Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Cost of Gaming Hardware

Something or other in my gaming computer seems to have broken. One evening it was fine, the next it just wouldn't start. When you push the power button, the system fan comes on, followed by the graphics card fan (which seems to be making a different noise than usual) and all of the usual flashing lights on the front of the box, only nothing happens after that. No loading up the hard drive to start booting up, no waking up the monitor, the machine just sits. Based on the new noise coming off the graphics card, my guess is that the problem is there, though I have no idea whether a dead graphics card will physically block start-up while still drawing power to run the fan etc.

This machine cost about $1,500 two years ago, and replacing it with a machine that has similar specs today would cost about half that. Replacing the graphics card, if that's what's dead, would cost about $70-100, and I could do that myself, but I'm hesitant to buy a new one without being absolutely certain that it's the (only?) part that is broken. My alternative is taking it to a repair shop that's going to want $50/hour plus parts and may or may not be irritated with me if I insist on picking out a new graphics card online rather than paying retail for whatever they happen to have stored in their parts closet.

In the mean time, I'm stuck with my backup machine, a laptop with an integrated graphics card and a mere 1GB of RAM that I bought to serve as a portable word processor back in grad school. They quip that WoW can run on a toaster, and this particular machine is indeed slightly more effective at playing WoW than making toast.

When the expansion came out, the Wrath installer complained that this machine fails to meet the game's minimum specifications, but I insisted on installing it anyway and it runs about as well as TBC did (without objecting to the machine's specs). Dalaran is a bit of a slide show, Wintergrasp is outright impossible, and the gameplay is so choppy that I fell off of Thunder Bluff for the very first time the other night. Still, I've been able to run around the sparsely populated Barrens without any real issues. I even snuck into a Heroic 5-man TOC run on Greenwiz, where I probably didn't do as much DPS as usual, but I'm far enough above the gear requirements for 5-mans that this need not be a deal-breaker.

Implications of the hardware barrier
Some of you may be reading this and wondering where the game design question is. This old laptop cost about $800 three years ago, two years after the launch of WoW and EQ2 and just before the launch of LOTRO. I've attempted to play LOTRO on it before, and it kind of does so, but you have to set all the settings to the minimum, which makes everything look blurry and still isn't quite enough to keep the gameplay from being choppy. I don't even dare to try EQ2 on the laptop, as EQ2 wasn't all that happy running at the auto-detect settings on my gaming machine until I upped the RAM to 4 GB. Even Free Realms calls for a graphics card, which the integrated chipset kind of technically satisfies, but not very well or very happily.

Somewhere along the line, it became standard practice in the gaming industry to require hardware that substantially increases the cost of the machine. Though I do appreciate the visual effects - the reflection of the moon on the lake outside Moria, for instance - sometimes I wonder whether we've gotten a bad deal. When something goes wrong on the hardware end, we're left with unpleasant alternatives, just to restore the proper function of a visual feature that isn't really necessary for gameplay.

In fairness, some of the community will actually complain bitterly, when a new game looks like a four-year-old one. I wonder if they'd stop complaining if they ever had to spend a few weeks on the kind of computer that most non-gamers have to live with full time.


Stabs said...

There's no question in my mind that many games have failed to deliver the promised game experience because they went too far making the game look good.

Vanguard famously launched when no one had machines capable of playing it (I toyed with the idea of upgrading).

The game I did rebuild my machine for was AoC. I was looking forward to the mass pvp.

The mass pvp didn't work. Too many people in one place crashed the game. It couldn't handle all the graphical detail.

It's no coincidence that the two most successful MMOs are WoW and Eve which are probably the two lowest spec.

What developers fail to consider is that in a family or a group of friends the game played is the game that everyone can run. No point releasing a game Dad can run if Mum and the kids want to play but can't and if Dad has to stop playing whenever the kids want to do their art homework.

Sidhe said...

I feel your pain, buddy.

When I read that WoW Cataclysm might have higher requisites due to graphical tweaks, I cursed Blizzard to hell.
My computer can barely run Wrath at acceptable settings, and I already have fps problems in Dalaran, Wintergrasp and Ulduar 25.
Now you tell me that my PC is getting obsolete again in less than a year?? F*ck you Blizz!

