Posts tagged PC gaming
Heyho lovely Artsygamer crowd!
As promised in part 1 of my article series about PC gaming, I want to talk about some of the common tech terms, how gaming can be influenced by them and how the PC platform is great for people who care about it.
When talking about framerate, most of the time it’s a discussion about 30 frames per second and 60 frames per second and which of those two is “enough”. The problem is that through false analogies and bad knowledge some people even thing the human eye is not even capable of perceiving more than 30 frames per second. But let’s take a step back first and see why “Frames per Second” actually tells you less than what you would expect, what people actually mean when talking about frames per second even without being aware of it and what the better metric is.
So, framerate basically is the rate with which your system displays its content on its output. In the case of a game console, this could be what is happening in a game getting displayed on your TV. The framerate is a time dependent metric and seconds are the only time metric that make sense to use so we are talking about frames per second. The reason why this metric is a pretty bad one is because it tells you nothing about the distribution of the frames. If a game has 59 frames rendered in 0.01 seconds each but the next frame takes 0.41s the game clearly runs with 60 frames per seconds but it will be unplayable due to one frame being displayed for over 1/3 of a second every second.
What people automatically asume when talking about frames per second is that those frames are all distributed equally over one second which is not always the case. People have gotten used to using frames per second because framerate as a metric is much older than games. I leave it up to you to read some stuff about movies and filmmaking and frames per second but the conclusion is: framerate is a metric that is actually only sufficient to express a game’s performance in the best case scenario. Since the load of a game on a machine varies and depends a lot on how the player behaves in the game, it’s actually rare for a game to deliver frames with constant timings by itself. Thus the better metric to use is the time that the frames happen to be displayed till the next one (which also expresses the time needed to render the next frame): the frametime.
So when talking about frametime, we’re getting closer to two topics important for the conversation: the refresh rate of your display and your ability to perceive. We’re going to talk about the refresh rate first because it’s pretty easy: most displays update with 60Hz (this means Hertz and is used in Physics to express frequency). Basically, 1 Hertz is 1 unit per second. So 60 Hertz means 60 units per second. In the case of a 60 Hertz display it means the display will update the displayed image 60 times per second. There are also displays out there which can handle higher frequencies, the more common ones are 144Hz displays.
But can you actually perceive the difference between 30 and 60 frames per second (or, to stay within our newly discovered metric of frametime: 0.0333s per frame and 0.01666s per frame)? Well, yes and no. We need to be more precise here and also shouldn’t generalize too much because there will always be exceptions. If we’re talking about changes in brightness, most humans can’t perceive changes faster than 0.1s per change. This is used in modern lighting where you have very bright light emitted in a high frequency rather than less bright light being emitted constantly all the time. The human eye can’t tell the difference most of the time but it saves power. If we’re talking about movement however, the human eye is incredibly capable. The problem here is that the human brain is equally great in filling in missing information so it’s hard to tell where the limit is but 0.002s should be perceivable for most human beings (that’s 2 milliseconds!).
So if human beings are capable of perceiving 60 frames per second with 0.016666s display time per frame and displays are capable of displaying 60 frames per second (not just capable actually, they do it wheter you want it or not), why do games (at least on consoles) so often focus on hitting a frame time target of 0.03333s resulting in 30 frames per second? Well, the answer here is a mixture of hardware capability and game design focus. Games today often focus on larger areas or “open worlds” and the problem here is that while GPU power in consoles is enough to support those quite easily actually, it’s the CPU power holding those games back and limiting them to 30 frames per second. Of course all objects in the scene are rendered by the GPU, but some instance needs to tell the GPU which objects to render. This instance is the CPU and the whole process of telling the GPU to render something is named a “Draw Call”, because the CPU calls out to the GPU to draw something on the screen. Doubling the framerate then means to at least double the amount of draw calls because that’s required for the GPU to act. And we haven’t even talk about physic calculations, NPC behaviour etc. yet. Many of those calculations are often on the CPU as well. But how does a longer frametime affect your enjoyment of the game?
