The Alienware Alpha – a PC game console?!

Posted: 2014/12/07 in Indie Games

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I’ve bounced back and forth between gaming on consoles and gaming on personal computers throughout my life.  In the late ’70s my family had a game console that just played a Pong-like game (no cartridges or other ways to change the game).  Then we got a proper game console in the early ’80s, the legendary Mattel Intellivision.

That was followed-up by a Commodore VIC-20 personal computer, though, not another game console (in part because the game console industry died out in 1983).  After that I saved up my allowance and bought a used Commodore 64 with my allowance when I was in grade 8.  I was all-in for personal computer gaming.  I liked the greater complexity offered by a keyboard, such as strategy games.  My family later got a Nintendo Entertainment System, and even a Super Nintendo, but the NES (and later the SNES) went only marginally used by me.  I preferred to game on my Commodore 64, and later a Commodore Amiga.  I played a computer version of the board game Risk on the C64, and Sid Meier’s Civilization on the Amiga, amongst many others.  Super Mario, for all its strengths, really couldn’t compare to that for me.  With the benefit of hindsight, had I had “Military Madness” for the TurboGrafx-16 or Dune 2 for the Sega Genesis, I might have found console gaming a bit more appealing.

But I was about to find it more appealing anyway.  I switched to console gaming for the Atari Jaguar.  Yes, the Jaguar.  I loved Alien Vs. Predator, Tempest 2000, Iron Soldier, Theme Park, and Hover Strike, amongst others.  I really enjoyed that system and was happy with my purchase, despite its lack of commercial success.

But personal computing was about to win me back, in a big way, and for the first time it was on an “IBM Compatible” (as PCs were known at the time).  One of the games I had loved on the Commodore Amiga was “Star Control”.  I couldn’t resist playing its sequel on an MS-DOS PC.  I played it, and its sequel Star Control 3, and put hundreds of hours into each of them.  Had I known that Star Control 2 came out on the 3DO console (in a version widely seen as the definitive one) I might have got one of those instead, especially since I didn’t own a PC and was borrowing a roommates.

Consoles were about to win me again anyway.  The Dreamcast.  Ah, the Dreamcast.  Who could resist Sonic Adventure, Hydro Thunder, Toy Commander, Jet Grind Radio, Shenmue, and so much more?  Not me!  A couple of my favourite Dreamcast games were also available on PC, namely Star Lancer, Railroad Tycoon, and a roller coaster game or two.  But I enjoyed the ergonomics of playing them on the console, and particularly with Railroad Tycoon my roommates and I had fun playing the game collaboratively in the living room.

From there I got an Xbox, an Xbox 360, started this blog, and then an Xbox One.  Console gaming had won out, right?  I loved each of those systems, after all.

Well, not so fast.  I’m a little conflicted.  And the Alienware Alpha is why.  For 35 years I’ve bounced back and forth between game consoles and personal computers for gaming.  The PCs I’ve favoured tended to be the more console-like, like the Commodore 64.  The game consoles I’ve preferred have tended to offer PC-like attributes, such as the numeric keypad on the Intellivision and the Atari Jaguar, the web browsers on the Dreamcast, Xbox 360, and Xbox One, the hard drive on the Xbox (carried through to every subsequent variant, etc.  Maybe, just maybe, the PC-based gaming console is what I’ve really wanted all along.  On the C64 and the Amiga I had gamed a lot, but also had a lot productivity uses.  The Alienware Alpha is a simplified front-end for Steam (and other PC games) designed with game consoles in mind.  But underneath it’s a full Windows PC, just waiting for a keyboard and mouse to be added.

It’s not a perfectly seamless console experience yet, but it’s close.  The odd time you need to use a mouse to enable the game controller in specific titles.  Things like Netflix you’d expect to use the controller to navigate require you to use a web browser and a keyboard and mouse.  But I expect forthcoming PC games may account for the console experience option better, and Dell/Alienware have promised monthly software updates to their console front-end.  I’ve done worse, I remember games taking half an hour or longer to load on the Commodore 64 (especially ones on audio cassette!).  I remember Civilization on the Commodore Amiga taking 10-15 minutes to create the map once you’d selected the parameters for the game.  No, I read a lot of Alienware Alpha reviews this weekend and didn’t find anything I couldn’t live with in exchange3 for what I’d gain.

