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The history of PC gaming

Some may still view gaming as a hobby for basement-dwelling nerdy types: you know, guys who shun sunlight in favour of the cold glow of a computer monitor? But today, that couldn't be further from the truth...

Today, gaming is pretty much a mainstream pastime. But the PC is sometimes seen as something of a poor relation – maintaining a nerdy image that the consoles have long since thrown off. But that ignores PC gaming's long and illustriuous history – not to mention its exciting present!

The games industry has come a long way

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An IBM PC from the 70s – they don't make 'em like this any more!
Image by Chris Chan

It may surprise you to know that in 2015, the value of the video game market is estimated to have been $91.5 billion. It’s an industry that's growing every year, with blockbuster releases that rival Hollywood in terms of revenue.

Millions of dollars are poured into advertising campaigns: games reach out to consumers everywhere from the side of London buses to the magazines found cluttering a doctor’s waiting room – and trailers for games are even shown before the latest movie releases in cinemas.

With the rise of console gaming, it might be all too easy to forget where the industry began. These days, game development companies hire hundreds of people as programmers, sound engineers, artists, animators and writers – but just over 25 years ago, due to low budgets and restrictive hardware capabilities, the industry was driven by lone enthusiasts tapping away on clicky keyboards and creating fantastic homebrewed games in their bedrooms, often in as little as six weeks! Today, though, a single project can take several years to complete – with a budget in the millions of dollars.

What about PC gaming?

You can tell how successful mainstream PC gaming is these days – or not – by looking at the amount of exposure PC games get – or don't – in video game stores.

Approximately 85% of store real estate is now dedicated to console games and accessories, whereas 20 years ago it was PC gaming that took centre stage. PC games are now often relegated to two or three shelves at the back of the store, usually behind a bargain bin and a life size cut-out of a console game protagonist.

The real reason for this is simply profitability. With the rise of online distribution systems, high street stores have seen a huge dip in the sale of PC games. When a game can be purchased cheaper online – with the prospect of automatic updates, integrated social communities and without the need to carry around physical media or even own a disc drive, it comes as no surprise that consumers have chosen to get their games from digital distribution services instead.

Enter Steam and GOG.com

In 2002, Valve – a software company known for the critically acclaimed Half-Life series –announced a service called Steam.

This is essentially an online store, digitally distributing games and software updates online – but it also serves as a social network for PC gamers, allowing them to set up multiplayer games over the Internet.

steam 4_3 the world of PC gaming, Steam is an absolute juggernaut: there are at least 6,000 titles available through the service, with more being added every day, and over 125 million active user accounts. What's more, the overall revenue for paid games on the platform is estimated at a staggering $3.5 billion for 2015. With that in mind, the PC gaming industry seems much healthier than its presence in physical games shops seems to suggest!

Steam’s near-legendary holiday sales see current titles reduced to bargain-bin prices and the entire catalogues of certain publishers sold for the price of a single title – so it’s understandable that many gamers are loyal to the service.

Through Steam, Valve has offered considerable support for their titles in the form of free updates. One example of this is Team Fortress 2, where Valve has continued to release free content for the game since its release in 2007 – including new maps, new modes, additional weapons, achievements and new game mechanics.

But despite Steam's dominance, other PC-specific retailers continue to do well – notably GOG.com, or Good Old Games. Run by Polish games developer CD Projekt RED, this service specialises in rereleasing classic PC games that are either incredibly difficult to run on newer machines or simply poorly optimised for today's technology.

The games are either pre-patched to make them run properly on modern hardware, or bundled with useful emulation software like DOSbox or ScummVM to ensure that they are able to run on later versions of windows. Games sold on GOG.com are also notable for not including any 'digital rights management' protection software – which is a topic worthy of debate in itself.

Gaming PCs: To buy or to build?

If you're keen to get involved, choosing your gaming machine is an important task. Gaming PCs can be built by as a labour of love, or bought pre-built.

PC gamers are passionate folk – and one way they express their passion is through building their own custom machines. The satisfaction of building a dream PC from scratch could match that a car enthusiast restoring a classic motor!

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We would also add that it's crucial you open it up to clear out the dust from time to time!
Image by Vinni Malek

Inexperienced gamers may find this a little daunting at first, but there are several fantastic how-to guides available online, showing how to build a PC. What's more, it's usually significantly cheaper than buying a pre-built model!

Tech site Ars Technica releases a decent build guide each year – so if you're keen to get building, there's no better place to start. Then, once you have all of your components, follow Lifehacker's guide to building your first PC.

Sourcing components this way can offer extremely good value for money as well. A high-end PC can be built from scratch for about £600–£800. A moderate PC, able to run most recent games, could be built for less than £500 all-inclusive.

