What the 'console-ification' of PCs means for gamers

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Traditionally, gamers have voluntary segregated themselves into two camps: console gamers and PC gamers. Hostility between the two runs irrationally deep, and rare is the gamer who’s willing to proclaim allegiance to both sides. Either you’re part of the Alliance, or you’re part of the Horde.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

Convergence is the buzzword of the day, and it’s rearing its head big-time in the gaming world. On one side, the upcoming PlayStation 4 console sports a suspiciously computer-esque core. On the other side, a wave of new technologies is bringing a remarkably console-like experience to PC gaming. The lines are beginning to blur. Mr. Miyamoto, tear down that wall!

The implications of a shared gaming backbone could span a whole series of articles, but this is PCWorld, not Game Informer. As such, we’ll limit our scope thusly: What does this titanic technology shift mean for you, die-hard PC gamer?

Diff’rent strokes

PS4 controller
The PlayStation 4’s controller: Nowhere near as complex as a full QWERTY keyboard.

Computers maintain some crucial advantages over consoles, including overall customizability and control-scheme complexity, as well as the absence of a central Nintendo-esque gatekeeper for the ecosystem. That said, consoles hold a number of advantages over gaming PCs, too. Most revolve around their sheer simplicity.

“You plug a console in to your power plug and TV, and you’re good to go,” TechHive executive editor Jason Cross pointed out while we were discussing the topic. “Every game works the way it’s supposed to without configuration. You turn it on and you’re up and running in seconds. You can’t mess it up. You can’t delete a critical file. There’s no game your system isn’t good enough to run well.”

All are valid points, and PC gaming doesn't currently offer any of the benefits mentioned above. But it may be able to soon, thanks largely to the efforts of Valve and Nvidia.

The best of both worlds

Valve is already a legendary game developer and it runs Steam, the premiere digital distribution service for PC gaming. The late 2012 launch of Steam’s Big Picture mode—which transmogrifies the traditional Steam interface into a living room-friendly 10-foot interface similar to YouTube Leanback—paved the way for easily playing games on your big screen. And, now, Valve’s upcoming Steam Box venture bodes even more portentously for so-called PC consoles.

Steam’s Big Picture mode was made for HDTV viewing.

Most of the details are still nebulous, but the Steam Box ideal revolves around small, quiet PCs built to fit in with your receiver, Blu-ray player, and Xbox 360. Because Steam Box is more a series of certification blueprints than anything else, many manufacturers will be able to build them. Valve’s Gabe Newell says Steam Boxes will fall into three categories:

Good—A “good” Steam Box seems highly reminiscent of the Ouya Android console. Costing around $100, it would run only casual Web or mobile games. Newell also wants these "good" iterations to double as gaming set-top boxes of sorts, streaming games that are being run on more-powerful, traditional PCs to your TV.

Better—Valve will reign over the approved specs at this tier, and its own Steam Box will be of the “Better” variety. These “consoles” should cost around $300 (good luck with that) and contain CPUs and graphics processors powerful enough to play most recent titles at solid frame rates. Since most TVs top out at 720p or 1080p, that shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve.

Best—Beefy and boisterous, these represent the current status quo in PC gaming, without any size or spec restrictions. If manufacturers bother to get a certification for this class of machine, they’ll likely be Steam Boxes in name only rather than viable living room alternatives.

Having Big Picture mode, a roughly $300- price point, and a Steam Box certification plan would go a long way toward bringing PC gaming into the living room. The price point is especially noteworthy.

“If you come out with a PC that’s going to be twice as much money as a typical game console, I think that you’re going to have a very tough time gaining marketshare, no matter how powerful the hardware or how many games you have available,” says Lewis Ward, a gaming-focused research analyst at IDC.

All that said, a pair of GeForce-branded solutions from Nvidia—a company that is also looking to crack the living room with its Project SHIELD handheld—could do even more to console-ify PCs by keeping it simple, stupid.

Streamlined simulations in the cloud

Driver maintenance and settings optimization have long been two of the biggest pains in PC gaming. Simply put, making sure your games are running as sweetly as possible is a headache. Nvidia’s nascent GeForce Experience changes that.

The cloud-connected software pings Nvidia’s servers to automatically check for driver updates—hallelujah! But, more crucially, it also scans your PC’s hardware configuration, and then checks it against Nvidia’s crowd-sourced database to intelligently optimize the graphics settings in your games. You read that right: With GeForce Experience, you’ll never have to slog through tedious tessellation options to achieve tip-top frame rates again.

