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Games push limits of PC hardware

As game developers strive to offer ever-more sophisticated graphics, they're steadily pushing up hardware requirements to play.

Your new PC has the latest operating system, a speedy processor and lots of cool software. But can it handle the latest PC games?
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Maybe not. As game developers strive to offer ever-more sophisticated graphics, they're steadily pushing up the hardware requirements needed to run their latest products. That means the games won't run--or won't run well--on any machine on the market.

"It's always a trade-off," said Michael Capps, producer of "Operations," part of the free "America's Army" game package released this year by the U.S. Army. "You want to have a product that looks good enough...but you want a large player base to have access to the software."

The popularity of integrated chipsets, which give PC makers a cost-cutting alternative to standalone graphics processors, has added to the dilemma. Big PC makers feel that the niche market for high-end games doesn't merit an investment in fancy standalone chips. On the other hand, many games run poorly on chipset-powered PCs, and an increasing number of game developers say they won't even try to tweak their games to run on PCs with integrated chipsets.

Intel maintains an extensive list of games that have "issues" with its omnipresent 845G and other chipsets. Problems range from slow video replay to outright crashes, although most can be solved by software patches.

Intel spokesman George Alfs said the 845G works well for its intended audience. "The 845G is a mainstream solution that's great for most games and everyday business and home use," he said. "For the latest cutting-edge games, people will probably want to consider a standalone graphics card."

While virtually all games include detailed "minimum" and "recommended" PC configurations on the box, many consumers are unfamiliar with the innards of their PC. Others find that the minimum requirements listed for the game don't reflect real-world performance. Online forums for PC makers and game publishers are riddled with tales of woe from customers trying to run games on hardware that supposedly meets minimum requirements.

Steven Chun, a college student in Ontario, was surprised to find the high-end PC he bought a few months ago couldn't run "Operations."

"I thought my PC would be good enough to play a free game that is found on the Internet," Chun said. "It's a Sony Vaio, which was very expensive but has good specs." Chun had to wait for an update to the game that allowed him to dial down the graphics setting low enough to run on his PC's modest graphics card.

Upgrade or else
The software-hardware upgrade cycle is a common phenomenon in the PC industry. Microsoft's Windows XP and Apple's Mac OS X required many PC owners to upgrade their systems because of the fairly sizable amount of memory and processor speed required to run these operating systems.

But game makers are at the head of the trend that pits business interests against artistic goals. Developers and hardcore game players want cutting-edge graphics that can't be achieved on older, low-horsepower PCs. This runs counter to the interests of chip manufacturers, mainstream PC makers and even game publishers like Electronic Arts, all of whom want to satisfy as broad a segment of the population as possible.

Todd Howard, project leader for Bethesda Softworks' visually rich role-playing game "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind," said it's always tough to find the ideal balance.

"The more PCs you can run on, the better," Howard said. America's Army: Operations screenshot "But you have to draw the line somewhere. I personally find games that push the hardware and do new things to be the ones I'm excited about...And the attention your game will get often depends on how good your graphics are."

The Army's "Operations" requires a graphics processor capable of handling "transform and lighting" functions--advanced graphics effects inaccessible to integrated chipsets. The game also requires a 766MHz Pentium III or the equivalent (a 1.4GHz Pentium 4 is recommended) and 32MB of video memory, making it one of the most demanding games on the market today.

Capps said it was a tough decision to set the bar so high, but his team was committed to making a game that would look great now and still hold up a few years down the line, because the Army wants to squeeze as much life as possible from successful recruiting tools.

"People are saying, 'My PC's only two years old; why can't I play it? My tax money paid for this game; why can't I run it?'" Capps said. "We just decided early on we didn't want to make any sacrifices on quality. Nobody expects to see a good game come out of the Army, so we really wanted to deliver something that looks good...Since it's such a long-term project, too, we decided we'd be much better off aiming high."

Other PC games pushing the hardware envelope include "Final Fantasy XI," the upcoming online installment of the popular role-playing game from Japanese developer Square. The beta version of the game requires an 800MHz Pentium III processor, a graphics card with 32MB of graphics memory and 4.5GB of hard drive space.

"Doom III," the highly anticipated shooter set to be released next year by influential game developer Id Software, is also likely to forsake integrated chipsets. Id President John Carmack has indicated that the game will require a standalone graphics processor equivalent to Nvidia's GeForce 2.

"We know for sure that we will be excluding some of the game-buying public with fairly stiff hardware requirements, but we still think it is the right thing to do," Carmack wrote in a message posted on "news for nerds" site Slashdot.

Begin at the beginning
Most game developers continue to support integrated chipsets, however, mostly through building-block game design that gives players the option to turn off resource-hungry effects such as anti-aliasing. "Aquanox 2: Revelation," the upcoming underwater shooter from European developer JoWood, has dozens of graphics values the player can adjust, including the detail levels for plankton and underwater plants.

"Generally speaking, we try to have different sets of bells and whistles you can turn on or off," said J. Cameron Petty, CEO of developer Cryptic Studios, which is creating the online adventure game "City of Heroes" for online gaming pioneer NCsoft.

"We want to make it so that the high end of what the game will draw is somewhat beyond what's currently available on video card," Petty said. "At the same time, we want to make it so you can turn off enough effects that it will run on more down-to-earth systems."

Petty said such considerations have to be worked in early in the development process. Otherwise, software writers are unlikely to create graphics code flexible enough to accommodate a broad range of PC configurations.

"I think that's something that has to be a part of the design process from the start," Petty said. "You'll be much better off if you take system requirements into account from the start. Otherwise, you can end up with a great looking game and now you have to figure out how to make it run on a 2-year-old PC."

Bethesda's Howard said the trick is to decide which visual elements are negotiable. "You can't turn things off that hurt the game play, like visual cues that tell if someone is dying," he said. "Others (if left on) may make your game look so bad that you don't want anyone touching it."

Howard added that he thinks integrated chipsets can be an advantage for the game industry by helping standardize PC configurations, as long as customers have easy ways to update the software drivers that run the chips.

"Overall, I do think integrated chips are better for the industry," Howard said. "The problem really comes (because) an end user often has a hard time finding new drivers for the integrated stuff or doesn't even know they need them."

The games most likely to push hardware requirements are extensions of popular franchises, such as "Doom" and online role-playing game "EverQuest." The last expansion for "EverQuest" came with a then unheard-of requirement for 256MB of memory--512MB recommended for "optimal performance."

Fred Kohan, president of specialty PC maker Hypersonic PC, said new installments of popular game franchises can always be counted on to boost PC sales.

"Every time there's a major game that pushes the envelope as far as minimum hardware requirements, we see the effects," Kohan said. "'Quake III' gave us a huge bump in sales a few years ago."

Kohan said the impetus isn't the minimum requirements for such games as much as the maximum possible settings. "A lot of people want to run these games at really high resolutions on big monitors, and it takes really good hardware to do that," he said. "That's probably the biggest factor in terms of people purchasing new systems from us--they want to run these game full-bore."

Stephen Baker, an analyst for research firm NPDTechworld, said games influence buying decisions for a tiny but influential part of the PC market.

"Gamers are always looking for the very best and brightest in terms of hardware, which makes them very profitable customers for the PC companies," Baker said. "They're a blip on the radar for the overall PC market, but an important blip, because it's the early adopters and people willing to spend extra for the latest stuff that keep the profit margins up."