Providing tech support for a teenage gamer proves challenging when they start to push the limits of your household tech.
My son recently turned 14, let's call him Mars – his codename in younger years when we didn't want him to know we were talking about him. Mars has a little sister Venus, who is still at primary school.
When you're the IT manager for a busy household, supporting teenagers brings a whole lot of new challenges; from configuring their school devices and backing up their data, to ensuring they don't hog all your bandwidth or go wandering through the seedy side of the internet.
My children's primary school requires iPads in Grades 5 and 6, but when Mars started high school he needed to switch to a Windows notebook. We'd already dabbled in PC games like Minecraft, Portal and Terraria, running on my various notebooks and desktops, but now that Mars finally had his own computer he set out to explore the Steam online games store.
While I know my way around a PC I've only dabbled in games over the years, so Mars and I are both learning along the way. I made it clear to him from the beginning that his little Levono Yoga school notebook is optimised for battery life rather than grunt, so it was always going to groan under the weight of demanding games.
Mars has made the most of his school notebook without complaining, and he scored a Steam Link for his birthday. Like a Chromecast for games, the Steam Link lets him mirror PC games on the television rather than playing them on the small notebook screen.
Thankfully Mars has always been more interested in challenging tactical games than GPU-hungry shoot 'em ups or racing games. Even so, his taste in games is understandably becoming more demanding and we're getting to the point where he needs more firepower. He enjoys playing Rocket League on the neighbours' Xbox One, but not surprisingly it grinds to a halt running on his school notebook.
The issue came to a head this week when Absolver, a game which has been on Mars' Steam wishlist for a while, popped up on special as part of Steam's Halloween sale. Demanding at least an Intel Core i7-950 processor, it's unlikely to run well on his long-suffering school notebook.
Our solution was to test out Steam's In-Home Streaming features, which let you play games remotely from another computer – namely the Core i7 video editing rig in my home office.
I've previously used the computer to run in-house Minecraft and Terraria servers for the children, letting them play on low-powered Windows notebooks on the dining room table while the computer in my office does all the heavy lifting (plus I've set up online Minecraft servers). It made more sense than buy new, more powerful Windows notebooks just so the kids could play games.
A Few Bits Short
We put Steam's In-Home Streaming to the test with Rocket League – running the game on my video editing rig and streaming it to Mars' notebook – and the results were impressive. Confident that we'd found the solution to our problems Mars put down his money on Absolver but it refused to install on my powerful computer, spitting out an "invalid platform" error even though it was running on Windows 7.
It pays to read the fine print: I'd overlooked the fact that Absolver demands a 64-bit processor and my old video editing rig is a 32-bit machine. It handles the multimedia work I throw at it, so I'm not in a rush to replace it, but this game demands more.
The game's 64-bit requirement is clearly listed: it says "Windows 7/8/8.1/10 x64", whereas it would need to end in "x86" to run on my 32-bit machine. Unfortunately it's not a simple upgrade for an old computer but rather a complete overhaul.
Along with the processor I'd also need to replace the motherboard which would likely mean new RAM and a high-end graphics card. Then there's a 64-bit copy of Windows. I'd be lucky to get change from $1500 and there'd still be the risk of getting trapped on the PC upgrade cycle – replacing the graphics card every few years to meet the demands of new games.
At 14 Mars doesn't have the cash to splash on his own gaming computer, but it's something we might revisit in a few years if he gets a part-time job. When I was his age I saved up my paper round money to buy a Commodore 64 for gaming and dabbling in programming.
There Is Another
To be fair, Mars has taken this setback well and doesn't expect me to invest in another high-end PC just so he can play one game. Steam support has offered to refund his AU$31, which is more than he'd usually spend on a game.
There's another option, as Absolver is also available for the PlayStation 4 console. There's one sitting in our lounge room which rarely gets used as a games machine, but making the leap to console gaming presents a new challenges.
Thankfully Mars cares more about gameplay than graphics, at least for now, so we don't need to get bogged down in that aspect of the PC versus console debate. Console gaming does away with the hardware compatibility issues of PC gaming, but in return console games tend to be more expensive.
Absolver is a AU$45 download from the PlayStation Store and, while Sony's store sometimes offers specials, favouring consoles means Mars would miss out on the benefit of Steam's regular sales. His friends favour Steam, which helps with online multi-player gaming, and if they switched to the PS4 they'd all be forced to pay for a PlayStation Plus subscription in order to play online.
Embracing console gaming would also fragment Mars' gaming ecosystem and leave him competing with the rest of the family for lounge room time with the main television. Working from home, sometimes I need to commandeer the lounge room – which doesn't cause too much trouble when the rest of my family can source their entertainment elsewhere.
Thankfully there are workarounds. Like the Steam Link, Sony offers a tiny PlayStation TV box for streaming games to a television in another room – I tested it a few years ago with decent results.
Meanwhile PS4 Remote Play matches Steam In-Home Streaming's ability to remotely play games from a computer – I haven't tested this but it might solve a lot of issues if Mars does decide to go down the console path. This way he could run Absolver on the PS4 but play it on his notebook when the lounge room isn't available.
Choosing A Way Forward
Right now Mars hasn't sworn his allegiance to PC or console gaming and he's prepared to live within the constraints of the hardware at his disposal. Even so, it's going to become more of an issue in the next few years so I want to help him make smart long-term decisions.
In a nutshell, we could sink money into a new PC today and stick with Steam or else spread out the cost by buying more expensive console games over the next few years. Realistically I don't think Mars would buy enough high-end games to make a new PC the most cost-effective option, plus I don't want gaming to cut too heavily into his homework time as he moves into senior school.
He's decided to take up Steam's offer of a refund and buy the PS4 version of Absolver, but in future he'll shop on Steam with more care. If it becomes a regular problem we'll revisit the situation.
What kind of tech support do you offer for the gamers in your life? Where do you sit on the PC versus console debate?