to support their consoles. The game library and quality of life advantages of consoles are completely overwhelming from my perspective.

Icepick: The problem with that is that the advantages that consoles once held over PCs have begun to fade with time. During the seventh generation of video game consoles — the days of the Wii, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 — consoles have become less and less “plug-and-play” devices, relying on internet connections to patch firmware and software regularly. Unfortunately, the process is hampered by the traditional “walled garden” approach that consoles have adopted since their inception.

With the current generation of consoles doubling-down on constant updates and upgrades that no longer work right out of the box, you’re probably expecting me to argue that the PC is a much more stable platform. You would be wrong. In fact, this has been how the PC gaming landscape has looked for nearly 2 decades now. The major difference lies in the more open source nature of PC gaming. Updates to games that would take weeks or even months for companies like Sony and Nintendo to approve and implement can literally be in gamers’ hands within minutes. Steam upgrades games automatically — both games that are already installed and those that have yet to be downloaded — and most other services (even GOG via their Galaxy client) offer similar user-friendly services. The PlayStation 3 and 4, at least in my experience, relied on gamers to open games before it would even consider updating them.

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Plus we don’t have to pay for cloud saves.

KI: The pick up and play potential may have been diminished, but that doesn’t change that the standardization of consoles means that playing the games once everything is set comes with far fewer issues. It’s also not all bad, although games shipping in a perfect state would be ideal, patches can often be very useful for removing glitches or fixing stupid, simple design issues in otherwise great games. If I start a new console game, there may be a wait for something to download, but once it does I know it will run and my controller will work for it as intended. And for the record, PlayStation 4 and Switch will download patches for games you have installed/in your play history even if you don’t start the game or have the physical disc/cart inserted. Xbox One may do the same, but I can’t confirm that from experience.

Icepick: The point is that consoles have moved onto providing non-gaming experiences as well as traditional gaming, and in that regard, consoles are definitely outgunned, due to their reliance on the walled garden.

Having said that, I guess it’s time to discuss some of the more objective advantages that PC gaming has over home consoles: library size. For the sake of discussion, I’ll stick to “legitimate” games — so no talk of emulators and whatnot — but even in that case, the sheer amount of content available on PC is staggering. Best of all is the sheer amount of old content available. While many consoles have essentially given up on the concept of backwards compatibility, services like Good Old Games and DOSbox allow gamers to play their favorite games of yesteryear with very little hassle. This makes the PC the ideal platform for retro gaming in general.

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Eat your heart out, Virtual Console.

We’ve also seen the rising popularity of indie games on consoles, but PC is where that revolution started and there are still many hidden gems exclusive to the platform. The sheer amount of content available on PC absolutely dwarfs all current consoles (even handhelds) combined. Gamers of all stripes can find something to enjoy on PC, which isn’t always the case on each console.

KI: Well, lots to address. Consoles are certainly outgunned in non-gaming purposes, but that’s completely expected, the non-gaming functions of consoles are a bonus. Although I’ll point out that if I actually did intend to use PC as a gaming platform, that multi-functionality would create complications since I need a PC for work/communication/general internet functions. I can’t just leave it hooked up to a TV in an area where I would want to game.

For backwards compatibility, it comes down to what you prioritize in convenience. Consoles don’t disappear when their generation is over, as my name attests you can keep and continue playing old consoles for decades, and there’s no need to mess with DOSbox to make the game run correctly. Backwards compatibility may also very well be about to make steps forward/recover for consoles, Sony and Microsoft’s more standardized system architecture could make PlayStation 5 and Xbox 2001 or whatever confusing name they give it easily backwards compatible. Nintendo was great with backwards compatibility until Switch’s hardware made it physically impossible (no dual screen set up or disc drive), I think it will come back when Switch gets a successor.

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25+ years and still working.

For sheer amount of games, PC of course wins, but when both sides number in the thousands total quantity isn’t that important, no one could possibly play everything and the vast majority of games on both sides aren’t worth playing. Consoles have made great strides in picking up the prominent indie games that were once PC’s exclusive domain, and while PC has certainly made a lot of progress in getting the big budget third-party games that used to stick to consoles, it seems to have come at the expense of PC exclusive big budget releases. And of course, there’s the old quantity versus quality argument. I think Nintendo alone more than makes up for the quality indie games that fall through the cracks and don’t make it to consoles.

