If you are thinking about gaming on a PC and coming from a console perspective, then this is the thread for you. What you probably heard is true: you can build a decent “next-gen game console” on a Windows PC – it’s pretty easily, and not too expensive.
Yet there are many pros and cons to be aware of, so feel free to participate in this thread and ask/answer questions or offer suggestions for PC gaming hardware, software, building, buying, configurations, cost, etc.. What follows is a lengthy Q&A covering some questions or misconceptions that consoles players may have about switching over to gaming on a PC.
The tl:dr version...
- easier / streamlined
- same-room/screen mutliplayer ability
- cheaper initial cost
- games look better
- more options (mods)
- greater variety of games that are frequently much cheaper.
- customizable and expandable
Q: “PC Game Console”? What are you talking about?
A: Video gamers have historically been divided into two camps – those that play on game consoles, and those that play on PCs. Console gamers usually played in the living room via a TV, sitting on a couch with a gamepad controller, while PC gamers played sitting at a desk via a computer monitor, and controlled games with a mouse and keyboard, or sometimes with a large joystick. Generally speaking, console games were often thought of as simpler “twitch”-oriented games like platformers, while PC games were more complicated strategy, puzzle, flight, or fast-action first-person shooters with a greater variety of options.
That was before. Now PCs and Consoles are merging and blurring into a middle ground -- there are many console games that resemble PC games, and vice versa.
So for clarity, a "PC Game Console" is a Windows gaming computer designed to operate as close to a game console as possible - on a TV with a gamepad controller.
Q: So why game on a PC instead of a console?
A: That’s the point of this thread, but the simple answer is this: variety and quality. On a PC, there are many more games available, the games look and run better than on consoles, have more options, and give you more control over the experience. The typical modern PC plays most of the same games available on consoles at 1080p and 60 frames-per-second with no problem.
Q: But I don’t want to play games at a desk!
A: Good news – PC games can now be played on a TV via HDMI, with a wired or wireless gamepad. No longer do you have to give up your couch or comfy chair to play PC games.
Q: Yeah, but with one of those big, loud PC towers in my living room?
A: Most quality PC cooling fans, power supplies, video cards, CPU coolers and drives can be assembled to make minimal noise - quieter than many PS3s or Xbox 360s. If a near-silent PC is desired, that's a noble quest and if you put effort toward this task, it can be done.
As for form factor, a tower is recommended for a novice build. But if you can't stand the size of an ATX tower near your TV and/or AV equipment, there are HTPC form factors mentioned in post #2 that are much smaller, albeit trickier to assemble.
Q: What about in a home theater, through an A/V surround receiver and in 3D? Do I need a special sound card?
A: HDMI-out on modern PC videocards include sound. That one magical HDMI wire is all you need for games to look and sound great, and it's fairly easy to set up Windows for surround sound - no sound card needed. So much easier than the days of Sound Blaster!
3D might require a bit more tweaking, but it’s available if you want to go down that road.
Q: Is mouse+keyboard required? I don’t want to have to control a PC from my recliner or couch with anything other than a gamepad.
A: Many PC games control great via gamepad* (Xbox 360’s gamepad is the popular choice, wired or wireless), but remember you are limiting yourself from many other games.
Also, navigating Windows is best with some sort of a pointing and typing device. There are gamepad Windows UI control software solutions, but recommended is a wireless keyboard/touchpad like the Logitech K400. Or even better, figuring out how to use a mouse and keyboard from your preferred gaming position for the Windows portion, and switching to a gamepad while gaming.
With all that said, if simplicity and a gamepad-oriented User Interface from boot-up is of primary importance, sticking with consoles might be your best option.
*see the “Bad Console Ports” question below.
Q: I’ve played computer games in the past, and spent more time configuring the game than I did playing!
