How to get into PC gaming

This article exists because recently I’ve seen a lot of comments, in our other articles about PC games, saying things like “I’d love to play this game but my PC sucks.” My hope is to help people make PC gaming a reality rather than a wish. It’s really not as great a barrier as it seems, and while yes, there are a number of pains-in-the-ass about PC gaming, my argument is that the end result is worth it. If you’re an “I just want to stick the disc in and play” person, there may be no hope for you in this department, but if you have even a tiny bit of “I like to tinker” in you, then PC gaming may just be very right for you. I’m a hardcore PC gamer, but not a snob – I own all three consoles, and until about ten years ago I was actually a console snob – I had no interest in PC gaming. It was Warcraft III that convinced me to buy a gaming PC, because I realized certain experiences can only be found on the PC. But there are plenty of other arguments for getting into PC gaming…

Above: Only in Warcraft III can you control an undead, Egyptian giant-beetle known as the Crypt Lord while leading undead mummified spider-men into battle

Why bother?

“PC gaming is dead” became a dumb thing to say, oh, at least a decade ago. People are always saying this but it’s never true. PC gaming got left in the dust by consoles a long time ago, sales-wise, and yet it’s been at the forefront of gaming technology since forever. Right now PC games are already next-gen, and over the next few years, as the consoles age, PC games will become next-next-gen. It’s not about being a graphics-snob – I don’t look at console games and go “God, look how low-res it all looks.” It’s about appreciating how gorgeous games can truly be. Load up The Witcher 2 on ultra settings and you’ll have trouble believing games can look this beautiful right now, as opposed to five years from now.

Above: Witcher 2 says, "Suck it, consoles"

I also value PC gaming for diversity of experience. I love console controllers, but I also love the keyboard and mouse. I love sitting back on the couch in front of a big TV, but I also love hunching toward a monitor at my desk. PC gaming has a totally different feel to it, from the controls to the desk to the graphics to the games. It’s a time-honored countryside in the vast landscape of gaming, and to not go there is to rob yourself of a great part of playing games. Having a separate place to game is also extremely useful if you live with other people – you don’t have to hog the TV (or be frustrated by TV hoggers) and there’s something special about being able to close the door, close the blinds, and turn out the lights and have your own gaming sanctuary. The Wii U will attempt to allow exactly this convenience, but sorry, it can’t exactly beat a huge monitor and mega-PC with its dinky handheld screen.

Aside from the admittedly vague aesthetic experience I talked about above, there’s the actual, biggest reason to game on PC – the exclusive games and the games that are just plain better on PC. There are a couple of massive genres that you really can’t play properly outside of the PC: RTS and MMO. MMOs (almost) don’t even exist on consoles, while RTS games are either outright horrible on console, or even if competent, still a pale shadow of the PC versions. It’s possible you don’t care about these genres, but how can you be sure unless you actually try them? I never thought I would care about RTS until I played Warcraft II – now I’m a fanatic. I never thought I would touch an MMO and then I played PlanetSide – now PlanetSide 2 is my most anticipated upcoming game in ten years. By being adventurous and wading into the murky quagmire of PC gaming, I changed as a gamer. Over the years since I started playing on the PC, my gaming experience has become more diverse and greatly enriched. I discovered my two favorite games of all time – PlanetSide and Warcraft III – and I try imagine what I would have missed had I said “Ugh, PC gaming is such a complicated hassle – no thanks.”

Above: PlanetSide 2 will be the most massive shooter ever - we're talking about thousands of players on the same map, not some puny 8v8 crap or even MAG's 256 players

And yes, it is a bit of a hassle, but getting the most out of your PC gaming becomes a kind of game in itself, seeking out more ways to make your experience better. In the process you can learn more about how your PC works, which becomes handy in all sorts of non-gaming related situations. And so we have this guide to make getting into PC gaming as easy as possible for you.

Think of everything I suggest in this guide as modular: take what you like, ditch what you don’t – if you’re working on a budget, some things are more easily left at the wayside than others

First, make your PC not suck

The biggest hurdle to overcome is thinking you can’t afford a decent gaming PC. Yes, there’s no getting around that a PC costs more than a console… but then you need a PC at home anyway. You’re not getting just a gaming machine – just think about all the other things you do on your home computer. Investing in a decent PC means you can be more productive, or waste time more efficiently, because it does everything faster. If you do any hobbies on your PC, investing is a no-brainer, and if you’ve ever thought about such hobbies - like music editing, photoshop, making game mods/maps, and a million other fun things to do on the PC, making the investment is a good incentive. Having a decent PC makes everything you do on it so much better, and hey, look at that – it does games, too!

So first you have to consider the additional value a PC gets you - then looking at prices becomes less painful. Even then, if you’re really on a budget, there are ways to get a surprisingly powerful PC for relatively cheap.

