This used to be my (DIY PC) playground

First off, apologies for the month-long hiatus in blog posts. October has been a crazy month and I was involved in two crazy-big events – the Xbox 360 Gaming Showdown at VivoCity (23-25 Oct) as well as the midnight retail launch of Windows 7 at Challenger on 22nd Oct. I’m really proud to be with a team that managed to pull off these two events, along with several other projects, all in the same week!

Now back to my topic of the day.

As we all know, Windows 7 has descended upon the planet (and yes, it’s better than Windows Vista). Back when I was preparing to install Vista in 2007, I was so excited I went to upgrade my DIY home computer with a new Intel processor and graphics card. 2007 was also the time when Crysis was released – if you remember, this was the game that brought many high-end PCs down to their knees because it required hardcore hardware that hadn’t been commercialized yet!

For all of us DIY PC builders, there’s an unspoken thrill when you slap together a new PC at home, especially when you fire it up and it runs your dream game or application at faster speeds.

For me, there have been specific games over the years which were the benchmark for PC upgrades when I was younger:

Strike Commander

Strike Commander, 1993 – this was the spiritual successor to the Wing Commander series and I remember it was very demanding on PC hardware. However, it bombed despite all the hype. Falcon 3.0 was another punishing game, but the flight sim market has since declined a great deal in the past 20 years.

doom 2

Doom 2, 1994 – Before 3D graphic cards were invented, we upgraded our CPUs to drive insane 2D sprite frames per second.

Tomb Raider 1

Quake and Tomb Raider, 1997 – this was the dawn of the modern 3D gaming era. I remember the excitement of using a Rendition Verite add-on card, and later, a Voodoo 3D add-on card to drive 3D graphics on my home PC for the first time. Today, frames-per-second is measured in the hundreds for many games, but back then, we were happy just to hit 24-30 FPS when you rotated Lara Croft around.

diablo

Diablo II, 2000 – Left click left click right click left click!!! Diablo wasn’t really a true 3D game but you needed beefy hardware whenever many monsters came on screen.

company_1

Company of Heroes, 2006 – Possibly the last PC game that I really bothered with in terms of graphics and hardware integration. This was a truly pretty game, but also marked the time I transitioned to a console gaming lifestyle.

I still remain a PC gamer at heart, but over the years, I’ve gotten older and find it more convenient to simply play on my game consoles, namely my Xbox 360. It’s not because I happen to do PR for the Xbox in Singapore, but mainly because I don’t use my PC much for gaming these days.

The hardware race towards graphical greatness over the past 20 years seems to have come to a standstill. Many of us know that the PC is where the best graphics are at, but even for the hardcore, today’s home consoles provide a “good enough” experience at HD quality. Where’s the thrill in pushing my PC to run a game at 1920×1600 pixel resolution when the same game can be played on a 1080p HDTV on a more comfortable couch? Yes, it’s slightly more jaggy but your eyes adapt to it quickly as you focus more on the gameplay rather than the graphics. And it’s easier to nod off to sleep on the sofa vs at the computer table.

Rampant piracy on the PC platform has created a scenario where many publishers now focus on development for the console. If you check out gaming reviews on the PC platform vs the console platform on any gaming review website, it’s a far cry from several years ago. Today, the blockbusters often appear on the consoles first, and many great console games never appear on the PC at all (then again, that’s always been the case).

Don’t get me wrong – the PC is still great for gaming and home to many genres like the MMORPG (World of Warcraft), RTS (Command and Conquer), strategy titles (Civ 4) and the Sims. And the PC is still the largest gaming platform on earth by far.

But for a older hardcore geezer like me who’s more into first-person shooters and other action games (thought: why would anyone play Street Fighter IV on a PC instead of a console?), I no longer feel the thrill in building my own PC for gaming purposes. I wonder why anyone would use two graphic cards or more in the same machine when one would do just fine for 99% of the games being published today. In 1997, we needed two cards (one 2D card, one 3D card add-on) because it was truly necessary, but today’s S$200 graphic cards are more powerful number-crunchers than many PCs.

Also, downloadable and casual PC games dominate the Internet. Today, my kids are happily playing downloadable games like Plants Vs Zombies on the PC and that game works great on any low-end PC. Everyone on Facebook got addicted to Bejeweled for a few days at least.

Now is it because I’m older and have less time to play games for hours on end? The focus and usage scenario has also changed. Today, when I build a new PC, I think to myself first – how fast can this baby burn through Photoshop, Sony Vegas video-editing and firing up applications? It is photos and videos of my kids that take up hundreds of gigabytes on my PC, where in the past, it used to be games software that clogged the hard drive. I put in 8GB of RAM not to run games, but for photo-editing purposes.

Still, there’s always nostalgia. I’m also a little saddened that laptops are now outselling desktops in many countries. It’ll be some time before you’ll get a slim and light desktop that can give my heavy quad-core PC a run for its money for any sort of software application. The hardcore part of me shudders to think that Flash-based games might become the mainstay for today’s young kids.

Perhaps one day we’ll see a return to the good old days. When PC action games take a huge leap and become demanding on hardware again. When we think nothing of splurging hard-earned cash for some new clunky PC components that the wife or girlfriend will get angry over.

Or perhaps I’m just stuck in the early 1990s. Back then, PCs were the realm of nerds and gaming geeks. Parents bought us our PCs and left us alone to play our weird games from 5.25” floppy disks. PCs were also expensive and got obsolete really quickly.

Today, PCs have gotten so affordable and mainstream that you can buy a nettop (a desktop version of a netbook) for just S$500 or less and it’ll play most of the Internet games available. Quad-core CPUs are the rage, but most software have yet to be written to take advantage of multicore technology. The changes have benefitted the average consumer and I love the fact that a PC I built in 2007 is still considered fast by 2009 standards.

Here’s to the glory days of DIY PCs, may they return once again.

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