Latency is basically the amount of time it takes between a cause A and it’s corresponding effect B. When talking about latency in our context I want to emphasise on 2 things: first, the latency between your action as a player and the outcome of this action being presented on the screen. This depends on multiple factors. The first thing is the signal processing of your input device. This is usually quite fast (less than 2 Milliseconds). The next thing is the refresh rate of the code part of the game that processes the input. This of course varies from game to game, but it shouldn’t be complex enough to take up a noticeable amount of processing time. After processing the input, all the code that generates and renders the picture is running. The whole runtime of the code makes up our frametime. After that, the rendered image needs to be displayed by the display. And here another – mostly unknown – topic strikes: enhancement features of TVs. See, most TVs automatically take the images they receive and try to enhance them by applying certain filters and algorithms. This takes up time and although the system is already finished putting out the frame, you will not get to see it. Good TVs offer the option to enable a specific gaming mode in which the enhancements will be disabled. This changes the display lag from otherwise up to 300 Milliseconds (0.3s) to 20 Milliseconds (0.02s). PC monitors in general are between 1 and 8 Milliseconds (0.001s and 0.008s). So in a gaming setup with TV, the latency not caused by code (which we can call constant latency) is roughly 22 Milliseconds (0.022s). If our game now runs at 30 frames per second with a constant frame time of 0.033s, this means we end up at a total latency of 0.055s. If the game runs at 60 frames per second with a constant frame time of 0.016s, we end up at 0.038s. This means lower frametimes will make the game react more timely to your actions.
The second thing is your ability to react to stuff happening in the game which also depends on the latency. If we take our figures, a game running with frame times of 0.016s will enable you to react 30% faster to changes in the game. This increases further if your display can handle lower frametimes, with a 144Hz display that can be served with a 0.0069s frametime resulting in a total lag of 29 Milliseconds (48% faster than our 30 frames per second case). Of course this raises the question if you need this fast reaction times which in turn depends on the game and its mechanics. A fast paced competitive shooter would be a scenario which profits from very low frametimes while a tactical turn based RPG doesn’t need low frametimes to ensure perfect playability.
So far we focused on the 0.033s and 0.016s frametime examples, but why is that? I mentioned earlier that frametimes are usually variable and wouldn’t it make sense to just let the game run as fast as it can, ending up with more than 30 frames per second in most cases? Well, let’s enter the realm of image quality.
I mentioned that TVs typically update with 60Hz which means it will pull an image from the system every 0.016s. If our game runs with 0.033s frame timing this means the display will pull the same image twice from the system before the next one. But if our game now runs faster, say with a frame time of 0.02s it means the image pulled from the display will not be fully updated. Instead, a fraction of the old image will be displayed with the other fraction being the new image. The frame is torn. The result is a flickering line that will often appear to travel across the screen. This means image quality will only be intact if the frame times stay at a multiple of the display refresh rate (including multiples of 0.5, 0.25, etc). That’s why frame times of 0.33s are used. The technique to make sure the game doesn’t run faster is called V Sync (which stands for vertical synchronisation; vertical because updating the display happens vertically). V Sync essentially will make the game wait to deliver the image so that the frame will not be pulled incompletely from the display.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the PC has an advantage because of the potential increase in power and the resulting performance delivering shorter frame times. This is just one of the factors in favor of the PC though. The main advantage is the flexibility. The players can tweak every game to their liking, deciding what is more important to them for each game. On a console, this decision is take away from you because developers created an experience targeted specifically towards the hardware at hand. On the PC, you could even decide approve torn frames for better frame timing if your PC can’t quite handle the game at the visual settings you want.
End of part 2
So that’s it. I’ll admit the article was more about explaining some technical details than going into PC gaming really. Sorry ;) But if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I hope you’ve learned a thing or two that enables you to understand better why your games behave the way they do. Maybe you even jumped up from your seat to see if your TV has a gaming mode. That’s great! If you have any more questions or want a certain topic to be covered, I am in the process of thinking about part 3 of the series and what it would be about so your input would help me a lot.
Until next time and game on!
Hey lovely Artsygamer crowd!
Today I am starting an article series that I have been thinking about for a while now. Actually, the idea for this was born last year when I decided not to get an XBox One X but instead invest my money in a high end graphics card. Things changed a bit in March when the ongoing problems with Nier: Automata for the PC changed my mind in the other direction again but right now I am enjoying my PC again.
DISCLAIMER: I will not tell you “Play on a PC!” or “Play on a console!”. This series should be about how PC gaming is today, what the benefits are and how you can make an informed decision about whether or not this could be something you want to invest time and money in. And although the title of this first part is “Pro & con”, I will not run a list of pros and cons. Many differences between consoles and PCs can have pros and cons to both platforms, often depending on your point of view.
The next parts will be about more in depth details and background knowledge and maybe I will also try to give you some general advice what you need to keep in mind when compiling your own conceptual PC.