Icepick: Fair point. Nintendo consoles are worth buying for their first-party games alone.

Another advantage I’d claim that PC has is a much more balanced relationship between consumers and content providers. On consoles, players have to essentially accept whatever terms first-party publishers set without question. On PC, everything’s a lot more open to discussion. While Steam controls a majority of the modern PC market, there are alternatives that offer exclusive titles (Origin, Windows Store) or other features (GOG, Humble).

This also applies to online gaming. While even Nintendo is preparing to succumb to charging for online play this year, the entire prospect of charging PC gamers for online play is genuinely considered a fool’s errand. When Microsoft launched Games for Windows Live — a sister service to Xbox Live — they intended to charge players the same price for online play. PC gamers protested that and Microsoft dropped the paid component, while keeping every other feature, including crossplay with Xbox 360.

Then you’ve got the modding community. While many of them are associated with various cosmetic mods, they also have a tendency of fixing games that are either broken at launch or incompatible with newer systems. It’s gotten to the point where fan-programmed patches have even been implemented into official releases of games. Content is much more community driven on PC and that works to the advantage of everyone. While Xbox One and PS4 has begun to experiment with the ability to download mods, it just pales in comparison: they’re strictly limited to cosmetic stuff, meaning that console gamers are generally reliant on official patches, which as I said earlier, tend to be released slower than molasses in January.

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One of my favorite mods of all time.

KI: I interpret the relationship between the platform and gamers differently. You can view consoles manufacturers as having more control over gamers, but they also have more obligation to us. One of the core reasons I don’t game on PC is because I can’t stand paying for something and then basically being told I’m on my own to make it work. If I buy a console game and it for some reason doesn’t work, that’s on the company and they have to fix it, and it very rarely comes to that. Aside from making sure I’m not putting an Xbox One disc into my PS4, I don’t have to think about whether I will be able to play the game that I buy, there’s no fear that I’ll come up short in a spec related area and not be able to play the game with no solution besides spending more money and putting in the effort to upgrade my computer. I view the “control” console manufactuers have over me as more of a contract, and it’s one I’d much rather sign than be on my own and have more control.

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The most complicated system requirements I have to deal with.

As for paying for online, I acknowledge that probably isn’t necessary and it would be better if it wasn’t required, but I will say that the perks that come with PSN+ do a good job of mitigating it for me. The amount of (conditionally) free games I get for $60 a year usually satisfies me, and with Nintendo’s much cheaper price I don’t think they’ll have any issues making me feel okay paying $20 a year.

Icepick: Yeah, but the PS+ games on offer generally lean more on the lame side most of the time. This month had some good stuff, but I think they only did that to cushion the blow of retiring PS3 and Vita games next year.

KI: Well, if they were all great, it would be way too fantastic a value for any company to agree to, I’d be saving around $1,000 a year if I actually intended to buy every game they offered. But I think it’s time for me to go on the offensive. One of my first points was that consoles cultivated an ecosystem where exclusives from the first parties are highly valued. For some reason, PC did the exact opposite. When Valve rose to become basically the first party leader of PC gaming, they all but gave up on making their own games. Jokes about Gabe being afraid of the number 3 aside, it’s more that they just make barely any new games. Steam seems to have drained Valve as a developer, while companies like Nintendo and formerly Sega put way more effort into making games when they have their own console, and Sony and Microsoft at least fund a large amount of games (well, you can argue about Microsoft, but that’s literally a topic for another time).

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Even the less supported ones made it to three games.

So my main point in this is that the state of PC exclusives is not good. In the fourth and fifth generations, PCs weren’t making the types of games I personally wanted, but there were genres PC dominated and PC exclusives that were beloved classics. This seems to have all but died off, the best PC exclusive games seem almost accidental at this point, an indie developer makes a hidden gem that never quite gets the attention and funding needed to bring it to console. In the 90s Doom 1 and 2 were out on PC first and the console versions were vastly inferior, while Doom 2016 came out on consoles the same day as PC. For all the strides PC has made in getting console games, I feel like it traded its exclusives to do so, and ultimately it’s all about the games.

