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Why the PC is gaming’s most personal platform

Three experts talk about why this is the year for PC gaming.
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Paid for by Alienware

Journey back to an era when, if you were truly serious about gaming, the desktop PC was your best and only option. While video game consoles first appeared in the 1970s and predated affordable home computers, their lack of horsepower and limited scope meant that those looking for the best — and best-realized — games opted for floppy disks over cartridges and keyboards over joysticks.

Of course, things have changed. The performance gap between consoles and computers has shrunk, and features such as online play, once exclusive to the PC set, have become integral parts of the console ecosystem. Meanwhile, the rise of mobile devices has delivered a near-PC experience to users’ pockets. With these new and ever-improving avenues making a case for domination of the global video game market, it’d be easy to assume that PC gaming might be in a spot of trouble.

Any report of the platform’s demise, however, is premature. With old barriers to entry falling away and an ever-more creatively diverse array of available game experiences, PC gaming has shaken off its reputation as home to the grognard set and staked a claim to a vital and growing community ready to embrace its versatility, flexibility and customizability. Even in the wake of the latest round of high-profile console launches, the case for PC gaming has never been stronger.

To help make it, we brought in the experts.

What’s a PC gamer?

It’s a tribute to the PC’s versatility as a gaming platform that most enthusiasts have a unique first experience. Some were drawn to the variety of games available, while others embraced the chance to tinker inside the case and personalize their gaming platform. The technical know-how required to get the latest titles up and running at full power used to mean you had to be pretty hardcore to wear the label of PC gamer, or at least not be afraid of nuking your motherboard by accident when installing the latest graphics card. Today, however, things are shifting, and what defines the PC’s gaming audience is in flux.

Brian Crecente: I started messing around with PC games in the 1980s. There were so few games coming out to consoles. It was a very specific thing, and they often weren't as good as the PC versions, just having that broad range of titles, and then also being able to find these bizarre little creations that maybe were or maybe weren’t games, that were almost like little pieces of digital art that you could mess around with. You could never have that sort of discovery in a console back then. I loved taking apart my PC and messing around with the parts and tuning it and doing all of that kind of stuff. I loved it. It used to be that you had to go out and build your own PC, but nowadays, if you have a computer in your home, chances are it can play some form of PC games.

Andrew “Sigils” Givler: One of my earliest memories is being 5 or 6, and my dad took me in to the engineering firm that he worked on a weekend, and we had a LAN party with a bunch of techs and played first-person shooters. Ever since the moment that I could play video games against other people, I really got addicted. I briefly attempted to go pro and never quite made it all the way there, but that's what really segued me into finding the streaming side of things and being like, "Well, I'm not good enough to do that, but I also like making people laugh." So that was a way to kind of bring my two passions together. PC gaming used to have the tagline of being a nerdy hobby, but it's just not really that way any more. And I think you're starting to get parents who actually played games as a kid. That's just a huge culture shift.

Marcus Cole: I had a friend that had a 3D hardware kit, and for me, that was an entirely brand new experience. I went back that evening to my console, and it just felt like a completely different thing entirely. And I just knew then that I wanted to build my own PC, and I spent the next three or four months planning out all of the different components.

Hardware artistry

With accessibility greater than it’s ever been, PC gaming’s new blood is discovering that it offers an opportunity to celebrate one’s individuality as a gamer in a way that’s not possible elsewhere — and that starts with the hardware. PC gamers have turned building and shaping their own rigs into an art form as much about personal expression as it is about pushing performance. With transparent cases, RGB lighting and even ornate fabrication, the PC modding scene has evolved to encompass both performance and style, making each individual’s computer not only a means to an end, but a personal expression in itself.

Crecente: The sense of ownership across the board is very different with the PC. I know exactly what’s in my PC when it comes to the hardware, and I can tweak it. You can do these little changes that can have significant impact, and you have this sense of not only pride of ownership, but pride of creation, because there’s some effort that goes into it and some creativity. It is a lot more plug-and-play building a PC than it used to be. More companies are supporting building. Maybe today, I couldn’t build a PC equivalent to the latest console for the same price, but probably in a year I could, and in two years I could probably build one for half the price. I’ve seen things like, someone took a full-size mannequin and built a computer into it, so it was a person and it was also a computer. There was a working turret. It didn't fire bullets, but it looked just like a machine gun, but it was actually a computer. The component part of building a computer has gotten to the point where it's almost an afterthought for people who are really good at it. Now, they're like, "What can I do to make them crazy-looking?" Submerge them, put them in a fish tank, build them into a person, have them robotic, all of these different creations, which is just amazing, I think.

Cole: It’s that feeling of, “Only I have this one specific computer, and I put this together myself,” that is something that you just can’t explain until you’ve experienced it. This is your baby, right? This is something that you spend so much time on, and it shows off your personality and it shows off what you’re all about, really. I feel like that, in itself, is a huge advantage, that personal connection to the hardware. I think PC gamers tend to have their computers on their desks, and it's staring at you all day, every day, so I think you just get that itch to change something, regardless of whether that's to change the color of your RAM, or maybe to upgrade your graphics card, because you want more performance. And the creativity that you get is absolutely fantastic, regardless of whether it's taking off a side panel from your computer and then putting a window in it, or water cooling, which is becoming more and more common. But even just doing a little bit of painting, as well, taking apart your graphics card, for instance, and maybe spray painting different parts of it, or the fans. There’s some incredible work out there. For example, I think if you can do a custom mod with a glass tubing, you're clearly very talented. There are these absolutely incredible PC mods, and it's just fantastic to see what people can do with not only a particular chassis and components, but with their creativity and their time.