Nvidia’s GeForce GRIDcan deliver a full-blown PC gaming experience on any connected device, including smart TVs.

At least, that’s the theory. GeForce Experience is still getting its sea legs. The technology currently works with only a limited number of titles and Nvidia’s last three generations of graphics cards, so it’ll be a while before we get a feel for its full potential.

Another Nvidia initiative could negate the need for GeForce Experience entirely. Nvidia’s GeForce GRID promises far greater cloud gaming potential than forebearers like OnLive and Gaikai. The ability to simply and seamlessly play games on any piece of hardware—console, tablet, PC, smart TV, whatever—is the Holy Grail of gaming. Nvidia will have to conquer bandwidth and latency concerns in order for GRID to take off, however, as well as prove that there’s actually consumer demand for cloud gaming—something OnLive, sadly, has yet to do.

Under the hood

The biggest effect on PC gaming might have nothing to do with computers becoming more streamlined or showing up in the living room, though. Instead, the biggest shock to rock the PC gaming ecosystem may come from the increased computerization of consoles.

As we’ve discussed in depth before, Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 4 console packs an eight-core AMD APU at its heart, and Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox 720 (for lack of a better name) is said to sport a similar chip. If that’s true, all the major home consoles will share the same x86 backbone as traditional PCs.

That could be good, or it could be bad. Theoretically, the shift could put an end to shoddy console ports, as developers will use the same base-level tools to create console and computer games alike. AMD hardware may enjoy a surge in popularity as many new games are optimized for the APUs at the core of the consoles. Heck, one could even envision a proliferation of games designed for a shared multiplayer experience across multiple platforms, à la the recent Skulls of the Shogun game.

Is ‘Skulls of the Shogun’ a template for the PC game of the future?

“I think what we’re going to see is a convergence of triple-A, 3D PC games and triple-A, 3D console games, so that more games will be released on multiple platforms going forward,” IDC’s Ward says. “The back end will be more like PC game development. Converting a game to the right executable format or a specific UI will be relatively painless, so it’ll make sense to release titles on as many platforms as possible.”

One could also envision a few nightmare scenarios related to that. What if, for example, more PC games start sporting streamlined (read: dumbed down) interfaces for easier console portability? Or what about the possibility of face-melting graphics becoming less face-melting in future software generations as more games are built with console hardware in mind?

Ward says not to worry—precisely because premiere Crysis 3-style PC blockbusters are already a rarity.

“There are a lot of low-end gaming laptops and desktops out there that are nowhere near as powerful as consoles or high-end gaming PCs,” he says. “So you’ve already got a range of computers that have been out there for five or so years, with a wide range of technical capabilities, and game developers and publishers already try to hit a sweet spot in the install base of active users.

“Most developers already don’t really go up to the real ceiling [of PC gaming technology], since it’ll inherently limit their market,” says Ward

One potential result of a shared x86 backbone: More cross-platform Mass Effect, less power PC-optimized Crysis 3.

I tried contacting several cross-platform game developers—from the biggest of the big companies to the popular little guys—to get a feel for their perspective, but no one would speak on the record. The few people I managed to even get on the phone clammed up once they realized the thrust of my questions.

“We’d prefer not to participate in this particular interview because the console transition is such a hot-button topic and we’re generally taking a wait-and-see approach,” one anonymous big-name indie developer told me. “We don’t like to speculate about this stuff, though we find all of it very, very interesting and I think you’ve asked a lot of great questions here.”

Geez, thanks. Every other developer said something similar (compliments on my reporting style aside).

Not today, not tomorrow, but one day

We’re teetering on the precipice of a new tomorrow for PC gaming. All of these technologies are still in their infancy, but it’s obvious that some sort of convergence is coming.

PCs will no doubt lead the bleeding edge of performance gaming for years to come, technology-wise, but will that matter if games are designed for ubiquitous platform portability? What does the future actually hold? Even the people making games don’t know the answers to these questions.

Consoles and PCs and pixel-pumping tablets like the Razer Edge each handle control so differently that full-blown convergence seems difficult to ever imagine. Nonetheless, the underlying seeds for at least a basic sort of unification are being laid right now. Someday—not today, not tomorrow, but someday—the dividing wall will crumble, and PC fanboys and console fanboys will have no choice but to lay down their pitchforks and torches and call themselves just plain gamers.

On that day, we’ll all be part of the Horde.

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