Forget About Consoles, Build a PC

By Chayuti Chetsandtikhun

Thirty years ago, when consumer PCs were capable of producing 16 colors, the 48-color palette of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) (1983) was on the bleeding edge of video game technology. Today, you can buy keyboards that can produce 16.8 million colors and play Doom on a printer. We’ve come a long way. Personal computers have only become faster and cheaper since the days of the NES, and they are making consoles less and less relevant. Consoles are becoming less reliable and more inconvenient while the opposite is true for PCs thanks to digital distribution services. Consoles are also becoming less financially justifiable against PCs in the long run because of frequent sales and lack of subscription fees for PC games. Finally, exclusive titles and lack of backward compatibility restrict the range of video games that players have access to and decrease the lifespan of existing video games. For anyone who is willing to spend a few more hours building a gaming PC, they will be rewarded with better performance and functionality of a full-fledged computer at a lower cost than buying a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One.

Video game consoles had a role in our lives because a purpose-built game machine was the only way to put video games in living rooms. Processors weren’t as fast or as cheap and PC operating systems changed constantly; a dedicated system was the best solution for delivering satisfying video game experiences. But that was a long time ago. The current generation of game consoles have become so complex that they are effectively PCs that can’t do things that you would normally expect a PC to do. They have CPUs, they have RAM, and they even use the same hard drives that you find in laptops. They also inherited the problems that complex architectures are destined to have. Up until about the PlayStation 2, all you had to do was to go out and buy the console and games, put the two together and have a good time. Now, you might buy your game from an online store, but you still have to download and install it. If you go out and buy a physical copy, the game might not work. Then, you probably have to wait for the company to release a fix (then download and install it). Even after all that, it’s not even guaranteed that the game will work properly. PCs are also affected by the publishers’ poor QC of games, but PC users have the option to fix the games themselves since they have direct access to the files of the games which makes fixing (or even improving) the game much easier.

Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s launch was plagued by game-breaking (and hilarious) glitches, followed by mishandling of the problems, and was resolved by a patch that was as big as the entire game. One glitch resulted in the game failing to load the skin of characters’ faces. Image Source.

The experience of playing video games on a PC is also either the same or better than on consoles. At the basic level, the games are fundamentally the same regardless of the platform that they are on. PC users also have the option to play either with a typical keyboard-and-mouse setup or connect an aftermarket controller to the computer. As a result, I can play Transistor, an isometric hack-and-slash game, with a controller which suits its combat-oriented gameplay. But I can also switch to my keyboard and mouse to play strategy games like League of Legends or Starcraft II since they require the precision of the mouse and the buttons of keyboard to issue all the commands effectively. The flexibility of peripherals allow PC users to play more games more comfortably than console users.

In terms of graphical performance, PC games will always trump consoles. This is because PC games allow its users to set the image quality while consoles games are generally fixed to a PC equivalent of approximately “Medium” settings. As a PC gamer, I also have the added benefit of actually playing games on a computer which, once the games are shut down, can be used for productivity. While the arguments here are directed at those who are looking for a seperate machine for gaming, those who, say, have to work with a laptop, the benefits that I outline here will be doubly true for those who work on a desktop. This is because a better gaming PC is a faster computer, especially for those who are involved in multimedia content creation. Many programs designed for video editing, 3D animation, and the like, leverage the computational prowess of graphics cards (which are used to render the visuals of a video game) which means that building a gaming rig will also net you a multimedia workstation. So, if you are planning on getting into content creation, you should seriously consider diverting the money that you might spend on a console towards your budget for a new desktop.

PC gaming also makes a strong case in terms of price in the long run. Building a gaming PC is not going to cost $6,000 as some might have you believe. It certainly can, but that’s the beauty of building one yourself: you can choose exactly how much performance you want to get. And if all you want to do is to build one that will rival a PS4 or an Xbox, you need about ~$500. Yes, just a bit more than you would spend on an Xbox One or PS4. Stretching the budget to ~$650 and you will have a system that is objectively faster than either console by a significant margin. To be fair, that is still a bit more costly than consoles, but things only get better from here. With an Xbox One, you have to pay $59.99 per year in order to play online while PC users can jump into an online match for free. Games also frequently go on sale on digital distribution platforms like Steam (notorious for assaulting wallets around the world with 85% off deals) and Humble Bundle. My game library on Steam, which I started building a decade ago, currently contains 112 titles and is worth around $2,000. However, I paid only ~$441 for it thanks to the sales. Of course, new releases will cost around $60 regardless of the platform on launch day, but for those who aren’t in a rush, games will be much cheaper on the PC. Wolfenstein: The New Order was released in May of 2014 and by December of the same year, it has been given a 66% discount three times. Older releases like Bioshock: Infinite which came out in mid-2013 have been discounted down to a measly $7.49 on multiple occasions.

