Portable gaming has never been taken entirely seriously by the mainstream gaming press, and to be honest, with good reason. While there have been compelling titles on handheld consoles, as well as (to an increasingly lesser extent) smartphones, and hardware has come on leaps and bounds, it still has a stigma of being less serious than home consoles.
In March 2017, a large amount of the public perception shifted with the launch of the Nintendo Switch, a handheld-cum-home console hybrid that completely shook up the preconceived ideas that gaming on the go had to come at some form of a compromise.
But almost a whole year before the Switch had been swutched, Nvidia made its own statement that gaming on notebooks was the ‘ultimate gaming platform’ with the launch of GeForce GTX 10 series graphics cards for laptops. “It’s an extremely portable device,” said a rep from the components giant in the summer of 2016. “Why wouldn’t you want to be able to take your games with you wherever you go?”
Certainly in the 20 months since, portable PC gaming has seen a surge in interest. While PCs are seeing a dip in sales figures across the board, market analyst Context noted that ‘enthusiast’ and VR-ready gaming PCs and notebooks saw year-on-year shipments increase by 11 per cent in the run-up to Christmas – a figure optimistically reflected by the big distributors. “We expect the gaming notebook market to grow steadily over the next few years,” notes Christian Cox, business development manager for Tech Data UK & Ireland’s Gaming, Consumer Technology Group (CTG). “We expect both desktop and notebook gaming to be popular – it just depends on whether the gamer wants to be mobile.”
Notebooks are more capable than ever of running the latest games at an impressive level, but the key factors of cost and customisability continue to act as a barrier for many. A large premium is put on the laptop experience, with similarly priced desktops generally being significantly more powerful. And that desktop can be altered, changed and otherwise updated with the latest components should the user see fit. A desktop has the capacity for evolution; the laptop you buy is (save for maybe being able to expand memory) the laptop you will have until you decide to get a new one. As Cox summarises: “Some will continue to favour a form factor that gives them more room for expansion and customisation”.
It leads to a rather simple question: who would buy a notebook for gaming when they are underpowered for the money, and limited by their form factor?
But of course it is, to an extent, a discussion of apples and oranges. A big, bulky tower PC that is tethered down to a desktop with the extra cost of monitors and peripherals is hardly comparable to the portability and practicality of a notebook. Similarly, the exercise of putting the spec of a desktop head-to-head with a notebook would only tell part of the story.
The selling point of gaming on a laptop isn’t the raw power of its desktop cousin, but being able to game on the go, particularly when it comes to esports. “One of the primary factors in driving that growth will be the popularity of esports,” states Cox.
Gaming notebooks are certainly more appealing from a social perspective. Whether it’s a group of friends meeting at someone’s house, a team of players getting together in a public spot, or a huge tournament in an arena, the portability afforded by notebooks is hard to beat and can’t be overstated from the perspective of selling to customers.
So maybe desktop PCs will always be favoured by the most hardcore of gamers, those who will want to build a system from the ground up and pick all the precise components as they go. But there are plenty of consumers who will want to play games on a PC – be it for mods, huge library, better graphics or simply because of the mouse and keyboard – who will see a notebook as a way to easily get into PC gaming. This is a point that Cox stresses as being the trend. “Mobile gaming is already big and it’s going to get bigger. This will be part of a wider trend that will see the ‘PC’ become the central focus of the gaming market. It’s certainly a major opportunity – at the Tech Data Consumer Technology Group we have started bringing vendors on-board to address this specific area and we’ll be doing more to help retailers and webstore develop their sales potential with mobile devices and gaming platforms of all kinds.”
Ultimately in order for gaming notebooks to curry the same favour that the Switch has with the public consciousness, they need to move away from that idea that gaming on a PC is just for hardcore gamers. As Veho’s Ryan Davis argues: “We need to lose the stigma that every PC/ laptop gamer is an intense gamer. To make these laptops more attractive, they need to appeal more to casual gamers.”
How much of that depends on marketing and messaging and how much of that is based on design (not making every single gaming laptop emblazoned with outlandish logos and bright red LEDs etc.) is a different conversation, but the message remains the same: broadening scope, not burrowing into a niche, will see gaming notebooks fulfil their true potential.