The most complicated option is to build your own. Don’t run screaming just yet. Building a PC is actually a lot easier than you’d think. There are tons of guides to follow (here's one big resourcehere's a comprehensive guide, and you can also get the PC Gamer Builder's Bible), and you don’t need technical knowledge – just a willingness to put in a few hours of your time. Anyone can do it, and the advantage is you’re going to get the most bang for your buck since you’re not paying for the labor to assemble the machine. You also get to pick your own parts, which is a lot of fun and ensures you’re not paying for doohickeys you don’t need. There are all kinds of places to get PC parts, such as this PC component sale listNewegg, and even Fry's (watch for rebates to save even more cash).

Above: How does does browsing Newegg not give you an e-boner?

Even though I’m willing to tweak my PC, I’m a lazy bastard, which means I’m willing to pay just a bit more and I’m willing to take on a small risk. What I’m talking about is buying a refurbished PC. There are arguments against doing this, but my guide is how to get into PC gaming, not how to be a total snob about your PC. My current home PC is refurbished and my last PC was refurbished, and I’ve had great experiences with both. In both cases I got them for dirt-cheap compared to their brand-new prices, and both of them are huge powerhouses for gaming. Check this out: my last PC cost me less than $600 and it ran Crysis fairly well at HIGH graphics settings. Read that again. PC gaming is not as expensive as you might think.

Here are some places that you can find refurbished/overstocked PCs. This is not a complete list, and I know people will have reservations about some/all of these retailers, but the idea is to get you looking so you can see what kind of deals are out there. These kinds of deals change regularly as new PCs come in, so it can be fun just browsing these and drooling over the possibilities. If you see something you like, do some poking around on the internet and see if it’s a crap PC or if the deal is worth it.

Dell Outlet
Dell Auctions (can bid on PCs) 

Now, let’s say you don’t have $600 to spare, but you do at least already have a PC that you think is crappy. First of all, you know how people commonly upgrade their PCs by getting new graphics cards. This is one option, but it can be expensive for what you get. If you have only a few dollars to spare, consider getting more RAM. It’s stupidly cheap these days and can give you a significant boost if your machine has a RAM bottleneck – 1gig of RAM doesn’t cut it these days, but realize that if you go above 3 gigs and you are running XP, you won’t get much more after that because XP has a limitation that only allows it to use a little more than 3 gigs, so 4 gigs (with some wasted RAM) is the max you’ll want to go with XP. With Vista/7 you can go crazy with RAM. Make sure to do some research to see what kind of RAM your motherboard supports. But even if you have NO budget at all, you’re not trapped with your current performance.

Here’s where we’re going to have some fun: we’re going to make that PC of yours run better. No matter what kind of PC you have, it’s possible to make it stronger than it is, because every PC has junk running on it that gets in the way of gaming godliness.

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  • xidax121 - January 1, 2014 3:23 a.m.

    It’s good news if they lower the prices on built retail ones, and made their specs a THOUSAND times better… But that is probably not going to happen lol..
  • michael-last - March 8, 2013 9:48 p.m.

    The biggest mistake people make is trying to game on a laptop. Companies will label them "gaming Laptops" and the salesman will swear up and down that they are powerful. Every laptop I've seen is either underpowered (and not terribly upgradeable) or gets as hot as a thousand suns and melts hard drives and other important things. You can start with a cheap desktop, which will at least play games on medium-low settings, then slowly upgrade it as you have the money; and you are not going to have the heat issues. If you build your own and pick your sockets/features wisely you can keep your desktop cutting edge, or at least competitive for many years. A desktop is just a better gaming experience as well, since you can get a quality keyboard and mouse as well as a large monitor (or just use your tv).
  • Green_Shade - January 11, 2013 11:04 a.m.

    The worst problem I've had with installing an old game on a new computer was with the Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale), they would BSOD every time at the end of the install, it turns out Safe Mode is the only way to get them running on Win7. And as far as it goes, modding is sometimes a superior experience to the original game, such as in Oblivion, with total conversions like Nehrim or extra content like the companion Vilja or the entire province of Elsweyr or Valenwood.
  • majormoses117 - August 15, 2011 11:22 p.m.

    why is this article under PS Vita?
  • VagueRaconteur - July 20, 2011 11:27 p.m.

    For anyone on the edge - my graphics card costs £30 to this date, and I was able to play Mass Effect 2 at the highest settings. No word of a lie. The only thing that won't work well with a graphics card that bad - games with a lot of layers. They just won't run fluently on anything higher than medium settings. But, this guy's right. If you don't have Shogun 2 Total War, you've missed out. I've played the total war series since the beginning, and they're the only games I can play over and over again.
  • Hubadaeus - July 20, 2011 3:05 p.m.

    I just wish I had the money for a computer that doesn't only play Minecraft
  • jmcgrotty - July 19, 2011 8:33 a.m.