Consoles follow a “one size fits all” approach (or at least “two sizes fit all” nowadays) where PCs are all over the place in terms of quality, performance and price. If you build your own PC, the machine you will come up with is a very deeply customized piece of hardware. What does this mean? Games for consoles are built to run on one or two hardware configurations and QA can do deeper tests ensuring the games will run as intended. On PCs, the range of possible hardware configurations is to large so QA will most likely only test the more common setups. If you’re with a more exotic configuration the games you buy might not behave as planned or you could encounter problems QA didn’t come across when testing. This is also true for different driver versions. AMD and NVidia both update their drivers regularly to bosst performance in the latest titles. However, sometimes this can unexpectedly lead to problems with other titles. That was what made Nier: Automata unplayable for me: I am running an RX 480 and some time before the game was released, AMD completely overhauled their drivers. The new drivers were more stable, performed much better in most games… and were not part of Nier: Automata’s QA testing. This resulted in a render crash whenever a certain amount of alpha blending would occur in the game so it was basically impossible to finish even the tutorial. The problem has been fixed after 3 months but it was very frustrating because the only way to get the game playable again was to downgrade the drivers, sacrificing performance in every other game. Still, such problems are the exceptions these days and all those custom options lead to systems that can be tailored towards individual needs and budgets.
I think it’s common knowledge that a high end PC will trash any console available on the market. But high end PCs are expensive and the real question is if you can also get into and enjoy PC gaming without spending $1000 and more. After all, throwing money at a “problem” is not a good solution most of the time (that being said I am a fan of buying quality parts and quality hardware even if it does cost you a bit more). I recently came across the YouTube channel of JERMgaming who started an interesting experiment over two years ago: building a sub $400 PC and see how well it will compare against consoles in the years to follow. The “Potato Masher” (as he calls the PC) series has since become very popular on YouTube and in its third year it’s still going strong:
The series also shows that from a technical standpoint, console versions of games (at least standard XBox One and PS4) are on the lower end of audiovisual fidelity even if they continue to impress us with games like Assassins Creed: Origins. The series also shows one benefit of the “individualism” I was talking about before: a balanced system. If we take a closer look at the past generation and the current generation it becomes obvious that the machines were constructed with some very precise goals in mind and thus weren’t balanced out very well: the XBox 360 and PS3 wanted to enable clever AI and more complex physics while targeting HD displays. This led to comparatively weak GPUs while the CPUs really pushed for parallelism and number crunching. Some may remember that the PC version of GTA 4 ran poorly on Dual Core systems because the engine was optimized for many cores. XBox One and PS4 had more visual fidelity in mind which led to systems with pretty ok GPU power but a lack in CPU power. This is also the reason why the Potato Masher is able to provide 60 FPS in many games where the consoles can only hold 30 FPS: it’s due to the lack in CPU power in an imbalanced system. On a side note, both the XBox 360 and XBox One are a bit better balanced than their SONY counterparts (in theory; the XBox One’s memory architecture is crippled though, something they improved with the XBox One X).
Now when it comes to cost, consoles are very beginner friendly. You go to the store or order them online and you’re set. And while you could do the same with a PC, the moment we enter the realm of custom built machines and OS setup PCs can get a lot more complicated than consoles very fast and this includes the cost because there are no set in stone prices for hardware parts and there are so many that the process of cost management vs. availablility vs. system configuration can get very tiresome. Add the cost for an Operating System and peripherals into the mix and it becomes clear why consoles are so popular.
However, there are long term benefits to the PC that shouldn’t go unmentioned. First of all we’re going to talk about the online fees on consoles. PS Plus and XBox Live Gold are between $50-60 per year. If we’re looking at a 5 year console lifecycle, then that’s the cost of a mid range PC graphics card. The second factor is the price of the games themselves: PC gaming means going digital. There is no way around Steam, Good old Games, Origin and Battle.Net. This prevents selling or gifting used games as well as lending your games to friends. However, games are a lot cheaper to begin with. Using sites like isthereanydeal.com you can quickly find the lowest price for a game you want and where to buy it (isthereanydeal only searches across official resellers which is why I mention it here; there are other sites which offer the games at lower prices but I would stay away from them) and there are other large official resellers like greenmangaming which regularly offer games at good prices way ahead of their release.
Prices are also going down faster for PC versions of games and the seasonal Steam sales are infamous for their discounts. To be fair though, digital sales on consoles have gotten better over the past years and often offer good discounts on older games.
Charles Darwin formulated survival of the fittest and what is often misinterpreted as survival of the strongest actually mean survival of the most adaptable. And while consoles are more adaptable than ever before with games sometimes even offering “performance modes” and “quality modes” to give users some choice to adapt the experience it’s in the PC’s very DNA to not only encourage users but even force them to adapt settings and software to their liking. To give you an example: I am running a Radeon RX 480 from MSI which has a cooler that is very decent until it reaches a certain amount of RPMs. I didn’t want to limit the RPMs (for obvious reasons, I don’t want my PC to get too hot and die) but I am also someone who can’t stand fan noise. It’s already driving me crazy with the PS4 Pro and I am glad that the XBox One X seems to be as quiet as the regular XBox One. So what I did on the the PC was to adapt the clock rates at which my GPU performs and now my graphics card runs at 95% of its base performance level but only needs 85% of the power it originally needed resulting in a cheaper, cooler and quieter gaming machine that still runs my games at roughly the same performance level.
