For many years, the dominant forces in home video gaming have been the various game consoles used by millions of people. But now there’s some serious competition arriving from an unexpected contender — the personal computer.
Make no mistake — there’s nothing new about playing games on a personal computer. Since the earliest days of the most bare-bones PCs, there’s been ways to play games on them — at first purely with text displays, then 4-colour graphics, then 16-colour and so on. It’s long been a platform that’s had strong support from enthusiasts, people who like to have personal control of their games and the hardware they play them on, and people who like to try to push the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of performance.
But for most people, the game consoles you could buy in stores offered a superior gaming experience. The consoles had colourful graphics, and the games for them “just worked” — you just plugged in a cartridge or popped in a CD and you were good to go, while PC players were busy working out how to configure IRQs and memory addresses to get their rudimentary sound and graphics working (which for many was undoubtedly part of the fun!).
That’s all changed now, though. The modern Windows PC is a game-playing beast even in its most humble form, and just how capable of a games machine you want it to be is almost entirely up to you. The annoying technical stuff, though, is pretty much a thing of the past thanks to modern operating systems like Windows 10 (and, yes, MacOS — but the Mac is not widely used for gaming). Buying and installing games is made simple by the big outlets that have appeared to sell and manage PC games. And the studios that develop games have now started to see a real spike in PC game sales, as the very real advantages of playing on even a modestly capable PC become apparent to more and more people.
What Makes the PC Stand Out for Gaming?
There are several fundamental reasons why PC gaming has started to take off in a big way — and despite the relative ease of piracy on the PC platform, that’s not even close to being a major reason (legitimate game sales are skyrocketing).
First and foremost is the ability of a PC to be set up fairly easily and relatively cheaply to play games at higher quality than most consoles — and yes, this can be as simple as buying a modestly priced upgrade for your PC in the form of a graphics card. But people who want to push things to the limit with their games — in terms of fast frame rates or ultra high resolution graphics — can do so almost infinitely if they’re got the money and patience for it. The basic gaming experience on a capable PC is usually the same or better than that of a console, and there’s plenty of room to make it even better if you want. And remember, this is your PC — you use it for more than just games, so every upgrade you make to it is going to improve your day to day computing experience as well.
And then there’s the control. While almost all modern PC games can be played with a game controller like their console counterparts, for many people the preferred control method is an ancient one — mouse and keyboard (mouse to steer the camera and interact, keyboard to move your character around). That gives players a level of fine-grained control that no console controller can match — and that’s why so many fans of first-person shooter games like Overwatch or Call of Duty prefer the PC.
Then there’s the sheer variety of games available — from big-name blockbusters to tiny independent efforts that sell for a couple of dollars, there’s something for everyone on PC, and a huge amount of it sells for incredibly cheap. On console, meanwhile, you’re either paying $80-100 or waiting for a sale price later (though smaller indie games are, ironically, increasingly making their way into console online stores!).
What Gaming PCs Are Available?
Here’s the thing with PC gaming — almost all PCs can be used to play games. Whether they can play the more complex, demanding games that “triple A” blockbusters tend to be, that’s another story.
If you have a Windows PC of any kind — desktop or laptop — you’re certainly going to be able to play more “casual” games — think Candy Crush, Peggle, etc. But those are games designed to run on pretty much any computer and operate well. It’s when you start looking at the more advanced stuff that you’ll need to be aware of what your PC is capable of.
One good way to do this is to pop into the Windows 10 Store on your PC and have a browse around the various games there. At the bottom of each game’s store page you’ll see a list of “minimum” requirements and “recommended” requirements. What they’re looking for is some key things — how fast your computer’s processor is, how much memory it has, how much hard disk space it has available and most importantly, what sort of graphics card it has installed.
If your computer is even vaguely recent, the thing that holds you back is most likely to be the graphics card. Many laptop computers don’t even use one — their processors have basic graphics support built in which is perfectly fine for stuff that isn’t gaming. And if you’re using a laptop like that, you’re unfortunately going to be a little stuck unless there’s some way of adding an external graphics card.
On a desktop computer, though, you can easily upgrade your graphics card to something more modern and capable without spending a fortune. You’ll want to visit a store that sells computer parts for this — and if you’re not confident messing around with the insides of your computer, most of them will install a card for you for a small fee.
There are two main graphics card “brands” to choose from — NVidia and AMD — with many third-party companies making graphics cards that use their tech (think of it as similar to how, say, Dell computers are powered by Intel processors). PC gaming enthusiasts will argue for days about which brand is better, but if you’re just starting out with PC gaming, NVidia offers the cheapest entry-level options with their GTX 1030 and GTX 1050 based cards which will set you back about $110 and $190 respectively. It’s all about that number — in general, the higher the “GTX” number, the more powerful the card (and the more expensive it gets!).
Alternatively, you could just shop around computer stores (in person and at online stores like Dell) for a pre-built PC designed for gaming at a price that suits you. It all depends on how involved you want to get with the nuts and bolts of it, because the next stage is much easier.
