This is Why We Upgrade (Part 3)

In the previous two posts, I talked about the first five “Epochs” of PC gaming. The usual disclaimer still applies that these are arbitrarily made up, but they gel pretty well with the way the PC gaming market developed.

The last Epoch listed was the end of an era in more ways than one. Looking through the history of PC gaming up until Quake 3 Arena, ID Software more or less dominated each generation. From Wolfenstein to Doom to Quake, hardware refreshes were linked to the latest ID title. Sadly, that doesn’t hold true going forward. ID lost its way with Doom 3: it was graphically impressive and certainly some people upgraded to play it. But it wasn’t DOOM. It was jump scares and monster closets, but none of the fun that made Doom so popular up to that point. Even so, it might still have opened up the next epoch if it weren’t for the massively successful release from another company.

The Sixth Epoch (Half-Life 2)

Half-Life 2. While later the Half-Life series would become the butt of jokes revolving around the number “3”, Half-Life 2 was a nearly perfect game. The long-awaited sequel to a solid first release, Half-Life 2 redefined what could be done in a video game. No longer were were merely fawning over graphics or frame rates: Half-Life 2 was an experience. Physics-based puzzles. A gripping, cinematic story. The gravity gun.

Oh, the gravity gun.

Half-Life 2 also brought with it some hefty system requirements. You could scrape by with a Windows 98 machine at 1.2Ghz and 256MB of RAM, so long as you had at least a DirectX 7-compatible GPU. But if you wanted all the effects (you did) and you wanted to be able to focus on the story without dropping frames (you did), you needed at least a 2.4GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, Windows 2000/XP, and a DirectX 9 GPU. If the last time you upgraded was when Quake 3 came out, it was time to open up the wallet.

But oh, it was so worth it. Half-Life 2 became the basis for so much of later Valve titles. CS:GO runs on a modified version of the HL2 (Source) engine. Same with DOTA2. And Team Fortress 2. The engine was extensible, fast, and reasonably good looking even as it aged.

This is also the first Epoch that had a signature title that is just as easy to install/play today as it was back then (actually, it’s easier). Half-Life 2 brought with it a requirement to use Valve’s new software delivery platform, Steam. At the time of release, games came on CD. Big games may have multiple discs. While much maligned at the start, Steam allowed for digital game distribution at a time where it just really hadn’t been done before. Ultimately, Valve made more money off of the delivery service than the game itself. Say what you will about Steam (no, seriously…I want to hear it), but it has stood the test of time.

The Seventh Epoch (Crysis)

Can it run Crysis? There is perhaps no greater proof of a game being tied to hardware upgrades than Crysis. Released only 3 years after Half-Life 2 (no…that can’t be right), Crysis was the first game that essentially required you to travel to the future to buy PC parts. True, there were minimum requirements that might let you play. 2.8GHz or faster CPU. 1GB of RAM. An Nvidia 6800GT or ATI Radeon 9800 Pro.

Ignore those.

The recommended specs were almost double those. Dual-core CPU. 2GB of RAM. A Geforce 8800. And even THEN, don’t expect to max out graphical settings and get playable frame rates. This game’s longevity on the PC upgrading treadmill is amazing. It took until 2012 (five years after release) for hardware to catch up to Crysis. Even today, low-end GPUs and CPUs struggle with running this game. This is truly impressive and I wish that I could say that what followed lived up to it.

The Interregnum (Waiting for a Hero)

It’s not that there haven’t been great games since Crysis. Not at all. But the market changed heavily. Consoles caught up. Mobile gaming took off. Indie gaming hit its stride.

There were plenty of graphically impressive titles, to be sure. Some may say that GTA V or Metro 2033 deserve a spot on the wall. Both had high requirements, to be sure, but as the market showed, upgrades and system sales didn’t follow. You could get decent performance in GTA V on a console. Metro 2033 was never a must-have title.

We’ve all heard that Star Citizen would be the game that needed more horsepower. And when it releases in 2072, that may be true. VR required upgrades, but it hasn’t sold especially well. The new Microsoft Flight Simulator needs CPUs that don’t exist yet to run at its peak. Interesting, but it’s too niche to cause a broad swath of users to upgrade.