Not everybody has that money or is willing to spend + U$S 2000 in a PC for playing a videogame.
(Living in Latin America where stuff is 3x as expensive doesn't help, either).

Sorry for the massive rant.

Good article GreenArmadillo.

evizaer said...

A good gaming rig shouldn't cost you more than $1k/1.2k if you build it yourself (although there are sometimes deals on manfuacturer's PCs that will get you a gaming rig EVEN CHEAPER).

The real problem is that graphics have gotten ahead of gameplay substantially. It takes so many man-hours to make the graphics for games these days--I'd reckon it takes longer to make the graphical assets than it does to design the gameplay. I would rather have to upgrade my machine to be able to process more intricate and interesting gameplay-related calculations than upgrade my machine so i can see the moon reflected in the eyes of an NPC.

mbp said...

Over the years I have become pretty good at tracking down faulty hardware using the "replace or remove one component at a time till it starts working" technique.

In my experience the most unreliable component in a modern PC is the hard disk surprisingly.

First thing I do is get a bootable linux disk (puppy linux is my current favourite) and try to boot the machine from the CD. If it boots then you have a software problem rather than a hardware problem. The repair tools on your microsoft Windows CD can ususally fix that.

If it doesn't boot try removing the hard disk and booting linux entirely in ram. (there is an option you can set in Puppy linux for this).

Remember any activity on the screen means your graphics card and processor are basically OK.

If you still have no life from above then try removing any add in cards other than your graphics card.

The graphics card is tough to test unless you have a replacement. I have an old old TNT Riva with a PCI bus that I use for just such an emergency.

Memory is another possible culprit but many modern computers need use memory sticks in pairs so you may not easily be able to take them out one at a time.

Yeebo said...

That is so much more thoughtful than my "my gaming PC died..f@%K" post that I'm a bit embarrassed. I nearly quite MMOs and PC gaimng altogether I was so upset, you handled it with a lot more maturity than I did.

In any case, I agree with one of your premises. It's hard to justify paying hundreds of dollars for graphics that are a shade better than what you get from a $300 console. It's also hard to justify buying new hardware for games with identical gameplay designs to what we can run on much older hardware. My time on my backup PC has really made me question whether I should have sprung for a "gaming PC" in the first place, despite the fact that I will pay nothing more to repair it.

Green Armadillo said...

@yeebo: My secret to a more measured response? The computer stopped working on Thursday and I didn't post about it until Sunday. ;)

Longasc said...

Even if I do not like the asian grind and game design of AION, take a look at their gorgeous engine.

They use extremely low res textures for the environment, and have great animations for the characters.

Dozens of players can be on screen, the game looks good, does not lag and the FPS remain high.

Compare this to LOTRO: Gorgeous environments, but the character faces often do not look that good and the animation are admittedly horrible, often so bad that they for sure scared away players.

Think of Age of Conan, a really bad engine: High hardware requirements and it often still does not look that good. Too much love for all the fancy DX whatever effects. At the cost of FPS. They have a "raid & PvP" settings tab for graphics where they get turned down a lot, which looks not that good...

I think every crap company can create a MMO that is looking good - until you start moving or have more than 5 players on screen when it turns to shite.

Combining art direction and technology to create a working and still beautiful game environment are indeed key for success.

Stabs already said it, some game companies are too much in love with their own graphics and cut their income by two thirds probably this way.

Finally, good and immersive artwork does not depend on the latest and fanciest hardware. Maybe the developers should upgrade their graphic artists rather than telling their customers to upgrade their rigs.

Dalt said...

I stopped playing LotRO after trying WoW in a large part due to the fact that WoW just ran better on my laptop.

I enjoyed LotRO but dealing with all the graphics issues just left me playing less and less once I played a game (WoW) that ran well on my machine. Sad but true.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of the success of Korean F2P games is that they can run on just about anything. I have a pos computer with 1 gig of ram and a graphics card and I can run Mabinogi with a tremendous amount of models on screen, like a hundred or so. Fiesta as well works fine. They design them for much lower specs.

Maybe its because they are played on pc bangs that cant afford to constantly upgrade computers or what.

What was funny is that getting classic everquest to run on it was impossible, it kept freezing up at the tutorial stage.