I love console gaming. For me, this involves hanging out on the couch, in front of a big screen with all the lights turned off and my headphones on. And until recently, playing games on my PC seemed like a stupid idea. I have a midlevel computer which lacks an especially impressive graphics card and I have a traumatic past filled with games crashing to the desktop for no apparent reason or even refusing to start up. So how did I learn to stop worrying and love PC gaming?
If you’ve played PC games in years past, you probably know first-hand about having to deal with bugs and unpredictable technical incompatibility. But as I found when finally giving PC gaming another go, these problems are getting less common and will likely be becoming even more rare. (If the promise for the future holds, installation of games may no longer be required as you will play online from a server, presumably on a remote computer with much better specs than your own.) And I finally realized that the current generation of consoles is ancient now by technology standards, so even a fairly cheap PC will be able to yield a better performance than a console with most games.
But the real clincher for me is this: the greatness of the Steam store (PC) versus the crappiness of the X-Box Live Arcade (XBLA) experience. As legally downloading games becomes more and more common, as opposed to running out to buy a physical copy, the importance of the sales platform greatly increases. Steam knows how to make people glad to spend money and entices them with very good temporary deals, making the sport of grabbing a great game while it’s on sale almost a game in itself. It’s also laid out well, making browsing of popular and/or cheap titles a snap. In a smart move, it lists the averaged score a title received at reviews-site Metacritic, even if it is a low one. It’s a convenient and honest piece of info, regardless of how much you think the score is worth. (There are occasional reports of reviews not being impartial and about good games being overlooked just because of a bad review or two.) Payment is easy once you’ve registered and there is a variety of options, like PayPal/CreditCard and iDeal (where applicable). When payment is complete, Steam lists the title you bought in your Library: you can download and install the game then or later. You can also buy a game as a gift for a friend, passing it to them right away or putting it aside for a while. And if you ultimately want to keep it for yourself, that is not a problem. Installing is automatic and requires no effort on your part. You can delete games if you need the hard-disk space and can re-download them later on. When you have Steam running it is also very easy (even for a novice like me) to see when friends are online and join them in a game. The only downside (which is admittedly a big one) is that Steam wants you to be online to start up your games and that you will be in trouble if you for some reason irretrievably lose access to the Steam account to which your games are attached. I thankfully haven’t needed to contact them about something like that, so don’t know how good their support team is.
You don’t have to be online to play on the X-Box 360, though it pays to connect to the internet for a moment when booting up a new game as there may be updates/bug patches to download. (Games are rarely released in a bug-free state unfortunately.) If you want to buy a game on XBLA, there is the stupidity of Microsoft Points (MS Points) to deal with. You have to use a creditcard or a scratch card bought at a store to put bundles of these points into your account. The amount you have rarely is in sync with what you want to buy, so you are likely to have unused point in your account most of the time. Compared to Steam (and to the iTunes store), prices on XBLA are high. There are a few special offers at any given time, but still nowhere near the price-level of Steam, where you are likely to find the same games a lot cheaper. It is also more work to find them: Microsoft recently gave the X-Box 360 a new, less user-friendly menu to put it in line with its mobile phone and Windows 8 design. Casually browsing through a lot of titles on the console becomes annoying fast, so I never do. It’s better to walk to your PC and browse and buy the games on there, after which they are added to your account. Admittedly, installation is as easy as it is through Steam; simply download and play. And it also leaves you the option of deleting a game to clear up space and re-downloading it whenever you feel like it. I have had the misfortune of locking myself out of a X-Box account once and in this case I can report on the customer service: it both sucks and blows. There was no response to my questions about options for getting back into my account. I ultimately had to start a new one and won’t have access to the handful of games I bought under the old one if my X-Box 360 breaks down at some point.
To be able to play with friends online, Microsoft wants you to pay for a subscription. Considering that these days money increasingly comes from people making in-game purchases while playing online in multiplayer games, you’d think Microsoft would want as many people online and playing as possible. But no. As I only play online maybe one day out of a month at most, I’ll stick to the PC on that front and buy my multiplayer games through Steam. In fact, I found that I spent a lot more money during the last two big Steam sale events (they go crazy with their prices a few times a year) than I ever spent on XBLA in my five years of owning an X-Box 360. On Steam, I ended up buying games I would never have considered full-price, simply because I was curious about them. Because of the bargain prices, I would sample a game just because of an interesting concept or presentation and not feel cheated if it ultimately wasn’t my thing. Bad for my wallet, smart of the Steam-team and a sign that XBLA is doing things wrong. I strongly doubt that apart from the occasional add-on for a game I bought for X-Box 360 before discovering Steam, they will get any more money out of me. They totally had me, but by now they have totally lost me. It’s time Microsoft stops trying to squeeze money out of their customers in obvious, unfriendly and ultimately counter-productive ways. They need to convert to a system where gamers are actually happy to buy things, because it’s made easy – even fun – and because prices are reasonable enough to encourage impulse buys. No more of that Microsoft Points crap for me. XBLA = nay. Steam = yay.
PS: To be fair, a downside is that Steam sometimes gets laggy or even crashes when it gets too busy, like during the current Halloween sale. I was unable to visit the site just now when trying to add the Steam link to this praising blogpost. Oh, the irony.
PS2: the PS3 and the store that goes with it are both unfamiliar to me, so your experience there may vary.