The Near Future of PC System Requirements

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I guess I’m writing this for anyone thinking about stepping into PC gaming right about now. The recent revelation of PC system requirements for games like The Evil WIthin and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor has rung like an alarm bell for those trying to prepare their rigs for next-gen gaming, myself included. You’d think people would expect this kind of jump forward with developers tailoring their games around new consoles, but a shift in PC game development through the Xbox 360 years created a sense of complacency that’s starting to end.

If you don’t know, Evil WIthin recommends a video card with 4 Gigabytes of GDDR5 RAM. Mordor recommends 6GB for its highest texture setting. That’s kind of extreme. People expected 2GB to be the norm for some time. That definitely informed my own decision when upgrading last year.

One of the reasons PC gaming got quite a bit easier to get into in recent times is because a lot of developers started making their games to run on consoles first before porting them to PC. As a result, system requirements stagnated for years while PCs continued to get more powerful. The landmark was Nvidia’s 8800GT graphics card in 2007 along with intel’s Q6600 processor.

For years my 8800GT ran almost every game ported from the 360 at a higher resolution than the console version and usually twice the framerate. Games as recent as TitanfallBattlefield 4, and Mass Effect 3 will still run on that card. The Q6600 is only just now reaching the end of its viability for things beyond word processing. That’s not even getting to how easily AAA games from between 2008 and last year ran on computer hardware that came out in those years. And most PC versions of games did very little to take advantage of that extra headroom. Extra anti-aliasing, extra anisitropic filtering, higher resolution textures, but usually not much else.

What did people do with that headroom? Downsample their games from 4k resolution. Add insane graphics mods to games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Skyrim that completely replace the textures and make the lighting look like a totally different game. More importantly, people could expect great performance at relatively low prices. You didn’t need a $2000 PC to run games.

Well, you still don’t, but a few people are still kind of shocked because their expectations for the PS4’s affect on PC system requirements may have been a bit off the mark.

Developers are still mainly targeting their games for PlayStation and Xbox and adding a little bit more on PC. That baseline console spec has just risen. The thing is, it took a year or two for PCs to significantly outperform the Xbox 360 after it came out. You could already outperform the PS4 or Xbox One with a mid-range PC at launch  (if you’re extremely frugal you can do it for a little over $500). Consoles used to be exotic pieces of hardware that used tricks to leapfrog PCs every few years. These new ones are much more conventional. This is what got PC riggers feeling safe until these past few weeks.

Well, the main issue here is really just VRAM. The one exotic element of the new consoles is their 8GB of unified RAM, GDDR5 RAM in the case of the PS4. Now that doesn’t mean 8GB of VRAM, but it does mean console developers can split it up between system and video RAM however they want. Evil Within apparently splits it up 4/4. Mordor offers some extra textures on PC that go beyond the PS4 version to bring up the 6GB recommendation.

Optimization around the consoles’ eight-thread processors might be a concern too. Wolfenstein: The New Order and Evil WIthin both say they require i7 processors. Watch_Dogs recommends one and has notoriously bad performance. However, the word is Wolfenstein runs just fine on i5s and Watch_Dogs runs terribly on basically everything.

Still, with all this in mind, even if you’re not interested in any of the aforementioned games, you gotta wonder what it might mean for the system requirements of upcoming next-gen games like Assassin’s Creed UnityThe Witcher 3Evolve, or Batman: Arkham Knight. Will people get by on 2GB for another year or two, or will 4GB emerge as the absolute minimum for AAA games pretty soon? This could also just be an aberration from the idTech 5 engine and its megatextures (which Wolfenstein and Evil Within share).

Looking at prices now though, 4GB video cards aren’t especially expensive. A mid-range 4GB card is basically the same price I paid for my 2GB card last year. It’s the 6GB cards that are still crazy at $300 and up. As always with PC gaming hardware though, time will wear down the price of entry, especially if developers continue to stick to the PS4 as a guideline.

BULLETS:

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