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 - whether you use a killer desktop rig or the best gaming laptop - 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 themost massiveshooter 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 resource,here's a comprehensive guide, and you can also get thePC 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 componentsale list,Newegg, and evenFry'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.

Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.