And another trend has presented itself: scalable performance. Doom (2016) can run on a potato. So can a great many other new titles. True, you may not be able to turn up all the effects, but you also don’t have to limit yourself to 720p and shut everything off. Because games are console-centric, there’s not a big incentive to require a behemoth of a PC. If the garbage CPUs in an Xbox One or PS4 can run the game, so can yours. Yes, the PS5 and Xbox Series S|X have better CPUs, but good luck buying either of those right now. Time will tell if it leads to a new title that brings our PCs to their knees.

The timing is also bad right now. You can’t find a GPU (even a slightly older one) at any reasonable price. Until things change, we’re stuck here waiting on a new era. This sounds more like a complaint than it really is: there are tons of great games available right now that you can pick up and play. Maybe the age of upgrading is over; maybe it’s not. I, for one, long for a day when a new king is crowned and we can go back to arguing about a 1-2 fps gain.

Have I missed anything? Would you swap the titles above for others? Is there a game that rises to the top of the current malaise? Let me know!

Dirt Cheap AAA Gaming

I’ll admit it: I tend to upgrade more than I should. I spend money on parts for minor gains and then re-run my benchmarks, hoping to have bumped my scores up a little bit. I have a problem.

However, that’s only on my “main” machine that sits in my office. I’ve always had a lower powered machine in the living room for couch co-op games or games that are best suited to a gamepad. Sometimes this machine has been WOEFULLY out of date, so slow that only streaming was practicable. I recently gave away the machine I had been using, so it was time to buy another. Then, I had a thought: what if I could build a machine that was capable of AAA gaming for the price of a PS4 (standard, not Pro)?

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Introducing…Quake II!

Welcome to our review of the new first person shooter sensation from ID and Bethesda: Quake II.

Wait, what year is it? No, your eyes deceive thee not. Quake II is back and not just as a compilation game or a watered down “special edition”. Well, not exactly, anyway.

Nvidia and Bethesda have partnered to re-release Quake II using the RTX ray tracing abilities of RTX-series Nvidia cards. This is partially because there’s been a dearth of content for said abilities, and partly because there was already a project doing exactly this. Now, they’ve made it official. Notice the difference in the screenshots below:

Full disclosure: I’m a fanatic for the first three Quake games. They’re a formative experience of my adolescent years and I continue to play all three of them to this day. For those that aren’t aware, all three of the original Quake games were “benchmark” games. Before there was “Can it run Crysis?”, there was “Can it run Quake?”. Quake killed Cyrix, the 486 and (later) a great many crappy graphics card technologies.

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Retro on a Shoe-String Budget

I’ve talked to a fair amount of people in the retro gaming scene that would love to get into retro PC’s, but think it’s too expensive. Interestingly, one of them was a gentleman who was selling me one of his NeoGeo carts. If you’ve got NeoGeo money, you’ve got retro PC money. Heck, if you’ve got Sega Genesis money, you probably have retro PC money.

I know it can seem daunting. You’ve got people on eBay selling Pentium 100 machines “fully loaded” for $1000. You don’t want to try to build your own, though, right? I mean, the rules were different back then and who knows what goes together?

While it’s true that going back too far can get you into a world of compatibility nightmares and jumper switches, there are some retro systems that anyone who has built a modern system would have no problem cobbling together.

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Holiday LAN Party with a Classic Flair

Every year around Christmas or New Year’s, I make a trek back several states to the north to the home of my fore-bearers for a little holiday cheer. In between bouts of merry making (read: drinking) and consuming mass quantities of treats, my younger brothers and I will typically engage in a little LAN-based revelry.

Ten years ago, this meant I had to devote a significant amount of space in the vehicle to a large tower, replete with monitor, keyboard and mouse. Since their house was not wired up with Ethernet, I also needed to bring networking equipment, cables, and various other accessories so everyone could play. We’d set all the PC’s up in one room and spend an hour or two plugging everything in and then spend another hour or two trying to get everyone’s games to work. This was in the earlier days of Steam: without an internet connection, games usually just weren’t going to start. Still, hours later and a few hacks having been applied, we were up and running, joyfully blasting away at each other.