And what am I gaining by putting up with some of the eccentricities while I wait for developers and Dell to iron them out?  Lots.  Remember my fascination with Civilization?  I was recently offered Civilization III Complete (with tonnes of DLC) for $2.74 Canadian.  Jet Set Radio, which I loved?  Same price in that Steam sale.  Want to support charity?  Collect games dirt cheap in “Humble Bundles” and support Child’s Play and other charities.

I recently picked up the Sega Humble Bundle which gave me games I already owned like Crazy Taxi, NiGHTS, Sonic Adventure, and more.  These are all games that I actually own, but never play:  it’s a pain to keep juggling game consoles, most of them don’t have hook-ups that are right for modern high-end TVs, and there’s only so much room.  And the more I thought about that, the more I realised how much I was losing out with console gaming.  I have an Intellivision, an Atari 2600, a pair of Atari Jaguars, a Sega Saturn, a Nintendo 64, a Sony Playstation, a pair of Dreamcasts, a pair of O.G. Xbox consoles, three or four Xbox 360s, and two Xbox Ones (with plans for one or two more, since we use the Xbox 360s as media machines and are gradually replacing them with Xbox Ones).

I’m asking myself whether I want to keep adding more consoles, periodically packing old ones up, and losing access to games over and over again?  Or do I want to start purchasing games on PC, and potentially never lose access to them again?  Windows has decades of backwards compatibility, I was recently playing an old X-Com MS-DOS game on my Windows 8.1-based Surface Pro 3.  One I got for a pittance in a Humble Bundle, no less, supporting charity as I did.

I bought Telltale’s Walking Dead Season 1 on the Xbox 360, and now that I’ve moved onto the Xbox One it’s already a pain to play it because I have to swap inputs, and can’t play it in the bedroom anymore as I no longer have an Xbox 360 hooked up there.  It’s frustrating enough I almost bought season 1 again when it went on sale on the Xbox One.  But how many times do i want to re-buy games as consoles change?  I already bought Halo on the original Xbox, bought it as an Xbox Originals on the Xbox 360, and now bought it as part of Halo: The Master Chief Collection on the Xbox One.  Maybe it’s time to move to the system that lets you actually keep playing all your games when you move to new hardware, and that’s Windows PCs.

Games generally start a little cheaper on the PC, and end up a *lot* cheaper on the PC.  And they generally remain available, as opposed to the legions of out of print console games.  Or console games where the publisher has abandoned support and turned off the ability to play online (I’m looking at you Sony and Gran Turismo 5, a dick move if ever I saw one).  And PC general generally have lots of free mods and other content available that console games miss out on.  Don’t like the frame rate on a console game, tough noogies.  Don’t like the frame rate on a PC game, just drop the graphical fidelity to increase the frame rate.  Or upgrade the hardware, another option console gamers are denied.  In the past I just wasn’t willing to give up the superior ergonomics of console gaming, and the simplicity, for those advantages.  Now I may be able to have my cake and eat it too.

So after deliberating for weeks, and being faced with it being on sale on both the Xbox One and Steam, I eventually decided to purchase it on Steam.  Though there was a time (15 years ago) where I was a big Microsoft detractor, these days I’m a fan of Windows and have Windows PCs and tablets handy at all times.  It’s hard to resist having access to that content on almost any device I’m using, and not losing access to it each time a new generation comes out.  And if I can have a console-ish experience on a PC, and also use Microsoft Office on it, why wouldn’t I?

Another thing.  PC games get most games that come out.  Especially during transitions between console generations (and those transitions now last 2-3 years), when things get confusing.  The holiday 2014 Assassins Creed is “Assassins Creed Unity” on Xbox One and PS4, but it’s “Assassin’s Creed Rogue” on Xbox 360 and PS3.  Windows PCs got both games.  “Borderlands the Pre-Sequel” didn’t come out on Xbox One or PS4, being a last-gen release for Xbox 360 and PS3-only on console.  But the PC got it, even if the new-gen consoles didn’t.  Heck, games that come out on mobile platforms, and not on home consoles, also sometimes come out on PC.  I don’t think any platform gets more games released for it than Windows, and that’s been true for decades.  And fans of this blog probably like indie games, and the indie game scene is more vibrant on Windows than any other platform on the planet.

