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Do you have to be smart to be a PC gamer?

I’ve been deprived of my PC for over a month now. I didn’t think the lack of a decent machine would affect me much, but it has. My temporary home in Melbourne gave me access to a box with enough grunt to run Fallout 3. I happily clocked about ten hours on the game before I moved to a more permanent location.

Now, all I have is my laptop, a paltry device equipped with a 1.8GHz C2D and X3100 IGP. A beastly piece of hardware it is not.

Despite falling short of the minimum requirements by at least a billion fathoms, I decided to give Fallout 3 a go on my laptop. It refused to get past the intro movie. I wasn’t expecting much, but I would have thought the game proper wasn’t a big ask.

Apparently, it was. And I wasn’t alone. A bit of research uncovered Oldblivion, a hack to get Bethesda’s Oblivion running on older hardware at a decent click. If you weren’t aware, Oblivion and Fallout 3 use Bethesda’s version of the Gamebryo engine. Logic suggested to me that if a solution could be found for Oblivion, then Fallout 3 had an outside chance.

A few users at the official Oldblivion forum started a thread to toss around ideas on the topic. It became clear that while Fallout 3 was capable of identifying ancient hardware, it didn’t come with the software to support it. Specifically, the shader packages just weren’t there. The game however would still try and load them and, well, that’s why it would crash.

Copying another shader package sort of worked, but it revealed another problem – loads of shaders were coded to the SM2.0b spec. Not 2.0, 3.0 or even 4.0. But 2.0b. The makeshift team worked out a series of INI tweaks to get the game running, if you don’t mind headless characters, no decals and piss-poor lighting. The ultimate solution would be to redo all the 2.0b shaders in 2.0, but that’s a mammoth task for a problem that could be solved with $100 and a trip to your local computer store.

During this period of research, I must have read dozens of posts on various forums, and as I trawled through DirectX diagnostic reports, error messages and poorly-worded but incredibly emotional threats against Bethesda employees, it occurred to me that being a PC gamer is hard. I mean I knew, in a very specific context, why my laptop couldn’t run Fallout 3, and I had no grand illusions about its performance or playability. But this is because I’ve lived and breathed PCs for at least ten years.

Sadly, there are plenty of gamers who haven’t. I’m sure more than a few buy a PC like they would a console, and treat it as such. They also buy games and expect them to just work. But the reality is that PC gaming is a fickle bitch. Between the 30-minute install and the hours of gameplay is an hour or so of mandatory tweaking and troubleshooting because everyone’s PC is different. Even games like the original Counter-Strike continue to crash PCs the world over despite 10+ years of patching.

I hate to do a mammoth cut and paste, but Tweakguides’ Koroush shares a similar opinion in his piece for Fallout 3:

Indeed every single major game which is released these days is labelled as being the “buggiest game ever”, with hundreds of people flooding the game’s forums to complain about how shoddy that particular game is, demanding patches and refunds in angry post after angry post. I’m not exaggerating either, it’s now occurring for every single major game released, and quite frankly, it’s become somewhat of a joke in my opinion. When I play every single one of these games, and write guides for them, testing them for hours and hours, I’m thoroughly confused as to how people can claim they are so buggy when I see no evidence of it. Either I’m the luckiest person alive, or there’s something else at work here.

The simple truth of the matter is that PC gaming is a dual-edged sword. The very fact that a PC allows us so much freedom of choice as to what type of hardware we use, and what type of software we install on it, also results in much greater potential for a wide range of problems. PCs are not a ‘plug and play’ gaming machine, and never have been. If you want to just pop your game in the drive and play without a second thought, you’ll need to do your gaming on a console. As a PC owner you need to be under no illusion that a PC requires regular optimization, maintenance and great care as to what you install on it. That’s where I’ve tried as much as possible to give PC users the resources to do exactly that through my free guides. Ultimately however, as a gamer you have two choices: complain endlessly, blame the ‘greedy developers’, constantly beg for help and keep scratching your head over ‘mysterious’ crashes and issues. Or bite the bullet, learn more about your PC, learn how to configure, optimize and troubleshoot it properly, and wave goodbye to your PC gaming woes.

I couldn’t agree more. It may be a hard line to take, but it’s the truth. I can think of only a handful of games that have given me grief because of a bug. Otherwise, it’s all been solvable with a configuration file tweak, driver update or other workaround.

Will this ever change? Perhaps, but it would come at the expense of the PC and its flexibility. That’s not something I’d like to sacrifice, though I may have to if PCs are to continue as a viable gaming platform.

~ by Logan on November 12, 2008.

One Response to “Do you have to be smart to be a PC gamer?”

  1. PCs are hardcore, but a lot of non-hardcore people get their hands onto them. It shits me to tears that my girlfriend’s little brother (an avid WoW player) doesn’t know the first thing about that hardware or software he’s using – he basically knows nothing about a computer apart from how to load up WoW. I don’t know what I’m asking for, but it’d be nice to have someone who understands when I say /mount the image with Daemon/.
    The free tech support for friends and family is running a little thin too..

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