A: That’s not a question, but here’s a response: it’s better now. Cross-platform PC games resemble their console counterparts very closely, except having more options to dial graphics to suit the PC. Launching a PC game for the first time involves adjusting a few things, like changing resolution to 1080p. Got a high-end rig..? Dial everything to “ultra” or “extreme” settings and enjoy. Older PC? Try "High" or "Medium" settings, which brings down the Anti-Aliasing (AA), draw distance, and shadow details, but still looks pretty damn good - better than consoles in many cases. You should be gaming at 1080p @ 60fps with your gamepad within a minute or so of first launching a game.
If you have an nVidia card, there’s optional software called the “Geforce Experience” to automatically set video options in games based on your hardware. Tweaking beyond that is up to your level of OCD.
Q: So I'll have to upgrade my PC every year with expensive video cards and whatnot?
A: You can if you want!
But no, constant upgrading to play the latest PC games is another thing of the past. A mid-level gaming PC from a couple years ago can still hit 1080p/60fps almost all of the time. And today's gaming PC should last a few years longer than that.
Just because something newer and faster is available doesn't mean it's necessary, as tempting as it might be.
Q: Aren't PC games hard to play on an HDTV, with small text and whatnot?
A: Many strategy games (the Civilization series or StarCraft, for example), especially the older ones, aren't "TV friendly" - in addition to not being gamepad controllable, often the text is too small to read from 10 feet away. Newer strategy games are being developed with a "10-Foot Experience" in mind, but for the older games, sitting closer and/or playing on a computer monitor is recommended.
Also remember, a PC gives you the option to play many of these strategy games that are unavailable on consoles.
Q: What about multiplayer games, and chat, friends list, and matching services like on Xbox Live and Playstation?
A: “Multiplayer games” can refer to two different things: 1) more than one person playing on the same screen against or with each other, and 2) more than one person playing the same game at the same time on their own screen, either connected via LAN, or more commonly via Internet.
The answer for #2 is easy – PCs invented LAN and Internet gaming. The level of options and control over multiplayer games on PC is much more broad, but can also be more complicated. The answer to #1 is harder – multiple gamepads aren’t really supported well on PCs. There are some games that will allow one player to control via a gamepad and another to control via a keyboard, but this isn’t a PC’s strong suit. If multiplayer simplicity and/or playing with your buddy sitting next to you on the couch is important, sticking with game consoles is recommended.
As for matching/friends list and chat services, there are many options on PCs. Steam has friends list built in, and others like raptr.com work great.
Q: Isn’t it expensive to game on a PC?
A: Initial cost is more expensive, yes. If you buy a lot of games, the cost quickly goes down because games are cheaper – often much cheaper – on PC. Scroll down to post #2 to see Marafice Eye’s suggestions on good PC builds to get started.
Q: Cheap games? What is this “Steam” thing?
A: Valve’s Steam (http://store.steampowered.com/) is the most popular way to buy and launch PC games, and it rocks. PC gamers don’t buy discs anymore - it’s pretty much all digital downloads. Steam is both a store to buy the games, and software to launch games, manage the game library, plus connect to friends, message boards, etc. And you haven’t experienced joy until you go on a buying frenzy during the legendary seasonal Steam Sales.
There are other places to purchase codes to download and install games via steam, like Amazon and Green Man Gaming (http://www.greenmangaming.com/). These place often have their own sales and discounts.
Q: What is Steam Big Picture?
A: Once Steam is running and active in Windows, there’s a icon in the upper right to launch Big Picture mode. (Tip – if you have a Xbox gamepad and Steam running on startup, press and hold the big middle X "guide" button for 5 seconds to launch Big Picture.) Big Picture is a slick TV-oriented UI to navigate through Steam, launch games, etc., and it works great with gamepad.
Q: What is Steam OS and Steam Machines (formally "SteamBox")?
A: Valve is planning on releasing console-like PC boxes with controller for the living room based on their upcoming gaming-oriented Operating System "SteamOS". They have a lot of money and resources wrapped up in this, so this could be a big thing! It will go into beta soon, and planned to release sometime in 2014. This thread will be covering the release of this product, so subscribe and stay tuned!
Q: How do I keep up on all those damn patches for each PC game?
A: That's mostly a thing of the past. With Steam, games are automatically updated in the background every time there's a new update.