As consoles start to age, their once high-end components will slowly become obsolete. As video game technology progresses, the console will struggle to keep pace; it will be able to compute so many things and store only so much information. PCs, on the other hand, are extremely modular and upgradeable. My desktop at home was built in 2011 using a mediocre graphics card. In 2012, it performed better than both the PS3 and Xbox 360. It continued to handle big budget titles as well as consoles up until 2013 when it started to struggle with the new Tomb Raider game. If I wanted to, I can spend less than $200 to buy a new graphics card, and that computer will outperform the PS4 and Xbox One. In fact, if you already have a desktop with an Intel i3 processor or better, you can buy this graphics card, throw it in your system and it will be perform roughly the same as an Xbox One. Once you build a computer, you can upgrade it to keep up with the demands of your work or the games that you want to play. Although, if you build a computer now to match the PS4, you can leave it as it is and know for sure that it will run anything that will be released on the PS4 in the future.

There are also other costs that come with console life cycles. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, one of my favorite games of all time, was release in 2003 on the PS2, but my PS2 no longer works. I can’t play Fatal Frame II on my friend’s PS4 either, because backward compatibility isn’t implemented on the PS4. In fact, the only way that I can play that game is to make my PC run PS2 games. On the other hand, I bought a copy of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero 10 years ago and I can easily play that game today. Old consoles breakdown, and new ones won’t support older games. And when they do (you can download Fatal Frame II from the PlayStation Store and play it on the PS3), you have to pay more money in order to play a game you already own. Meanwhile, PC games still function just fine after multiple OS releases. Running a legacy OS like Windows XP can be done quite easily with commercially available tools but there has yet to be any program that will emulate the PS3 because of its uniquely complex architecture. While some console games have gotten PC releases, it is not the case for a vast majority of games out there. As a player, many games that I bought 10 years ago cannot be played today.

There are those who argue that exclusive titles are great for both developers and gamers, the fact is that everyone involved will be better off in a world without consoles. Many games are released for only PS4 and Xbox One, often as a way for console manufacturers to boost the appeal of their products with a blockbuster title. Immediately, we can identify several problems with this situation. As a player, unless I own every current generation console on the market, I will have to decide which exclusive titles I like least and buy consoles accordingly. Along similar lines, my friends have been enjoying the new Super Smash Bros. 4 and I want to join in on the fun, but the game would cost me around $300 because I don’t own a Wii U and I am not interested in any other games on that system. Console exclusives are absurd in a world where the processing power of consoles can be easily attained or surpassed with easily sourced electronics. There is no reason why I should spend a thousand dollars to own all three consoles when I can spend that same money to build a computer that will run all of their games better than these consoles combined[1]. Games that are developed for consoles are not that different from their PC equivalents, especially when both Sony and Microsoft built their consoles on the same architecture as virtually every PC on the planet. It’s not that one can put a PS4 game into a computer and it will run[2], but the majority of art done by the developers (for example, character models and animation) would appear the same on either consoles or PCs. Many games that are on consoles, even exclusives, run on the exact same software engine the ones on PCs. If gamers only played their games on PCs, the developers can save on porting their games between consoles as well as access a wider audience which would allow their development costs to be covered more easily as well. Exclusive titles hurt the gaming ecosystem in general because it restricts players from playing the games that they want lest they purchase every console on the market, and the combined cost of doing so would result in a better gaming experience on a high-performance PC.

So, let’s say you’re convinced and want to get a gaming PC. What do you do? Unfortunately, the state of the market is such that PC builders will often charge a heavy premium for putting together a system, especially if it is labeled as a “gaming” PC. I suspect that this is because of the arcane descriptions and numbers that accompany the specifications of a computer combined with the hot rod appeal of these custom PCs. On the other hand, the reality is that building a PC is not complicated. Sure, it’s harder than putting together an IKEA lamp, but all the parts are standardized and there is no soldering involved. It’s a lot like Lego for grown-ups, really. Forums like Reddit’s /r/buildapc or /r/buildapcforme and sites like ChooseMyPC.net are great places to look for parts recommendations, and there are plenty of great videos on YouTube that will walk you through all the steps of putting them together. If you are willing to do a little research on how to put together a computer, the cost savings, performance gains, and the fact that you have an actual PC that runs Windows, makes building a computer very rewarding. So, unless you insist on buying one thing and one thing only to suit your gaming needs, I highly recommend looking into putting together a gaming PC.

This video is a great tutorial for building a computer. The recommended parts are a little dated (I suggest this or any other featured in this essay as an alternative,) but the building process would be largely the same. Please note that if you don’t already have a copy of Microsoft Windows, you will need to get one.

