The Epic PC debate

The ongoing debate about Epic Games Store (EGS) is getting boring and tends to go around in circles. There I said it.

The latest game to announce being a timed exclusive to EGS is The Outer Wilds, from developer Mobius Digital. A small indie game that used crowdfunding but has really angered backers who regard it as having gone back on previous promises to deliver the game on Steam at release. As more and more games have been confirmed as exclusive to EGS we continue to see a similar uproar from many PC gamers.

If you go to any internet forum or reddit there are those who see Epic doing good, creating competition and perhaps making Valve up their game when it comes to their dominance over PC gaming. Often stating ‘it’s just another launcher‘ or it is like Amazon Prime or Netflix streaming services. On the other side of the debate Steam fans see rising prices due to reduced key resellers, loss of features and forced exclusives.

Stitched screenshot of the Steam and Epic Games Store main store pages.

I understand both sides of the debate but do get bored at the often poorly made points of those defending Epic’s new storefront. You see EGS is far from another launcher. It’s a service, a platform, which is in effect a walled garden. No one knows whether it’ll even exist in five or ten years (*cough* Desura). And when one of these services no longer exists then your whole library of games is gone. Forever.

Comparisons with the streaming services like Netflix are nonsensical. With subscription services you are never emotionally invested in them. You watch your content and then stop paying if you wish. You don’t lose anything. On platforms like Steam or EGS you are actually buying games. You build up a virtual library of games on virtual shelves. As your spend more and the library gets bigger the perceived sunk cost becomes even more. It makes it difficult to detach from the service. Media streaming services like Netflix are actually closer to game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass or EA Access.

More often that not even when people explain the huge number of features that are available on Steam those on the Epic side don’t always acknowledge those points. Epic may well improve their offering but the list of features on Valve’s platform is immense. Even in the last year we’ve seen native DualShock 4 support, Proton (so Windows-only games on Linux) and a completely rebuilt Friends client (think Discord). The claim that Valve don’t work on Steam anymore seems to be based on personal opinions rather than actual fact.

For years Valve have been seen as the guardians of PC gaming, arguably even more than Microsoft. At a time when Microsoft was pushing the wholly underdeveloped Games for Windows-Live initiative, complete with plans to charge for PC multiplayer gaming. Valve were building a complete PC-based gaming ecosystem. Full lifecycle from store purchase to playing games. With new features like Big Picture Mode, Achievements, Community Market, In-Home Streaming, Proton Linux support, SteamOS, Cloud Saves, Broadcasting, Steam Works, Wishlist etc. If you use these features then the removal of them matters. Even though it’s a tiny audience some players may have been looking forward to The Outer Wilds on Linux. However as a game on a Windows-only client that leaves them in the dark for now.

Of course the 12% fees for developers on Epic versus the higher charges on Steam may help developers bring new games to market but consumers don’t necessarily understand or directly see the benefit. Something Epic CEO Tim Sweeney has noted. And it isn’t the first time PC games have been exclusive or paid to be kept away from competitors stores. Actually the Oculus Rift storefront for VR did this first. Furthermore it is arguably the only valid strategy Epic Games have to displace a mature and very established competitor. Consumers won’t buy games not on Steam unless you remove that choice. Exclusive content has been used for decades to entice gamers onto competitors products and services. And it is ironically competition, even if not as PC gamers might want.

Although I am a multiplatform gamer, unexpectedly I’ve found myself sucked into this debate on EGS. Trying to explain why PC gamers are angry at Epic or the publishers and it gets really difficult not to have sympathy with those criticising Epic. Often the conversations descend into hostility and toxicity. I can’t fathom those defending anti-consumer practices when it comes to exclusive platform games. Certainly I understand the use of exclusivity deals however I’ll never defend the tactic.

Interestingly Epic yesterday announced a huge month-long sale on their storefront, which has generated some goodwill. The sale essentially sees Epic offering £10 off for games over £13.99 to bring some quite significant percentage discounts on lower priced games. But this sale is arguably a good tactic for consumers and a way to drive them towards EGS. Or at least might have been, but since the sale started many publishers have removed their games from the sale. This was arguably the first good thing we had seen from this new storefront. At least for consumers. Although for now I’m just going to stay away from the Epic vs. Steam debates.

Six months with a gaming laptop

Last year I decided that it was time to relook at PC gaming. With steadily rising component prices and new pricing tiers being introduced I realised that I wanted to get off the high-end PC gravy train. And use it as an opportunity to downsize my big desktop gaming PC. So last August I purchased a ASUS Strix GL703GS Scar Edition laptop. Ideally more than I wanted to spend but I wasn’t quite ready to give up on PC gaming, even if this was a downgrade on what I had before.

Since getting my first PC in 1996, I’ve always owned desktop PCs for gaming. And therefore I thought it might be interesting to note my thoughts on the transition from desktop to laptop after using this gaming laptop for just over six months.