PCs: Where the games are

While building and modding gaming PCs can be worthwhile on its own, it’s usually in service to actually playing games. Here, too, the PC shines. While most triple-A titles end up on one console or another, and there’s the issue of console exclusives with which to contend, the PC has set itself apart with a wide-ranging and eclectic selection of games, many of them spawned from a thriving indie development scene made possible by the increasing availability of easy-to-use tools.

Crecente: I think that there are experiences that will always be better on PC than they are on console, and we'll continue to see new ones pop up where having a keyboard and having the fidelity of control that you get with a mouse will always be a better experience. You can go out right now and very quickly download a game engine that’s very powerful and doesn’t cost a penny, then build your own game and publish it onto supported websites with basically the push of a button, and your game's out there. You get this eclectic mix of titles out there that you would never get on consoles. It's not even that the engine's free now; it's that the classes are free. It has really led to this massive explosion of development.

Givler: I think that we've had a couple truly revolutionary games that have come out, but they've always been on accident. You are, essentially, able to use one game as a platform, build your own game on your server and people can join and they can pay you money to play or to do different things. Basically, you've seen developers with no background in game design, designers with no background in game design, come together and build things that have entertained millions and millions of people and are still running to this day. That, I think, is revolutionary. I think that the next step is really going to be more of an artistic one. I think that people are learning that games built with user-generated content in mind last, and even major titles from the last years, the biggest games, if they didn't have UGC stuff to start, they added it, because they knew that having the community able to iterate and run with your content makes it last and makes better stuff.

A growing and creative community

The creativity demonstrated by the PC gaming audience has blossomed along with its community. Once thought to be the home for a mostly niche, hardcore crowd, PC gaming has seen its audience grow, alongside an explosion of user-created content both in-game and out.

Givler: I loved the idea of being able to just make something and put it out there for people to enjoy. No red tape. No hassle. I hope that when people watch the videos with me and my friends, they go, “Man, I want to have that much fun with my friends. I want to try something like this.” But content creation is evolving at light speed, and so there just isn't a plug-and-play option for any of it. You have to be able to adapt and add new things on the fly. PCs, at the end of the day, are a sandbox. With content creators, there's always something new coming out. There's always something else we're figuring out. You need a sandbox to make content about sandboxes. I see content creators every day who come up with the most creative stuff, and I love trying to keep up with that. I love looking around at my peers and seeing what they're able to use their imagination to put together, to not just create something cool in the game, but then package it in a video. Because there's a difference between a game that's fun to play and a game that's fun to watch. It's really, really hard to do, and I love that challenge, and then constantly pushing this emerging art form forward.

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Cole: It used to be that you would go to forums to show things off, or specific shows. But now, you’ve got streaming video, you’ve got social media, and the forums themselves have gotten bigger and bigger, and this, in turn, has just meant that you've got more people who are able to show off their work, and you've got more people who are putting together videos.

Crecente: Look at the change in demographics. Inarguably, in the 1970s and 1980s, games were designed for boys. It was a bunch of male fantasy stereotypes. You could be a soldier; you could be a warrior. Now, it's all of these other things, and I think that's fantastic, because as the audience increases, the games that come out become increasingly diverse, which draws in even more people.

The future of PC gaming

With an expanding and increasingly diverse community embracing it, the PC’s status as a premiere gaming platform is indisputable. But where does it go from here? For a while, it seemed as if virtual reality gameplay was the future, with VR headsets capturing many trend-watchers’ imaginations. The rising popularity of esports has pushed competitive gaming to a greater degree of popularity than many would have imagined possible when it first became a thing. But even with new technologies and new ways of experiencing gameplay, what may most define the future of PC gaming is the explosive growth and diversification of its audience.

Givler: I think VR is super cool, but I don't think they've quite figured it out yet. There are certain games that I think it works for, like dogfighting games. Basically, the space is the problem, where you become too aware of the fact that you really can't move out of this kind of square. I think that the thing I'm most excited about is the general understanding, education and acceptance of what gaming is and what it can be. It continues to grow, which opens up the door for more people to come around. It used to be something parents kept their kids from watching, and now it's something they encourage their kids to watch, and that's awesome to see everybody coming together and understanding. It used to be the perception that if you were playing games, the only thing you were doing was wasting your time. But now, that's completely changed. You want to make games? You want to play games? It's proved that it's not just a dead-end suck of your life. It's just going to continue to be more and more, I think, accepted, and even pushed.

Crecente: In the last 10 years, esports became such a big deal that it started impacting game design. You're always thinking about, not only what it's like to play this game, but also what it's like to watch this game. You want to watch people being the best they can be at a game, and right now, for these complex games, that means PC. You look at the latest engines that are coming out, I think, in the next few months, and what they’re doing in terms of automation, that's a big deal. Think of all of the time it's freeing up for all of the other things a game can do. Being able to take all that workload off of developers allows them to be more creative and more experimental, and do so in a way that doesn't put as much on the line for them. It doesn't make it as risky for them to try new things. I don't know what the next big thing will be in PC gaming, but I absolutely think it will be more about the experiences than it will be about the technology, because the technology is allowing that experimentation.

Cole: With VR, you can obviously immerse yourself. You can put yourself in a location, but I think the fact that you’re not ever going to be running around, you're always going to get that little bit of disorientation. I think the best games are the ones where you can fully match up the experience to all of your experiences, rather than just the visual and audio side, if that makes sense. I think the thing that excites me the most is just how it's becoming more accessible all of the time. And it doesn't look like there's any real sign of it slowing down.

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