In five years time, where would you rather your games sat? Locked inside a console, or available across a multitude of devices – available to play at the desk, on your television, or in your pocket?
When we try and explain why we love the PC, we talk about open platforms – the idea that anyone can rock up and start making a thing. But there’s something else too: a PC can be anything you want it to be. When you buy a PC game, you can play it on hardware from hundreds, probably thousands of different manufacturers. From the outside, that’s perceived as a headache – creating all kinds of weird compatibility problems for developers to deal with.
But for us gamers, it’s an incredible thing. You’re not limited to a form factor, a manufacturer, or a single set of hardware specifications. A PC is a PC and will always be able to play PC games.
Which is why what’s going on in San Francisco right now is so intriguing. Intel are showing off reference designs for tablets based on Bay Trail, their new hyper efficient processors. They’re small, light and have relatively high resolution screens (2560×1440). They’re fully capable PCs, with USB ports, HDMI outs, and are compatible with all the hardware you already own.
But hey, here’s the thing. They’re not terrible games machines. They’ll play TF2 quite well.
The form factor is possible thanks to Intel’s recent focus on efficiency over pure performance gains. Their latest Haswell processors aren’t that much faster than what we have before, but they’re built to produce laptops with 14+ hours of battery life. Bay Trail, their revamp of the Atom that powers the devices they’re showing off right now, is even more efficient.
And they have decent graphics performance. Intel are devoting more and more space on their processors to on-board graphics – and the benchmarks aren’t terrible. They’re okay, in fact.
I wouldn’t buy a tablet to play PC games on right now. But we’re reaching the point where it is possible for a manufacturer to build a device like Nvidia’s Shield, or a PC tablet with twin sticks a little bit like the Wii U, a small 8” device that can play most of your steam library, or even just a handheld of the same stature as the Playstation Vita, and they NOT BE TERRIBLE.
What’s really interesting is that this is occurring at a time when Microsoft and Sony are about to release what are essentially padlocked PCs. The Xbox and PS4 are capable machines that run tweaked PC architecture. They let you play games under the television. Great!
If you want to buy one for the console exclusive games, I think you probably should. Microsoft and Sony are throwing billions of dollars at entertaining you; it’s almost rude not to. But when it comes to buying cross platform games, buy the PC version. The in-built flexibility of the PC version will come into its own, and sooner than you think.
I think you should think very carefully about what platform you buy your games for. Buy tactically, with one eye to the future. In the near term, Assassin’s Creed 4 on the XB1 or PS4 looks quite attractive. But in two years time, having Assassin’s Creed 4 locked to your PS4 might be a bit of a bummer.
Games shouldn’t just live in boxes under the television, as much as they shouldn’t just live in your desktop. Games deserve to be played everywhere. Lounging on a sofa, on the bus, at school, at home, at work. There should be no distinction between portable games and big games. Why should I have to buy a different version of Assassin’s Creed if I want to play it on the bus?
There has never been a truly backwards compatible Xbox. Playstation backwards compatibility was junked at the launch of the PS3. The Wii U can play Wii games, but not Gamecube games. It’s a mess.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a copy of the original Call of Duty sitting waiting to be played in my Steam account, ready to be played on any PC I can think of.
That is the great asset PC gaming has. I think now, as these weird mobile devices start finding their feet, it may create a very interesting set of scenarios.
And I wonder if, in a few years, we’ll realise Steam’s Big Picture Mode should have been called Little Picture Mode.