PC gaming is often criticized for being expensive, and a part of that is the idea of upgrading frequently to “keep up” in some way. In reality, upgrading PCs is both optional and much less frequent than most people think.
Consoles Are the Benchmark
Multiplatform games released on both PC and console are designed to work on the lowest-common-denominator device the title releases on. Consoles do have some advantages in efficiency and reduced system overhead. However, suppose you have a PC that’s just a bit more powerful than the weakest current generation system. In that case, you can be confident that your PC will run games at similar settings and performance for the duration of the console generation.
Take the Xbox Series S as an example. This console has a GPU roughly 20% less powerful than an NVIDIA GTX 1660, so you’d expect a computer with that graphics card and a comparable CPU to match or exceed whatever the Series S can do.
The main caveat is that console versions of games often have settings tuned to that specific hardware platform. Some settings on the console version of a game may also be lower than the lowest possible on the PC version, making it hard to match exactly. Then again, PC games can generally be modded with custom settings, so there may be a solution either way.
Finally, there’s the specter of poor-quality, unoptimized PC ports. This is not nearly the issue it’s been in the past since current generation consoles such as the Xbox Series X|S are essentially custom Windows computers running DirectX. However, there are still instances of poor PC game conversions from consoles.
PC Games Are Scalable
Speaking of settings within PC games, it’s normal for PC games to offer a wide range of scaleable options. This allows you to optimize the look and performance of the game to match the hardware you have. A game released in 2022 will run on hardware from five years prior or even older, but at lower settings than more modern PC hardware.
These games should look as good and run as well as games that were new when your PC was new, they just won’t compare to the best PC hardware that can run higher settings. However, these are two different issues.
Whether is playable and looks good is different from whether it looks as good as possible! Whether the older computer runs the game to your satisfaction is subjective, which is one of the reasons upgrading isn’t mandatory as often as the myth suggests.
The Psychology of Video Game Preset Inflation
PC gamers may feel pressured or even obligated to upgrade because PC game presets experience inflation. Today’s “high” preset is the “low” preset of tomorrow.
This creates a situation where an older PC can only run games at lower and lower presets yearly, which may create a feeling that the computer is getting worse.
However, the games you’re playing on low today look as good or better than the games you were playing on high when the PC was new. Your PC hasn’t gotten any worse, it’s stayed the same, but the existence of higher unattainable settings creates an incentive to upgrade.
It’s best to look at the look and feel of current games on your existing computer in isolation and decide whether it’s good enough for you, rather than looking at graphics from cutting-edge systems and feeling your system is now worthless.
New Techniques Extend Gaming PC Lifespans
There are two ways to get a game to look great and perform well. One is to use the brute force processing power of the system to achieve your goals, and the other is to use efficiency tricks to get more out of the processing power you have.
Consoles are a great example of the second scenario since the hardware in a console is fixed and can’t be upgraded. Yet, we see better-looking, more complex games emerge on consoles throughout the generation. Usually, the best-looking games are some of the last to be released for the system.
As game developers learn to work smarter with what they have, they keep the platform alive, and those same methods find their way onto PC games. A great example is Dynamic Resolution Scaling (DRS). Here a game scaled the resolution each frame is rendered in pursuit of a certain frame rate target. This helps keep a stable frame rate; usually, the player doesn’t even notice if a few frames aren’t as crisp as others.
Newer game engines often run better on the same hardware compared to older versions of those engines and take advantage of new rendering techniques that achieve more with less. These types of advances can keep an older computer relevant for longer.
Upgrade For the Right Reasons
The ability to upgrade a PC is one of the platform’s strong points. Still, it can also create an incentive to keep spending money on hardware to achieve extra fidelity and performance that may not make much of a difference to your gaming experience.
A subset of PC gaming enthusiasts can’t abide playing on anything but cutting-edge hardware, but that isn’t what PC gaming is about and shouldn’t be the dominant narrative. The idea that PC gaming is an endless money pit of upgrading likely keeps gamers away from the hobby when they could be enjoying the other benefits of the platform on more modest systems for just as long as a gaming console remains viable for new game releases.
The best time to upgrade is when a new game you want to play has minimum requirements that go above your current computer’s specifications. More often than not, that means the computer is now so old it makes more sense to build a new system than upgrade the old one.
If you do want to upgrade your CPU, GPU, or another component that affects gaming performance, think carefully about whether the money you spend will result in a gaming experience worth the cost and effort. If you’re upgrading because of peer pressure, that’s likely a recipe for dissatisfaction.
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