Well the negatives first. It’s mostly the NOISE! A ‘gaming’ laptop like this is packing a high end Intel i7 CPU with a full size desktop GPU. And unfortunately that creates heat. Lots of it and in a small space. This means the ASUS laptop relies on 3 fans to cool the machine (2 connected via heat pipes). For normal desktop use it is bearable, however play a game and the thing will ramp up the fans immediately. It’s here the ASUS Strix can give a PS4 Pro or original Xbox 360 a run for its money in the ‘hairdryer’ noise stakes. This thing becomes very loud. Although I suspect there are quieter gaming laptops out there most will generate noise given the heat and small form factors involved.

That said the laptop hasn’t seen many hot days. With my old PC sometimes in the summer heat waves I’d take the side panel off the case to help it run cooler. Hopefully that isn’t something I need to worry about here, but we will see.

The ASUS Strix has a poor battery life. I can get over 2 hours from it but if you attempt gaming then even that will reduce. The battery is also an additional cost that has to be factored in one day as it will likely need replacing. The trackpad is OK but nothing as nice a MacBook or more business oriented laptops.

However you are no longer the main support for the machine. If something goes wrong you can’t fix it and have to send back under warranty. You also can’t upgrade anything bar the memory or storage. Although in some ways these last two points can be seen as benefits.

So what have been the positives from owning the ASUS Strix? The main one is obviously portability. Even tied to plug socket the machine is able to be used away from home. I recently spend a weekend with family and it was a boon being able to play The Elder Scrolls Online whilst away from home. Furthermore I can easily decamp to elsewhere around the house.

It is also easy to use as a desktop. I’ve kept my old ASUS monitor and Corsair keyboard to use with the laptop. A cheap laptop cooling pad and a 10-port Anker USB 3.0 hub act as my cheap docking bay solution. This even gives me a second screen if required.

Elsewhere my observations are a pretty ‘bloat free’ Windows 10 installation and a nice IPS 1080p display. 1080p is a lot easier to drive than 4K and opens up much cheaper PC options. Indeed a laptop with an Nvidia GTX 1060 is probably perfect for this resolution. Anything more powerful just gives you a bit more frame rates or headroom when playing games. The onboard audio is actually surprisingly good quality, even able to comfortably drive my Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones.

So the obvious question; would I buy a laptop PC again in the future for gaming? The answer is currently a clear ‘YES’.

Ideally a non-gaming PC laptop paired with a desktop PC for gaming is probably preferable. Although this gaming laptop fits the bill for a scenario where I only want one PC and want it to do a bit of everything, including gaming. And therefore I can definitely state that I am now a fan of gaming laptops.

Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick – Anniversary Edition Review

Purchased February 2019, £30.04 from Amazon UK

If you are of a certain age and played videogames in the late 1980s or early 1990s the Competition Pro was a very familiar sight in the UK. Particularly with the rise of the 16-bit home computers such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. Along with other sticks like various Quickfire models, the Cheetah 125+ and Zipstick. You would always bump into these joysticks and the Competition Pro was just one of those popular and iconic controllers of the era.

And despite owning various arcade sticks and joypads over the years I’ve never got around to picking up any of the more modern re-releases of this classic from Speedlink. So I let out a squeal of delight this week when I accidently found on Amazon that Speedlink has released a new updated Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick. It is a perfect time and excuse to pick one up.

Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick in its box.

It has been 25 years or so since I last held and used one of the original Competition Pro joysticks. So my memory may be hazy, but essentially this feels like I’ve picked up the same joystick. The microswitched stick feels as tight and stiff as ever. And the clicky microswitched big buttons on the front of the base are still faithfully there. This is a genuine Competition Pro updated for modern USB devices.

The stick is advertised as working with Microsoft Windows and Google Android operating systems. However I’ve been using it exclusively with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and RetroPie and it works fine (I assume it also works on Linux but haven’t had a chance to check).

Essentially a digital joystick with 4 independent buttons and an auto-fire switch. The joystick has a 1.8m (just under 6ft) USB cable. This isn’t the longest length depending on how far away you are from the computer or box you are plugging the stick into but should be enough for most use cases. This new release has an increased polling rate over earlier USB versions and to be fair it shows. I didn’t feel any lag on inputs when playing with this joystick.

The Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick in all it's black and red colour scheme glory.

My only issue is the red ‘speedlink’ logo near the back of the base behind the stick. This feels like it is in the wrong place and does spoil the overall look of the controller a little bit in my opinion. All that said hopefully there is a chance of a clear transparent and red version in the future (which is obviously the best looking colour scheme for the Competition Pro).

The quality and feel of this stick is fantastic. It feels robust and well made like it was from the 1980s. And in many ways it makes the experience of playing older 8/16-bit games much more authentic than using a modern controller, like a Microsoft Xbox 360 joypad or similar. The price of around £30 is perfect for what you get. Which also includes 20 retro-style Windows compatible games.

So hats off to Speedlink and thank you for releasing this wonderful product.

More information can be found on the Speelink website here.