THE PCG Q&A
Find all previous editions of the PCG Q&A here. Some highlights:
– How much free storage space have you got on your PC?
– What’s the worst internet connection you’ve had?
– What game have you spent the most hours in?
To play The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion back when it was new you needed a cutting-edge graphics card. Unless you downloaded the Oldblivion mod, in which case your Radeon 9200 or whatever might just be able to manage it, though not necessarily at a great framerate. Going back even further, when Doom was the Crysis of its day, the best way to play it on a 386 or the like was to drop the resolution way down, get up close to your VGA monitor and squint like your life depended on it.
Have you resorted to .ini tweaks, downscaling mods, or other ways to get high-end games running on a low-end rig? Maybe messed around with emulation or fan-translations to play something you wouldn’t be able to otherwise?
What compromises have you made to run a game?
Here are our answers, plus some from our forum.
Jacob Ridley, Senior Hardware Editor: When I was a kid I tried to run Sid Meier’s Pirates (one of the greatest games ever) on my parent’s budget home PC with integrated graphics. It ran at about 5 fps and I had to run it in a tiny window to get it even close to playable. Sitting five inches from the screen then is probably why I wear glasses on the PC now. I played it like that for a very long time, though eventually we upgraded the GPU, after much debate, mind you, and after that it felt like a whole new game. 10/10 would game again.
Nat Clayton, Features Producer: I don’t tend to play high-end games as a matter of habit. I grew up on truly awful computers that would often blue-screen just from being turned on, so tended to play it safe more often than not—and if a game didn’t work, it just didn’t work. That said, I was so immediately enamored with Apex Legends (quelle surprise) that I put up with playing it at 50% render resolution for a month before finally pulling the plug on a new GPU. Problem was, my PSU couldn’t quite handle the upgrade and melted a few rounds in, forcing me to go and also buy a new power supply just to run what is, admittedly, not a very demanding game.
I hate buying PC hardware. Nothing stresses me out more than trying to navigate the nonsensical naming schemes and gamer aesthetics and high price points of computer parts. But it turns out I’ll put up with a whole lotta bullshit just to buttslide across King’s Canyon with a shotgun.
Wes Fenlon, Senior Editor: Years ago I was determined to play Metal Gear Solid 3 via the PCSX2 emulator on my PC, and boy did I have to jump through some hoops. Ripping the PS2 disc was easy enough, though I had to dig a USB disc drive out of storage to do it. Then I had to fiddle with the emulator settings to get it running well. The controller was the real challenge. The PS2’s DualShock 2 and the PS3’s Dualshock 3 shared a unique feature that no modern controllers have to my knowledge: analog face buttons. Metal Gear Solid was one of the few games to make use of the pressure sensitive buttons—you’d actually half-press a button to raise your weapon to take someone hostage, or press it all the way to fire off a shot. It was a genuinely cool bit of design (panicking and pressing a button too hard and doming a guard was absolutely part of the experience), so I was determined to use a PS3 controller on my PC. Wirelessly.
Getting the DualShock 3 working on PC via Bluetooth turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, requiring more than one specialized tool and actually overwriting my Bluetooth dongle’s default drivers with ones specifically designed to work with this one controller. I actually wrote a guide to doing this after the fact because it was such pain. But it worked, and I played through the entirety of MGS3 with proper pressure sensitivity under my thumbs. That Bluetooth dongle no longer worked with any other Bluetooth devices for months after, by the way, until I figured out how to reverse and completely uninstall everything I’d done. Still, totally worth it.
Jody Macgregor, Weekend/AU Editor: Trying to play The Witcher 3 with a Radeon 7600 meant enjoying Geralt’s adventures at about 15 fps. Thanks to a video guide by the Lowspec Gamer I found Hunter’s Config, a tweak mod that let me downscale textures well below the in-game lowest settings, as well getting rid of decals like blood and dirt and most of the grass and trees until they were real close. After that I went into the user.settings file and dropped the resolution blow the minimum, all the way to 800 x 600, then said goodbye to most of the shadows.
