July 20, 2018

What do next-gen consoles mean for PC gaming?

With the Xbox One launching today, and the PlayStation 4 less than a week away, it’s clear that the next generation of gaming is finally beginning. Although we’ve seen some amazing titles in the twilight year of the current generation, such as Last of US and GTA V, it has been obvious for a while now that new hardware is required. Sluggish frame rates, texture clipping issues and low resolutions just aren’t good enough anymore. Out with the old, in with the new.

Enter the PS4 and the Xbox One. Both consoles are, essentially, full-blown computers this generation. Each console uses an accelerated processing unit, or APU. These are new in that they contain the CPU and the GPU on the same die — essentially, the processing units are closer together, speeding up data transfer and therefore improving gaming performance.

While APUs have been through several generations in PCs already, they have never been purpose-built for gaming. While it’s true that some current-generation APUs are capable of handling some current-gen games on low-medium settings, they lack the raw power to become the sole component powering our games. The two new consoles seek to rectify that, boasting next-gen APUs that promise to deliver the fuel that will power a generation of pure gaming advancement.

But what does that mean for PC gaming and PC hardware?

At this point in time, it is unlikely the latter will change too much. APUs will allow us to build powerful embedded systems in smaller and smaller form factors, but won’t necessarily change the way we build PCs. This is for one key reason: PC enthusiasts and gamers will build with powerful, discrete GPUs for as long as that option is available. Due to high demand, and high commercial productivity, discrete graphics cards will not become a thing of the past any time soon.

We are, however, beginning to see the mainstream use of PCs in the lounge room. APUs boast low noise and heat profiles, despite the power they offer, making them ideal for the media-streaming crowd that Sony and, particularly Microsoft, have been so busy chasing over the last generation of gaming. mATX computer builds have never been as attractive in the living room as APUs make them today.

Finally, with the recent announcement of Steam Machines, including their initial beta rollout taking place as we speak, it is clear that PCs are finding their ways into living rooms for their gaming power, too. This is not purely because of APUs — the typical Steam Machine specifications already include a mid-range, current-generation GPU at worst — but it certainly goes a long way to debunk the notion that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are capable of “killing” the PC.

Computer hardware discussions are not for everyone, so let me be frank: PCs are more diverse and popular than ever before, and no console can eliminate their usefulness or convenience. What matters more to most people, however, is the ways in which gaming will change on PC thanks to the new consoles. Let me proudly say that the changes will be positive ones; that PC gaming will reach new heights. Why?

As mentioned earlier, the physical makeup of the new consoles are remarkably similar — almost identical, in fact — to today’s PC. As such, the APIs used on different platforms will be incredibly similar between platforms, if not identical in some cases. This essentially means the coding used to power games will need little modification to port between platforms. Due to the level of optimisation achieved by developers on console, this will result in highly-optimised PC ports. In a nutshell, this will result in stronger performance of games on PC, and offer higher accessibility to machines without the latest top-end components.

The similarity of the platforms also means that making any changes to games is a far less taxing process. Something like changing a few menu screens may seem trivial, but due to the differences in system architecture and software programming interfaces between PCs and current-generation consoles, could take dozens or hundreds of hours to change. Hence we had clunky and unintuitive menus and GUIs in our PC games. The new gaming generation could — and should — be the end of the age of awful PC ports.

Of course, it’s very possible we could find out that software developers just don’t care about us, and that shoddy ports will continue. However, given the prominence of today’s PC-gaming community, that’s not likely. Even if it does happen, rest assured there will be developers who discover the benefits of tapping into and optimising a PC’s raw power and produce titles the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

None of this is to say you should, or shouldn’t, get yourself an Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Both look to be amazing consoles, capable of delivering the smoothness we’ve been craving in our lounge rooms for a while now. Each has their own advantages — elements that make them a worthy purchase. But the PC will flourish every bit as much as the console this generation.

If there was one lesson I hoped for people to take away from this article, it’s that every platform is on an even playing field once again; every platform has the potential to absolutely shine this generation, and it has never, ever been better to be a gamer than it is this week.

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