Icepick: I’ll admit, Valve has definitely fallen down as an actual game developer. While they’ve recently claimed that they’re still making new games, no one believes them. At this point, they’ve transitioned into more of a PC gaming advocate, cultivating an environment that will allow for more games to reach the platform. While there are still those clamoring for new Valve games — I personally want a third Left 4 Dead or Portal much more than Half-Life 3 — most PC gamers have accepted that Valve’s days as a developer are… numbered?

I understand your concern about PC exclusives and while content in that field is clearly limited compared to the 90s and even the early 2000s, there are still PC exclusive games in the pipeline. For example, I remember you being quite distraught that Quake Champions, a class-based FPS, was going to be a PC exclusive. The Total War series offers solid real-time strategy combat. Divinity: Original Sin II is a turn-based RPG that is both critically acclaimed and massively popular, which is currently only available on PC.

Original Sin II relied on crowdfunding, which is a pretty big source of modern PC games, both exclusive and otherwise. I remember your general apprehension towards the concept, but many crowdfunded games list PC as their sole initial platform and many more list it among multiple launch platforms. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that the platform still holds weight with developers of all sizes. A Hat in Time was originally intended to be a PC-exclusive — launching on the platform first — before PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions were added due to the game’s popularity. It wasn’t the first crowdfunder that got released on other platforms after being pitched as a PC exclusive and it certainly won’t be the last. You’ve made the claim that PC relies on consoles for new games, but I’d argue that it goes both ways.

KI: For Quake Champions, I was mainly upset by their hypocritical reasoning for it not being on consoles (claiming it needed to be 120 FPS to be playable, but then assuring PC gamers with less powerful rigs that it would play fine on their systems). Honestly, id making a multiplayer focused game after Doom 2016 made such strides for single-player focused FPSes probably would have annoyed me even if it was on consoles. I know there are still some quality PC exclusives (although still in genres I don’t personally play), but I think consoles are still demonstrating a pretty massive advantage in that area.

 

As for which system relies on which for games, I don’t really care that much. Indie games need PC’s lower entry fee, big budget games need sales from console gamers to survive, what ultimately matters is what games your platform of choice gets. The issue is that consoles have games made specifically to be exclusives, and I think those give it a very clear edge in library.

Icepick: I guess that’s all there is to it. We’ve got different priorities. You tend to prefer the simplicity of a console — an advantage which I’d argue is slowly but surely eroding with each generation — while I prefer the freedom offered by PC. Still, with many more companies beginning to embrace PC, the future seems bright.

KI: Well, I’d generally say that my arguments for consoles have two main points, the functionality guarantee and the much larger number of exclusive games on them that appeal to me. After several years of pessimism applied to console gaming, I think Nintendo’s resurgence, the other consoles exiting the growing pains of the early eighth generation, and the ever-growing indie presence on consoles (“Perfect for Switch” may be a meme, but indie games really do sell amazingly on it) that the sun has risen for console gaming.

And as expected, the discussion has once again ended in a stalemate. But the arguments were elaborated on, and no one was called an elitist, peasant, Nazi, or iOS supporter. What about you, are you changing chairs to play something after this, or just switching windows? Tell us in the comments, and remember that no matter how much you disagree on a topic, you can always fake civility in text form.

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Retronaissance’s Most Anticipated Games of 2017

SNES Master KI

Well, 2016 is almost over, and while there were some great games released, I mainly just want this year to end and to focus on the future (or gaming’s future, anyway).  Thankfully, 2017 in gaming fills me with a sense of true optimism (as opposed to forced hope) that I haven’t had in a long time, lots of series that haven’t had an entry (or a satisfying entry) in years are returning and while Nintendo has a lot less representation on this list than my ones from previous years, things should Switch on that front very early in the year.  So, let’s hurry up and get our focus to the new year.  I’ve decided to handle games from previous lists that got hit by delays with a rule that games can only appear on my lists twice, so Zelda won’t be showing up this time.  Let’s get this started!

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