A good piece of advice to follow when building a gaming PC is not to buy the very best components. In particular, I’d completely avoid top-of-the-range graphics cards, as they cost around £700–£800 apiece – and something new will be out in a few months anyway. Instead, a decent high-end card should cost something in the region of £200–£300 and mid-level cards will be around the £150–£250 mark.

Even if you squeeze as much performance from your graphics card as possible, you'll probably need to replace it after two or three years to keep up with the latest system requirements.

In most cases, the best graphics card on the market will only offer marginally better performance than the last iteration of that range. By selecting a card that is perhaps two iterations below the latest model, you can save a lot money and still enjoy decent performance.

For the less adventurous, pre-built machines can be purchased to any specification from online retailers. Companies like Dell sell pre-built machines with prices ranging from £500–£1,200.

A name particularly synonymous with PC gaming is Alienware, now owned by Dell, whose range of high-end gaming systems can be customised to meet customer requirements. These machines ooze performance and their unmistakable otherworldly design means they're seen as the frontrunners in the high end gaming market. They do come at a fairly high price, though, with the very best hardware costing you up to £3,000.

Trouble in gaming paradise

Unfortunately, PC gaming has never been an entirely trouble-free experience.

When making a console game, developers focus their attention on just one hardware configuration and test this thoroughly. When making a PC game, however, it's impossible for developers to test their game on every possible hardware configuration – and therefore, bugs are more frequent. These are often fixed with downloadable patches, but they do require some troubleshooting before things are running smoothly again.

In addition, software piracy is more difficult to prevent on a PC – and therefore, developers are always weighing up the potential losses that can be caused by releasing a game on PC. In some cases, this has resulted in publishers releasing PC games one or two months after the console versions in order to maximise sales.

Some developers have attempted to remedy the problems of piracy by bundling protection software – the aforementioned 'digital rights management' – with their games. In some controversial cases, this requires an always-on Internet connection, so the software can continually check in with an activation server.

This obviously affects owners of laptops, as they lose some of the portability. What's more, if these activation servers are ever switched off – something that's bound to happen sooner or later – it could mean that a game is no longer playable at all!

Another downside to this 'protection' is that you may only be given up to three chances to install a title. If the game isn't properly uninstalled, or if you make any major changes to your PC hardware, then you could lose one of these installations – and once they’re used up, you’ll have a hard time getting your game to install again!

In case you couldn't tell, I'm not a fan of this kind of DRM – and neither are the vast majority of PC gamers. But the good news is, such restrictive systems are few and far between: major retailers like Steam and GOG.com have much more reasonable approaches to DRM, and you shouldn't run into any serious problems with them.

Console or computer?

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PC/console hybrids like this Steam Machine may be the future – but for now, a good old desktop tower is best for PC gaming

With the thunderous rise of console gaming in recent years, is PC gaming dead? As Agent Cooper explored, it's a hotly debated issue – but really, the answer is no. Consoles may have taken prime position under the living room television, but there are other factors to consider when thinking about PC vs console.

PC gaming will always be the front runner in terms of raw graphical power, due in no small part to the upgradability of PC hardware.

With every video game release, the quality of gameplay, visuals, and audio put more and more strain on the hardware. On one hand, this constant pushing of boundaries means PCs are capable of running games which rival blockbuster films for photorealistic visuals and thrilling audio. On the other hand, the push to squeeze as much power as possible out of PC hardware means that eventually, this hardware needs to be upgraded.

It’s also worth pointing out that consoles can't really compare with the amount of physical control that a mouse and keyboard can provide: it certainly wouldn’t be possible to accurately simulate a Cessna 172 aircraft control panel in the latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator using a console's gamepad controller!

A gamepad may be the easiest to pick up and learn – but for more in-depth control and a fuller experience, a keyboard or even an authentic PC-compatible flight stick is the way to go.

Ultimately, it all comes down to what you want out of your gaming. If you want to enjoy a trouble-free experience with games you know are going to work, a console platform is definitely the way forward. But if you’re looking to take things further, and are willing to put in little time and patience, PC gaming is where you’ll find the real action.

Agent's verdict

Personally, the unadulterated joy of starting up a PC game for the first time and being able to push all the graphics setting sliders from 'normal' to 'ultra' quality – experiencing levels of details that console gamers can only dream of – is what keeps me opening up my tower case to install the latest hardware and fine-tweak it to perfection!

The PC has had a long and storied history, and despite the inroads made by consoles, there are still some things it'll always do better. For that reason, I'm proud to be a PC gamer, and will be for many years to come.


Are you keen to get started with PC gaming, but don't know where to begin? Have no fear! Agent Clayton compiles a fantastic selection of free PC games every single month – you're sure to find something to enjoy. And for more great articles straight to your inbox each month, why not get your name down below for the Geek Squad newsletter?

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