Where Do I Buy PC Games?
While you can pop into your local game store and browse through what’s sure to be a very tiny shelf of PC games sold on disc, almost everyone who plays PC games these days buys their games “digitally” — in other words, through an online store that they then download the game directly from. It’s a concept console players are only just starting to embrace, but PC players have been at this for years. One of the biggest PC games in history — Blizzard’s famous MMORPG World of Warcraft — had over 10 million players at the height of its popularity and literally millions of them bought and downloaded the game online.
There’s one dominant force when it comes to PC gaming storefronts — Steam. This massive store and game management platform has hundreds of millions of customers, and just about every PC game under the sun is sold there (with a few notable exceptions). If you’re playing PC games, you’ll want to have a free copy of Steam on your PC, even if you don’t plan to buy games directly from their store, which is often on the high side price-wise. Because Steam works as a platform for games as well, a large number of game studios use it to manage their games even if you don’t buy them direct from Steam. You might buy the game from any number of third-party stores, from the Humble Store to Amazon, and what you’re sent is a code — which you then enter into Steam to get your game delivered to you!
There are some holdouts — EA (Electronic Arts, publisher of games like Battlefield and The Sims) no longer uses Steam for their new games, instead preferring their own platform, named Origin. Blizzard has their own platform and storefront that sister company Activision is now starting to use as well. And of course, there’s the Windows Store, which is a platform in itself, closely tied into the Xbox ecosystem.
A great starting point would be to install Steam and then sign up for the monthly bundle from Humble Bundle, a for-charity organisation that gives you a fresh bunch of quality games each month for about $15. And, of course, keep an eye out for the regular seasonal sales on Steam and elsewhere.
What Are the Key PC Gaming Accessories?
File this one under “where do we start?” The accessories market for PC gaming is vast, deep and wide, and if there’s something you think you might want to make your gaming experience better, you can almost certainly buy it.
The obvious ones, though, are the things many people overlook. For starters, if you’re going to be controlling games with a mouse and keyboard, you might want to invest in a better keyboard (preferably one with mechanical switches like the Logitech G810) and a more gaming-oriented mouse (these usually sport various extra buttons). Grab a decent mouse mat while you’re at it. And since you’ll be sitting at that desk for hours playing, maybe you’d like a better chair — in fact, how about a gaming chair (yes, they do exist, though their value over regular ergonomic chairs is dubious at best).
The sound you’re hearing from your games could be improved with a nice set of speakers, or perhaps you’d prefer to use a headset with a microphone attached so you can chat to your teammates. There are dozens of quality headsets available at all price points, and as for speakers, you can go as big or small as you’d like (or can afford).
Or how about a bigger and better screen? Or a high definition webcam so you can stream your gaming sessions with yourself in the corner of the frame?
One other thing that is highly recommended, though, is a quality game controller, because many games simply play better with one. Best bet is the version of the Xbox One controller that Microsoft sells with a wireless adapter made for Windows. It’s natively supported and works perfectly in every game that you’ll find that supports controllers.
What About Online Play?
Here’s another one of the big advantages of PC gaming — online play is completely free. Unlike the consoles, there’s no monthly charge to play online with your friends — just get online and go nuts. How games actually connect online will depend on the game — Steam, for example, offers robust tools for online matchmaking, and you can maintain a friend list of people you want to play with. But some games will use their own servers and own systems, meaning that it’s not as centralised an online experience as the consoles are. Sometimes you’ll have to track down your friends manually and bring them in to whatever platform or game you’re on. But nobody’s gonna stop you from playing online just because you didn’t want to fork out 80 bucks a year!
Can You Play Your Old Games?
Another big “win” for PC is that older games don’t just stop working when the new shiny system comes along. Your favourite PS3 game won’t play on the PS4 at all, but that same game on PC, bought at the same time, will probably run just fine on a modern PC, very often even running better — faster and with nicer graphics thanks to the ever-increasing power of PC hardware.
As a result, there’s a treasure trove of older games available on Steam and elsewhere, seriously cheap. Wanna play the entire Mass Effect trilogy? No problem, you can still buy it today.
Some very old games (and occasionally some not so old) can have trouble running on more modern versions of Windows, but that’s becoming rarer (and if there’s one you really want to get running, there’s almost always a solution that’s just a quick Google search away).
PC Gaming — More Options, More Everything
Thanks to continuing innovations with modern operating systems like Windows 10 — and easy to use storefronts and game management solutions like Steam — PC gaming is easier to get into than it’s ever been. If you’re just after a plug-and-play no-fuss way to play games, it might not be for you, to be sure. But if you’ve got a fairly recent PC, chances are it’s already more powerful than the most expensive game console (though a graphics upgrade might be in order).
One thing’s for sure — with all the major game studios and publishers now fully embracing the PC platform, there’s never been a better time to dive on in.