After all that I got the framerate up to 30, sometimes. It was technically playable, and I did go through the first few hours that way, but then put it off and went back to play the whole thing from the start with a better PC.
Fraser Brown, Online Editor: I will spend hours and hours tweaking a game to get optimal performance, and if nothing works, I play another game. That said, I guess I’ve compromised my bank account by purchasing a new PC for the express purpose of running a single RPG.
In 2004, I only had a laptop, since I’d left home and a desktop just wasn’t that convenient for university. Then Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines came out. My crappy Toshiba laptop couldn’t run it at all, and it was the most excited I’d been about a game in a long time, so I decided to take drastic action. I opened up a student bank account and immediately blew my overdraft on a PC. But here’s the problem: I knew fuck all about PCs back in 2004.
Despite spending a long time planted in front of the family desktop before I left for university, I never found myself in a position where I needed to know what was actually inside this enigmatic case. All I knew was that it ran the games that I bought with no issues. I was very lucky. So when it came to buying my very first personal PC, I was utterly clueless. And that’s how I ended up with, I shit you not, a desktop with an integrated GPU. It still handled Bloodlines better than my laptop, but it was supremely disappointing. Of course, it turned out that even the beefiest PCs out there had countless issues running Bloodlines because it was held together by Sellotape and dreams.
The silver lining of this cock up was that it forced me to educate myself. I’d been playing PC games since I was in single digits, but buying a duff PC is what made me properly appreciate the machine. I did my research, bought a proper GPU, and six years later I was writing about PC gaming professionally.
Robin Valentine, Print Editor: I’ve weirdly run into almost the opposite situation—my PC was running too well for Saints Row the Third.
When I first got the game, I’d just recently gotten a shiny new gaming PC, so I was confident I could run it no problem. But it had this weird issue where all the audio was just a little out of sync, and would get more and more so the longer the game went on. It’s the sort of thing that drives you round the bend—the cutscenes would all start off OK and get completely incomprehensible by the end, and forget comic timing.
I spent ages trying to figure out the problem, and in the end I just gave up, assuming it was a bug on their end, and waited for a patch.
I can’t remember what prompted me to go back to it, but months later I came at the problem with fresh eyes, and ended up discovering that the problem wasn’t really the game, it was how overclocked my PC was. Forgive me my lack of technological knowledge, but somehow it was my machine running the game at too high a clock speed that was causing the audio to literally lag behind the action—and inevitably get further and further behind the longer this went on.
So the only way I could actually play it was to get rid of the overclocking. I reset all the settings back to factory default, and that fixed it.
It was so maddening a process that I ended up not only never bothering to re-overlock the PC, I lost interest in overclocking in general. To this day I never bother with it, though thankfully it doesn’t seem to be as necessary these days as it once was.
Imogen Mellor, Features Producer: My year-old PC struggled immensely with the Horizon Zero Dawn port. My specs were on the higher end at the time of release and it struggled so hard I needed to upgrade my RAM just so it could handle the game and streaming at the same time. There was a little bit of a knock on effect admittedly, as my be quiet! fan is frankly massive. I just about got the two new cards in there but it’s a really janky fit and I still feel bad when I can see how cobbled together it looks. I promise I’ll fix it… one day.
From our forum
Mazer: I made an OS choice for a single game: Just Cause 2. That game forced me to finally abandon Windows XP for Vista as it didn’t run on XP.
I also, like many probably, played Morrowind for the first time with the lowest possible draw distance just to make it playable. Many haunting memories of cliff racers looming suddenly out of the pea soup.