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The First Gaming PC?

(Note: I know, I know. This kind of blurs the PC gaming Epoch argument. Should this be the first Epoch? No…consider this our pre-history, if you will.)

If you were to go back and define when PC gaming started, when would you choose? I’m not talking about clones or ports from other platforms: real-life, bonafide made-for-PC goodness.

Would it be 1989 with the release of SimCity? Not a bad choice, I suppose. SimCity was an awesome game that took advantage of the power and flexibility of a PC. Perhaps Civilization in 1991? Or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis in ’92?

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This is Why We Upgrade (Part 2)

In the previous post, I talked about the First (Wolf 3D) and Second (Doom) epochs of PC gaming. To reiterate (or make clear for the first time), these are arbitrary. These aren’t official epochs or eras. These are just the world as we see it. Which means that it’s completely correct.

We ended the last post talking about the 486. Depending on your age, you may have very fond memories of that processor. So many people in my age group really cut their teeth on the 486/66. It was a great CPU and is great nostalgia.  However, it wasn’t good enough for the Third Epoch.

The Third Epoch (Quake)

Quake Nightmare 2
A difficulty so brutal it was hidden.
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1999 on a Budget

Every. Frame. Counts.

So, it was rapidly approaching Christmas. This year, we had been doing a lot of homemade stuff because last year we were stupid and spent far too much. As I pondered what to make for my cohort (and brother), it occurred to me that he doesn’t own any vintage PC hardware. Well, perhaps his 780 Ti qualifies as vintage now.

But he doesn’t have a classic DOS/Windows machine of his very own. Then, I thought making it a “budget” build was a neat play on the idea of saving money in the here and now.  So, I picked an arbitrary year and sorted through my parts bins in an effort to build the most badass budget rig that the end of the 90’s could offer.

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This is Why We Upgrade (Part 1)

One of the most wonderful things about gaming on a PC is that, unlike consoles, you’re not locked into static hardware. You can upgrade to your heart’s content, swapping in new processors, video cards, hard drives…all sorts of stuff.  However, this strength also means that the system requirements for new games are always a moving target.  I would argue that this is less of a problem in modern gaming, as we’ve reached a point where monumental improvements in hardware don’t happen at a fast pace anymore.

There was a time, though, when processors and video cards seemed to double in speeds every year or two.  The shiny new computer you got for Christmas in 1987 was no longer adequate for the games of 1989. Sure, businesses upgraded because of spreadsheets and number crunching, but for gamers, each little epoch of hardware seemed to be dominated by one or two games that needed a higher performing system or a new operating system to run correctly.

Let’s go on a journey through these epochs, focusing on the requirements and, more importantly, the games.

The First Epoch (1987 – Wolfenstein 3D)

I’m going to arbitrarily start the clock in 1987.  The fastest x86 CPU of the day was the 80386.  4MB of RAM was a lot.  And the PC game you had to have was Wolfenstein 3D.

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 5.20.05 PM
On a 386/16, I tended to run the screen smaller to improve frame rates.
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Turn of the Century: Linux vs Windows

 

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The Year of the Linux Desktop?

I’ve been a Linux user since 1998.  I’ve also been a Linux sysadmin by trade for most of my career. So naturally, I’ve always been one to avidly track the inroads that Linux has made into the consumer market.

At the turn of the century, the whole “Year of Desktop Linux” thing was beginning to pick up steam.  Read any PC publication around that time and you’ll notice a stunning amount of vitriol towards Microsoft (Micro$oft) by readers and commenters.  Heck, even the writers of the articles themselves had a decidedly anti-Microsoft attitude.  There are a lot of reasons that this attitude existed, but the core of it was the Microsoft controlled the desktop PC market.  If you were using a computer, you were using Windows.  The hardware vendors were locked in.  The software vendors were locked in.  So, by extension, the users were locked in.

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