So this one is a larger topic for this part of the series and I will start it with two topics that you will probably not expect at this point. The first one of these is regional restriction. Back in the old days, consoles were region locked and because of the lack of internet and customs freedom (which is going away again in terms of the UK market :-() it was very hard buying and playing games from a different region on your console. Of course the topic of procurement wasn’t any different for the PC but once you had the game, running it was no problem. My family used to spent holidays in Ireland, Denmark or England and that was always what I saved a chunk of money up for in order to get games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein. But with the advent of internet, Steam and the latest consoles, this situation has changed completely. Now you can order uncut versions of games for PS4, XBox One and Nintendo Switch easily from the internet and they will run just fine on your console. On the PC, Steam will look at your region based on IP and won’t even allow to unlock certain games. Want to play the uncut versions of Wolfenstein II or Call of Duty WWII? What a pity, you will have to use a VPN to unlock them (even if you got the Steam key so you can’t even buy a retail copy of the games!) and then either use a VPN every time you play those games or use Steam in offline mode to prevent it from looking up you region. That’s not true for all games that are not available in your region though but still: it’s annoying.
The second topic is the operating system. Although some games on Steam are available on Linux and even more are also available on OSX, PC gaming pretty much equals Microsoft Windows (and Windows 10 as the current main OS product of the company). I don’t want to go into detail how Windows 10 has been the best OS experience I ever had with any OS or that you can (and should) take a good look at all the connected features of the OS and disable them if you don’t want them. I understand that many users don’t like Microsoft. I don’t share their views, but I understand (having grown up in the 90s). There is pretty much no way around Windows 10 though unless you want to do without DirectX 12 and the game mode enhancements of Windows 10. There are a lot more features in Windows 10 for gaming if you have a Microsoft/XBox account like complete XBox Live integration with the ability to voice chat and interact with your friends (at no cost on the PC), cloud saving, XBox Live Play Anywhere (which means games in that program that you buy digitally you will get the XBox One and Windows 10 version for the price of one game), etc.
On all other fronts though, there is no plattform that offers more freedom than the PC. Use the input devices of your choice (if the game supports it), regardless if mouse and keyboard, XBox 360 gamepad, XBox One gamepad, DualShock 4 or some other gamepad from a manufacturer like Logitech. Configure the hardware and software as you want, connect to your friends how you want and even chose from different providers for many games. In contrary to consoles PCs are not meant to be just for consumption of media, they are machines of creations – a bicycle for the mind like Steve Jobs once said.
How could I end this article without going into the topic of games themselves. Now the first thing to consider is that the PC will not get exclusive games from SONY and Nintendo. Likewise, there are games which you will not find on PS4 or Switch. With Microsoft, things are a bit different. For over a year now, Microsoft is pushing the idea of an XBox plattform that includes Windows 10 PCs and this idea involves games coming out on XBox One and PC like Gears of War 4 or Forza 7, often with multiplayer features that are plattform independent so XBox One and PC players can play together which works really well from what I can tell (experience is mostly based on Gears of War 4’s horde mode). Where the PC shines though is games preservation or the ability to go back to old games. This might not be easy or even possible for all games (especially when they were using some fancy graphics API that doesn’t exist anymore or some copy protection) but for most games it is very much possible to just put the disc in your drive and get them running (that is if your machine has a disc drive). There is even a game provider service called Good old Games (by the same company that created the Witcher games) that became big by patching old games and selling them as a highly compatible package for modern systems (they are still doing that but Good old Games is now also offering current game releases). In that regard PC will always have the largest library of games of any plattform because there are no generational shift. I don’t want to forget to mention Microsoft’s backwards compatibility features on the XBox One though. They are always working on improving it and extending the list of compatible XBox and XBox 360 games which is really nice.
So that’s it for this part of the series. I hope you gained some insights and know now better if PC gaming is something for you or not. Of course I’d like to see people jumping on board of PC gaming more because it kind of enforces you to get a bit more tech savvy which I think is always a good thing but if not, that’s also fine. In the end enjoying games should be our priority and you can do that with all plattforms. In the next part I want to dive a bit more deeper into the tech side of gaming, explaining why the PC has an edge here over consoles on many levels.
Enjoy your games, love & respect!