    "I own all three consoles" There are only 2 consoles, and some worthless Nintendo crap.
  • firepainter - July 19, 2011 7:45 a.m.

    So uh, I jumped in and I sorta regret it. I suppose I just didn't do my homework right. Thing is, I spent about 1300 dollars on an xps 15 laptop this past summer. Thought the specs--6 gigs of ram, 500 gigs memory, and a geforce 525 card--would be capable of running the Witcher on low settings. So I thought. After experiencing game crippling lag in the opening scenes, I downloaded the latest drivers, defraggled my laptop, did a variety of things the internet thought would help. My guess is that it's my graphic card, which being in a laptop, I can't replace even if I wanted to. So, is there something I could do, or did I just waste 50 bucks on something I could have waited for on the 360? Any help is greatly appreciated. Also, I bought it off steam, if that helps anything.
  • GamesRadarMatthewKeast - July 18, 2011 9:52 p.m.

    Blackviper's tweaks vary depending on your OS. Win 7: XP: Various instructions are at the top and the services grid is farther down the page.
  • lovinmyps3 - July 18, 2011 9:13 p.m.

    I just want to play The Witcher 2.
  • HOOfan_1 - July 18, 2011 4:09 p.m.

    Obsolete within a month? Talk about hyperbole on a grand scale. I could have bought a computer in 2005 when the Xbox 360 came out that would still play most games available today. THe Xbox360 launched at $400, you could have bought 8 or 9 games for your original Xbox instead of buying a 360...
  • HankVenture - July 18, 2011 12:45 p.m.

    All I play on my PC is MineCraft and I LOVE IT because of it being on a PC and able to get mods, So HOPEFULLY with this guide I will be able to get a PC that is able to play these games and enjoy a whole new part of gaming that I have wanted to experience. Thank you Matt Keast
  • CitizenWolfie - July 18, 2011 9:04 a.m.

    Truly great article! I'm not a PC gamer purely for the fact that I DO have a crappy PC but even if I don't bother using it for games I will definitely check out those links to speed up my PC. I always worry about stuff like defrag programs and cleanup applications so it's nice to have some recommended
  • Kameltoemunch - July 18, 2011 7:27 a.m.

    @copedude: Sorry, but everything you said is pure ignorance. Computer hardware doesn't become obsolete in a month. It does require upgrading every year or two, but PC games and their graphics are at least a full generation ahead of consoles. Seriously, the difference is like night and day. Secondly, PC games are significantly cheaper than console games because of sales. Steam, with its' sales, is the holy grail of gaming. Generally you don't get deals on brand new games, but I would gladly wait and pay 20% of the price than blow $65 (w/ tax) on an inferior product. To put this in perspective, I sunk 200+ hours into BF:BC2 on Xbox. During the Steam Summer Sale I bought the PC version for $5 and haven't looked back. It is smoother, larger, more intense and the graphics are far better. I have a 360 and love it, but gain some real knowledge before you just let things fall out of your mouth. Better yet, come to the better side. Also, if you really want to know: your console has been obsolete for 4 years, by your definition. 360/PS3 are nearly two generations old. Time for new hardware.
  • mike.brrrr - July 18, 2011 5:07 a.m.

    I like how people in the comments keep talking about how much money they save on PC games as though used games/bargain bins/online stores don't also exist to sell titles for consoles at super cheap prices. Steam didn't invent the concept of savings, guys.
  • Yeager1122 - July 18, 2011 4:11 a.m.

    I like playing games on my pc but overall i prefer console gaming especially since none of my friends are pc gamers which is a major factor.
  • zubb1 - July 18, 2011 3:12 a.m.

    hahahhahha! got my pc for 800 hundred an plays toal war2 fine is my favorite pc game and i didnt know witcher was for 360 thanks.
  • ThatGuyFromTV - July 18, 2011 1:14 a.m.

    If anyone needs a gateway PC game, go for Team Fortress 2. YOu don't need anything near a top-end system, it is top=notch, and it just became free. Start playing it now if you want to see what he's saying about FPS's being made for a mouse. And go for the sniper class, a controller-controlled sniper is meh, but a trained mouse-controlled sniper is nothing short of incredible.
  • Bobishungry - July 17, 2011 10:15 p.m.

    I just made a steam account a week ago and i bought terraria and fallout: New Vegas. I had never played an FPS on the pc before and at first it was confusing to get used to using a keyboard and mouse but now i see that it is way easier to kill stuff with a pc. My only problem is that when i play New Vegas i get some lag. I'm not even sure if it is my computer or just the bugs in the game. anyone wanna help?
  • wolfboy20 - July 17, 2011 9:54 p.m.

    Hey GR do you know where that list is on blackviper is?? because i cannot find it and i need more performance!