Q: Doesn’t Steam have restrictive DRM?
A: Games bought through Steam or a third-party that downloads via Steam are digital downloads restricted to that gamer’s Steam account. So yes, these games are only available to play on that individual’s account, and it is recommended that there be an active internet connection. But this is a PC after all, so having an active connection shouldn’t be that big of deal.
Q: So Steam is a monopoly and gets all my PC gaming money?
A: Steam is the popular and solid service with a massive user-base, even difficult-to-please hardcore gamers.
There are other options – Origin, GOG.com, Amazon, etc., and there thousands of indie games, many are DRM-free. Some of these allow you to buy Steam codes to download and play through Steam, others offer a separate download/launching service.
Q: I’ve been hearing about Linux for gaming – what’s the deal?
A: Valve seems to be pushing Linux for future gaming, so this remains to be seen. For now, it’s suggested to stick with the Windows platform and wait to see how this Linux thing unfolds.
Q: What about Achievements like on Xbox and/or Trophies on Playstation?
A: Steam has it’s own Achievements with many games, and so does other services like RAPTR, just like on Xbox or Playstation.
Q: Ok, then will I miss all the great console games?
A: Depends, but for the most part, no. If you are a hardcore Nintendo fan, then you are mostly out of luck (not counting emulators like Dolphin, which are out of the scope of this Q&A). And Sony and Microsoft have their console-exclusive games to help sell their systems. But the console-exclusive games are becoming fewer as publishers try to sell to the largest audience possible. Almost all triple-A multiplatform console games are available on PC, most on day 1, and some a few weeks/months later.
Q: What about DLC and mods?
A: DLC (Downloadable Content) for PC games is pretty much the same as it is on consoles, and can be purchased and installed automatically via Steam, or codes purchased legally on other sites and installed via Steam.
Mods (game modifications) are a different story. Steam has a Workshop to create and download mods for select games, but modding games is a big topic - one that is probably too advanced for this Q&A.
Q: Do PCs crash or get viruses?
A: Crashes happen - PC gaming isn’t beyond the occasional configuration SNAFU. Most issues are solved with a quick Google search. But if you absolutely hate games crashing, locking up, or not running exactly right 100% of the time, sticking with consoles might be best for you. But if you use popular recommended hardware and keep Windows lean, game crashes or lockups should be a rare thing.
Viruses are a result of unsafe computing, and beyond the scope of this Q&A, except to say it’s pretty much non-existent these days if you don’t click on suspicious websites and emails.
Q: What is this I hear about “bad console ports” on PC?
A: Yeah, many consoles games of the past had some pretty sloppy conversions to PCs, mostly involving missing or poorly implemented gamepad support. This was common enough to give PC gaming a bad name when it came to multi-platform games. Also, some versions of games, for example Bioware titles like Mass Effect and Dragon’s Age, are built from the ground up for mouse/keyboard control on the PC.
Thankfully, bad ports are pretty much a thing of the past. Most triple-A titles have excellent gamepad support, and are usually superior to the console counterparts. For example, modern PC games usually display proper on-screen prompts/icons depending on control method, which switch on-the-fly if you change from gamepad to mouse/keyboard. For the older games, third-party software like Pinncale Game Profiler can help control many older games with a gamepad. But keep in mind it’s best if games have good built-in gamepad support because of the on-screen prompts and auto-aim for FPS. A good idea is to Google “(game name) gamepad support” before downloading an older game.
Q: Alright, I'm convinced - so how do I go about obtaining my "PC Game Console"?
A: Yay! Decide if you want to buy a pre-built gaming rig, or build one yourself. Most people here will push for the later - it's cheaper, easy, and you'll have more control over the parts. Plus, there's a great deal satisfaction creating the beast yourself.
If you've never built a PC before but want to give it a try, there are hundreds of YouTube videos that show the process - like this one. And there are knowledgeable people here on AVS that can help with the process of picking parts, putting it together, and any configuration issues. AVS's Marafice Eye has some great suggestions in the next post, so read on and share your results!
Edited by DaverJ - 2/27/14 at 6:33am