We no longer need to buy a dedicated video game console because they have outlived their technological usefulness. Consumer electronics today have become so affordable that building a dedicated gaming PC is the more financially sound option. For the same amount of money, a PC will outperform all three current generation consoles (not even considering the fact that both the PS4 and Xbox One cost more to build than they’re being sold for). PCs also have the benefit of cheaper prices of games, better potential graphical fidelity, backward compatibility, as well as functioning as a PC. You can browse the internet like you would on a laptop, change its looks with various media programs, and you can easily upgrade it when the parts become obsolete. Developers will also benefit from a unified gaming platform. They can spend their resources on creating the game rather than diverting developing and porting the same game to different consoles. The only hurdle that we have to overcome is the complexity of hardware specifications. For that, there are many, many resources that you can read and communities that are very eager to help first-time builders. If the entire gaming community moves towards building PCs, the components will become cheaper and new PC building services might show up to undercut the premium market (making gaming PCs more accessible to more people). As a result, building a PC will be cheaper and easier, video game developers will have a wider audience and more resources available, and there will no more exclusive titles. The price that console manufacturers are asking us to pay for the (illusion of) convenience is simply too much upon closer inspection, and there is no reason why PCs should not be the standard platform for ideo games.

[1]    While I don’t have hard numbers to support this claim. The combined theoretical graphical performance of the PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U should be less than than what this PC (http://pcpartpicker.com/p/R3GknQ) can output. The PS4 and Xbox One uses a modified 7000-series AMD graphics processing unit (7870 and 7790, respectively) while the two GTX 970s in the PC build is two tiers above the 7000-series GPUs. The Wii U’s performance is so weak it’s virtually negligible in the comparison.

[2]    However, you can, in fact, emulate a number of video game consoles on your computer. So you can actually play games that used to run on the Gamecube, Wii, and PS2 on your PC.

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7 responses to “Forget About Consoles, Build a PC

  1. So according to your article, going with a PC over a console will give you better performance in terms of graphical fidelity and framerate, but the games are still exactly the same in content. What if I’m already happy with the console’s performance? Why would I want to upgrade to a PC? And what if I wanted to play split-screen with another person in the same room? A console would seem to be the ideal choice there. Also, while it isn’t exactly the focus of your article, I have to ask, would you consider handheld consoles a worthwhile platform for gaming?

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    • It’s interesting that you mentioned the similarity in terms of content. One of many things that I had to cut from the piece was the fact that video games on consoles, more often than publishers would like to admit, are watered down versions of the PC game. Battlefield 3’s signature large-scale conquest mode was removed from the PS3 release because the hardware couldn’t cope with the size of the map and the number of players but was still sold at the same price as the PC release (which had that large game mode). A more recent example is PAYDAY 2, where updates and downloadable content on consoles are hilariously limited compared to the PC version. You can see the list here: http://payday.wikia.com/wiki/Downloadable_content_(Payday_2)

      So, even if you’re happy with the console’s performance, the fact that you’re getting ripped off should probably warrant a switch, at least on purely ethical grounds.

      Split-screen is also dying with the new console generation. If you look on Co-optimus.com, you’ll see that the list of games with split-screen is much bigger on the PC side. So, you can just connect a couple of wireless controllers to a PC that’s plugged into your living room TV and have the experience that you’re looking for.

      Handhelds are definitely a different argument since they function as a portable gaming device, so they have a much clearer role that nothing like it currently exists. Perhaps, if smartphones become increasingly powerful (just like PCs in my essay), it might be worth revisiting the argument in the future. But for now, handhelds like the 3DS will continue to maintain a niche.

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  2. Thanks for posting, it’s somewhat mindblowing to realize that a high performance PC wont necessarily cost several thousand dollars. My one question: how feasible is all this for those who don’t want to put in the research/time on online communities for building your own computer? I get the feeling that a PC could indeed be better and cheaper than a console (as well as last longer), but picking the right components and keeping them up to date over time seems like it would take more time than I’m willing to invest.

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    • Overcoming the first hurdle and putting together your first PC is certainly the most difficult part, but it becomes much easier from then on. If you choose one of the builds that I suggested in the piece, you will have a gaming PC that will be faster than both the PS4 and Xbone (so you’ll reap all the benefits of gaming on a PC). So, until there is a PS5, your rig will play games better than consoles. But when the PS5 eventually shows up and you want to match it, you most likely have to switch out only the graphics card. Just one upgrade and you’ll be set for a few more years.

      My proposal will never be as convenient as just ordering a console from Amazon and have it shipped to your house, but I firmly believe that the benefits far outweigh the time investment.

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