It’s funny how in some ways the Alienware Alpha, though originally intended to use Valve’s Steam Controller and its Linux-based Steam OS, ended up being drenched in Microsoft’s ecosystem with Windows 8.1 and an Xbox 360 controller.  In some ways it ties better into Microsoft’s Ecosystem than the Xbox consoles do, since you have full access to Windows (including the Windows Store) if you want it.

I’m still a big fan of the Xbox One.  It’s nicely tied into Xbox Video (and not quite as nicely tied into Xbox Music).  With Windows 10, it’ll be possible for a developer to release an app that runs on Windows PCs, tablets, phones, and Xbox One, all for one price.  I love the ability to control my TV with my voice, which is glorious when I’m trying to workout in the garage and watch TV (or play Halo) at the same time, or eat in bed and balancing (for example) a bowl of soup in my lap.  When the next Gears of War comes out, I expect I’m going to want to play it!  But if a console-like experience can be delivered on a PC, I’m increasingly not sure why anyone would want anything else.

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Comments
  1. andregurov says:

    You make a powerful argument for the PC/console hybrid; I just recently started picking up Steam games for my Mac (which is *almost* useless for gaming) and was shocked at how cheap games had become, as well as flabbergasted at the insane amount of old games that could still be played.

    • And of course you don’t need to pay to play online with PC games. Pay walls are pretty much anathema to the platform. I’ve been an Xbox Live subscriber since beta-testing it prior to launch in 2002, and the idea of not having to pay to play is… odd. And there are lots of games that aren’t listed as supporting game controllers that, in fact, do.

      And I have lots of Xbox 360 controllers, both wireless and wired, that I can use on the PC. Microsoft was smart in positioning the 360 controller as the default PC controller, they’ve probably sold millions of them to PC gamers over the years now.

      I don’t actually have an Alienware Alpha yet. I’m using Windows PCs (mostly tablets) with wired Xbox 360 controllers for the moment. And I’m enjoying it. But getting an Alpha is now on my radar. Maybe a Boxing Day sale. Maybe a price drop. Maybe a second iteration. Time will tell. :)

      The idea of decades of backwards compatibility (as stated in the article, there are still MS-DOS games available on Steam), inexpensive prices, and finally the object of near-console-level plug-and-play is pretty irresistible. I think the Xbox One may be my last dedicated game console, I see no good reason for future consoles to not be open platforms that’ll take whatever I can put on them.

    • With regard to classic PC games being ridiculous inexpensive, yesterday I purchased a collection of all *17* Command and Conquer games for $5.99. $5.99! While some of those are some pretty old games, the most recent one came out in 2010. 17 legendary games for $6 (Canadian) is obscenely good value. On the Wii Virtual Console you’d pay about that for *one* classic game, and they simply wouldn’t bundle 17 together for any price. On Xbox or PlayStation, they’re slap a few new textures on one of the seventeen games and charge $10-15 for it, and if it was popular keep doing it until they’d done them all and charged fans a couple of hundred dollars for the whole set.

      Yep, to say that value-for-money rests with PC is an understatement. I’ve long known this, this is not a revelation. Maybe the degree to which PC gaming offers better value is a revelation, but not the fact that it does. But the option of having an optional console-like experience is the game-changer here, meaning you can have your cake and eat it too.

  2. andregurov says:

    If I had it to do over? No Xbone or PS4 for me; I think I would have gotten a proper gaming PC. I love my Mac, but the games availability for it is pretty meager (mostly due to their incorporated graphics).

    • If I had it to do over, I would definitely still have got an Xbox One. The ability to control the system and the TV with voice is just too cool. Mute it when the phone rings. Turn the system and the TV on (or off) in one fell swoop. Be watching TV and switch to Netflix (or Crackle, or YouTube, or…) by uttering just a few syllables. Snap TV to the side of the screen while doing something else (which, while not so great for dramatic programming, is fantastic for non-fiction TV shows where I am content to just listen to the show, such as the news).

      But for gaming? I’m just tired of losing access to games, re-buying games, etc. By switching to PC gaming, I should be free of that forever. I can think of so many times I’ve bought games on multiple consoles where, had I got them on PC, I would still be playing the same purchase. Heck, playing old games on PC you can still typically realize resolution and frame-rate improvements when you upgrade your hardware, without having to pay extra for the “Definitive Edition” (or whatever) like on console.

      But the realization, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was *writing* this blog post, was that for 35 years my favourite computers were kind of console-like, and my favourite consoles over the years did more than just play games. So a console-like PC is truly exactly what I’ve wanted all along.

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