PC games are often criticized for being expensive, and part of that is the idea of updating frequently to somehow “keep up”. In reality, upgrading PCs is both optional and a lot rarer 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 on which the title is released. Consoles have some advantages in terms of efficiency and reduced system overhead. However, let’s assume you have a PC that’s a bit more powerful than the weakest current-generation system. In this case, you can be sure that your PC will run games with similar settings and performance for the duration of the console generation.
Let’s take the Xbox Series S as an example. This console has a GPU that is about 20% less powerful than an NVIDIA GTX 1660, so you would expect a computer with this graphics card and a comparable CPU to match or exceed everything the Series S can afford.
The main limitation is that console versions of games often have settings tailored to that specific hardware platform. Also, some settings in the console version of a game may be lower than the lowest possible in the PC version, making an exact match difficult. On the other hand, PC games can generally be modified with custom settings, so there can be a solution in either case.
Finally, there’s the specter of inferior, unoptimized PC ports. This isn’t anywhere near the problem it’s had in the past, as current-gen consoles like the Xbox Series X|S are essentially custom Windows machines running DirectX. However, there are still cases of bad PC game conversions from consoles.
PC games are scalable
Speaking of settings in PC games, it’s normal for PC games to offer a wide range of scalable options. This allows you to customize the look and performance of the game to match your existing hardware. A game released in 2022 will run on hardware five years old or even older, but at lower settings than more modern PC hardware.
These games should look and play just as good as games that were new when your PC was new, they just won’t compete with the best PC hardware at higher settings. However, these are two different problems.
Whether it’s playable and looks good is different than whether it looks as good as it can be! Whether the older computer runs the game to your satisfaction is subjective, which is one of the reasons it doesn’t require an upgrade as often as the myth would suggest.
The Psychology of Video Game Preset Inflation
PC gamers may feel pressured or even compelled to upgrade as PC game presets experience inflation. Today’s “high” preset is tomorrow’s “low” preset.
This creates a situation where an older PC can only run games at lower and lower presets every year, which can give the impression that the computer is degrading.
However, the games you play at low levels today look just as good or better than the games you played at high levels when the PC was new. Your PC hasn’t gotten any worse, it’s stayed the same, but the existence of higher, unreachable settings creates an incentive to upgrade.
It’s best to look at how current games look on your existing computer in isolation and decide if it’s good enough for you, rather than looking at graphics from state-of-the-art systems and thinking your system is now worthless.
New technologies extend the lifespan of gaming PCs
There are two ways to make a game 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, as the hardware in a console is fixed and cannot be upgraded. Still, we’re seeing better-looking, more complex games on consoles throughout the generation. Usually the best looking games are among the last to be released for the system.
When game developers learn to work smarter with what they have, they keep the platform alive, and the same methods are finding their way into PC games. A good example is Dynamic Resolution Scaling (DRS). This is where a game scales the resolution of each frame that is rendered to meet a specific frame rate goal. This helps maintain a stable frame rate. Usually the player doesn’t even notice if some frames aren’t as sharp as others.
Newer game engines often run better than older versions of those engines on the same hardware, and take advantage of new rendering techniques that do more with less. These types of advances can keep an older computer relevant longer.
Upgrading for the right reasons
The ability to upgrade a PC is one of the strengths of the platform. Still, it can also provide an incentive to keep spending money on hardware for extra fidelity and performance that may not make a huge difference in your gaming experience.
A subset of PC gaming enthusiasts can’t stomach playing on anything but cutting-edge hardware, but that’s not what PC gaming is about and shouldn’t be the dominant narrative. The notion that PC gaming is an endless money pit for upgrades is likely to keep gamers away from the hobby when they could enjoy the platform’s other benefits on more modest systems 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 beyond the specifications of your current computer. In most cases, this means that the computer is now so old that it makes more sense to build a new system than to upgrade the old one.
If you’re looking to upgrade your CPU, GPU, or any other component that affects gaming performance, think carefully about whether the money you’re spending will result in a gaming experience that’s worth the cost and effort. If you’re upgrading due to peer pressure, it’s likely a recipe for dissatisfaction.