Frindis: I had to use QUEMM/MemMaker in the ’90s as a way to free up memory space for some of the beefier games. A decade later Dayz and Arma 3 was for a long time (still is at times) hard to run properly because of bad optimizations. I had to tweak some of the more taxing .ini configurations that you could not change in the in-game setting for better FPS, not to mention the launch settings for the games. I also used a memory boost (4GB patch) for Dayz Standalone and Skyrim getting ever so slightly more smooth gameplay and the ability to play with more mods.
mainer: Back in the early 1990s the biggest compromise I had to make was creating a boot disc on for the “A” drive (2 1/4″ floppy) just to get some new games to run. The largest executable program size, base ram, EMS or XMS were all concerns in those days. It took time, but it was just something you had to do to get a game to run.
McStabStab: I installed bootcamp on my 2013 Macbook Pro to run games. Games running on Windows 7 ran infinitely better than on the Mac OS. Mind you the thing has a Geforce GT 650m and an i7 processor so I could run The Witcher 3 at low quality and Cities: Skylines functioned alright. Anything current gen though is definitely a no-go!
Withywarlock: Max Payne on PC was my one of my earliest and most hated experiences trying to get a game to run. Downloading patches, changing the .ini files, and going into Nvidia Control Panel of all things took me about two hours to finally get it working. I remember calling the complete fixpack “as useful as a staircase in a bungalow,” though it did add some well needed graphical and audio updates.
That’s the only one I know the specifics of. When I first played games on PC in the 90s on a basic home computer, knowing why a game wouldn’t work or being unable to configure a joystick or controller was impossible. Manuals could take up more pages than War & Peace and still not tell you how many ways you’re done for. And yet people get Doom to run on a slice of toast.
Krud: I haven’t made a lot of compromises in the 21st century to run a game — or at least, not by my standards. I’m sure some people would disagree, saying, “You willingly played that game in 1080p at less than a consistent 60fps!” And that’s a whole… there’ve been entire articles just about that, but that’s not so much about literally running the game as it is deciding what elements matter most to you.
But back in the 90’s, I used to make all sorts of compromises to get things to just barely run. I’m reluctant to run through them all without a rocking chair and fireplace and old-timey music, but… one in particular still stands out in my mind, and that was X-wing*. It required a 386 processor and EMS memory, but I still had a 286 with just XMS memory.
In order to have EMS memory, you needed EMM386, which only worked on 386 and higher processors. However, I found a really weird unofficial program at the time called EMM286, which was an EMS emulator, and ran about as reliably as you might imagine. I got X-wing to run, but very, VERY sluggishly, to the point where I couldn’t actually beat the game (or come close, in fact), due to slow response time and probably an average of three frames per second. (Sometimes more, sometimes way less, down to one frame every three seconds, probably.) But despite the clearly unfeasible play state, it felt worth it just to see the opening logo, hear the stereo OPL3 midi orchestra, and watch the scroll and animation bits. (Flash web animation wasn’t a thing yet, so visual entertainment options on the PC were a lot more limited.)
Despite how crappily it ran, I was proud that I got it to run at ALL, because it wasn’t supposed to be able to. For years that was my bar for games, “Will it run,” period. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood and games started having broader requirements that I bumped that bar up to “Will it run tolerably well.” And now years later with my current setup I’ve become spoiled/complacent and am now up to “Will it run amazingly and with no hiccups.”
(* – Disclaimer: It has been nearly 30 years, so if I am wrong about X-wing requiring EMS memory, then I’m probably confusing it with TIE Fighter, which *definitely* needed it. But I remember fighting with X-wing as well, so it might have just been frame rate issues with that one.)
Sarafan: My biggest problems with gaming performance remember the times when I was still a kid and had my first PC. Its bottleneck was the amount of RAM. I had only 32 MB and some more advanced games already required 64 MB. I didn’t have the knowledge necessary to perform any tweaks in games that I played, so I had to face the truth and cope somehow with the fact that some of them ran bad on this hardware. And this is where the compromise kicks in. I remember an RTS called Star Wars: Force Commander. It wasn’t a great game, but it required 64 MB RAM. I had to go on compromise not in terms of graphics, but rather framerate. I tried to play the game in 10 FPS or so. It was unplayable, but it didn’t discourage me. It’s amazing how much we can bear to play a dream game, especially when being a kid.