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!

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