The Curious Tale of The Consoles That Became PCs

When I was a wee lad your gaming options were straightforward – either you had a console, where your games loaded instantly, everything worked, and you got to play Mario and Sonic… or you had a PC, where your games took ages to install and load, didn’t work half the time due to IRQ conflicts, and you got to play Sim City 2000 and Quake. Then there were the nine people who bought a Mega PC and got to do both.

In the twenty-odd years since then, we’ve seen a slow convergence of both platforms. Consoles switched from carts to CDs, dramatically increasing load times but allowing for really poor quality video of people acting badly, while PCs moved from floppies to CDs, dramatically improving load times but preventing you from reusing all the free AOL trial media. PCs also moved from DOS to Windows, gaining automatic resource management and finally ending the scourge of boot disks, config.sys edits, and having to manually configure your sound card for every game, but gaining DirectX. “Wait a moment,” you say, “what’s wrong with DirectX?” Well, nothing now but at its inception it was a godawful pile of garbage that would cripple your Windows install more often than not.

The next big innovation came with the advent of widespread internet access; previously, console games had needed strict QA regimes because once you shipped a product that was it, any bugs were there forever, while PC games could still be patched after release. Admittedly it wasn’t a fun experience downloading several hundred megabytes of patch on a 28k dialup connection just to make your game work properly but at least it was possible.

At this point the consoles pretty much coasted for a few years. They proudly trumpeted astonishing “innovations” like HD output and DVD playback while PC owners made needlessly snarky remarks about it. On the PC front, Steam happened and after everyone finished being really angry about it stopping them from playing Half Life 2 they started to realise that it was actually pretty awesome. Suddenly you could buy a game and have it downloaded, installed and fully patched in a matter of hours or even minutes. The good news is that this technology has now made it possible for console developers to ship a completely non-functional bag of shit and then just deploy a five gigabyte day-one patch to turn it into an actual game, in addition to being able to buy stuff digitally.

Throughout all of this, people have variously commented on the fact that while PCs have been making the gaming experience more straightforward, consoles have been increasingly moving to a more PC-like experience. The addition of hard drives and having to install games, long load times as well as needing to frequently patch them were things that used to be reasons people gave for not wanting to game on PC.

This brings us to now and E3 2016 where both Microsoft and Sony have announced that they’re finally going to be doing the unthinkable and selling hardware upgrades. Now, it’s not quite “new graphics card, upgrade your RAM” levels, we’re still looking at discrete devices here, but nonetheless they will both be selling you a new console that plays all your existing games only better, while continuing to support the old hardware.

This raises a lot of questions. Microsoft have said that there won’t be any exclusives for Project Scorpio (as it’s currently known), that everything will still work on your existing Xbox One or One S, but if the new hardware is really going to be nearly five times more powerful than the existing kit you have to wonder how that’s going to pan out. Are future games just going to look (or run) like trash on the old hardware or will the only significant improvement on the new hardware be 4K resolution? If you’re playing CoD: Even Infiniter Warfare on Scorpio then how much of an advantage will better resolution, draw distance, level of detail, etc. give you over some scrub still slumming it on a classic Xbox One?

Speaking of 4K, given that the current hardware frequently struggles with maintaining 1080p60 one has to wonder whether the new hardware will be any better when it comes to 4K60. Right now you need to pretty high-end PC to do 4K60 with decent quality settings, and I’m not convinced that simply upping the resolution is the best use of new hardware; wouldn’t it be better to have consoles that could do a solid 1080p60 with crazy high-quality visuals?

We’re in a slightly strange place right now; PCs have been getting progressively easier and easier to use for gaming to the point that even driver upgrades are no longer the massive hassle they used to be, while consoles have been acquiring many of the things their fans used to mock PC owners for. With the announcement of Project Scorpio and the PlayStation NEO one has to wonder whether this is going to be the model going forwards? Now that consoles are just using off-the-shelf PC hardware under the hood there’s not really any need for radical architecture shifts every generation, and no real reason to break backwards compatibility beyond performance constraints.

Much of this is idle speculation of course, both Microsoft and Sony have been careful not to give too much away about their new hardware, for obvious reasons, but we’re not really that far away from consoles essentially being pre-built, branded PCs with some exclusive games. The fixed hardware means that you’ll still probably get more bang for your buck if you’re spending £500 and, clearly, PCs are still going to outshine the consoles if you’re willing and able to spend a little extra money, but wherever you sit the gap between them is getting narrower and narrower.

Last five articles by Adam B


One Comment

  1. Mark R Mark R says:

    As soon as consoles started using regular PC GPUs, I knew it was the beginning of the end of the ‘real’ console, where everything was squeezed into this compact unit with surface-mounted tech and a shitload of proprietary stuff, and would eventually just become a re-boxed PC.

    That’s where we are now, and have been for some time. As much as I adore my PS4, I’m under no illusion whatsoever that it’s nothing more than a slightly smaller desktop PC with a unique case. It takes a keyboard, a mouse, can be used to watch all manner of streaming services… it’s no different from the mini gaming rig that sits below it in the back room, except that the PC isn’t trying to pass itself off as something that it’s not.

    But I don’t care. Not really. As long as they keep developing for the PS4, don’t expect me to whip out the GPU and replace it every few years, shove more RAM in it, and stuff like that… then I’m happy to keep supporting it. When we reach the point where your games console is only good for a few years and will require massive hardware upgrades in order to fully support the upcoming releases, then I’ll drop back to being exclusively PC again.

Leave a Comment