The Metal Zone

Improving the PC as a gaming platform: the hardware
— 12:03 PM on December 28, 2012

So, we meet again. Last time, we were, ahem, discussing religion: the 10 commandments of PC games. That article focused on the oft-encountered annoyances in PC games themselves. Now, we're going to look at something a bit broader. We're going to explore how the PC can be made a better gaming platform, starting with the hardware.

Even die-hard PC gamers will recognize the, shall we say, essential issue with this platform: it's often far too difficult to (a) buy a gaming PC, (b) pop in a disc and play a game. For all their faults, consoles do many things right in this department. As a the quotation goes, "Good artists borrow; great artists steal." So let's see if we can't steal a few good ideas, shall we?

A hardware baseline
One of the main reasons people don't game on their PCs is because their graphics card is often more anemic than Kate Moss on a diet—and all hail Cthulhu if the processor doesn't play second fiddle to that. It's pretty hard to get excited about games when they run like molasses.

Old enough to remember computing in the 90s? That time when most computers only produced strings of beeps as sound, when 640x480 was a good new year's resolution (that pun is as old as SVGA, so I'm entitled to it), and when having an optical drive was a lustful pecadillo. Things we take for granted today, like spoken word and videos, were rare and exotic attractions. When technology advanced, the industry came up with a certification specification to ensure punters didn't miss out—and consequently spent more on better PCs. That spec was called MPC, short for Multimedia Personal Computer. The first version of the MPC spec said, in simple terms:

  • Thy computer shalt be blessed with a sound card and speakers.
  • Thou shalt be provided a CD-ROM drive in which to receive silver discs.
  • Thy processor shalt not be completely crap.

At the time, this spec meant a lot—and, to be honest, I think it worked marvelously. We need something like that again. People wanted MPC, everyone sold the better hardware, and everyone was happy. Let the powers that be come up with a new baseline specification. Call it MPC-HD or whatever acronym the marketing Nazgûl want to give it. I'm fine with whatever, as long as it gets the job done.

The new spec would clearly involve some compromises, since you can't simply step up and demand that every new computer feature a Radeon 7970, 32GB of RAM, and a six-core CPU with Hyperthingamabobs. However, let's take a page from our own System Guide's Econobox. MPC-HD could set the bar at, say, a Radeon 7770 graphics card ($120 or so) and a Core i3-3220 processor (around $130). Those components provide solid gaming performance at 1080p in the vast majority of titles, even with anti-aliasing enabled. They would be a perfectly reasonable baseline to aim for—one that provides many times the horsepower of current-generations consoles.

Setting a baseline would make life easier for developers, as well. Let's imagine MPC-HD has multiple levels, and when publishing your game, you can simply state that the minimum requirement is MPC-HD Level 1. That's easy for developers to code for, easy for buyers to follow, and easy for manufacturers to advertise and profit from. One can only wish.

Proper performance comparison mechanisms
Since I might as well ask for a unicorn, here goes another crazy idea: we need something akin to SPEC benchmarks for consumer hardware. There, I said it. Any moment now, I expect someone to kick in the door in and take me to the loony bin, tires screaming and sirens blaring.

In Wikipedia's words, the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation is a "non-profit organization that aims to 'produce, establish, maintain and endorse a standardized set' of performance benchmarks for computers." SPEC benchmarks are used chiefly in server and workstation computing, and they come with very strict sets of rules and procedures. Now, Futuremark and friends already offer synthetic gaming benchmarks, but there's room for improvement. We need more true-to-life workloads and an emphasis on inside-the-second frame latencies.

I'm not advocating that SPEC itself take up the reins in the consumer space. The markets are fundamentally different, and the consumer space evolves and morphs at a much faster pace. However, if the gaming industry could come up with its own standards body, buyers would have a much easier time comparing different CPUs and graphics cards. Speaking of which...

Stop the numbering circus act with the graphics cards
Discrete or integrated, nobody knows what graphics solution to choose anymore. No, I'm not talking about people like you and me who actually read hardware reviews. I'm talking about the vast majority of the market, composed of regular, non-technical people who simply want to buy or upgrade a computer. That apparently simple task has become an ordeal. I mean, you know there's a problem when even my most computer-literate friends come to me for clarification—and I often can't help without looking at Scott's graphs.

Imagine yourself as a typical shopper. You don't read reviews, you don't know what's what, and you have no recourse except for asking the sales clerk—a move as wise as looking Medusa in the eyes and complimenting her hairdo. You read the labels around you: 7970, 560 Ti, 5850, etc. You go for a 5450, thinking you're getting a good deal. Surely it's better than the 4870 in your friend's old computer; it even has more of those gigabyte things. Except you unwittingly bought a piece of crap (for gaming, anyway). When the disappointment kicks in, you're going to throw your hands up in the air and say, "Why didn't I just buy a console?"

Sometimes, people don't even look at the model numbers. They think, "Ooh, an Nvidia graphics card with 2GB of memory," and they leave it at that. Those people inevitably end up with a weaksauce-flavored model packed full of RAM chips to trick the unwary. But it's not the buyer's fault, guys.

To the graphics cards manufacturers: get a grip. Here are three things that should, nay, must happen. (And yes, I know I'm asking for a lightsaber to go with the aforementioned unicorn.)

  • Model numbers ought to make sense in terms of performance, especially when going from one generation to the next.
  • Lower-end models ought to be clearly marked as such, so as to avoid confusion.
  • Card makers ought to stop packing huge amounts of memory onto otherwise useless cards.

The status quo might help you push low-end cards, but I'm very doubtful it's healthy for the market in the long run.

Stop the circus with CPU model numbers, too
When my friends bring up Mulholland Drive and sing its praises, I always challenge them to summarize the plot on a piece of paper for me. In the same vein, please explain Intel's model numbering scheme. Make it a pretty story. Couldn't figure it out, either, huh?

This ends up being a rehash of the graphics card situation. Model numbers never seem to match up with performance, so people have to look at other attributes like clock speed or core count. We then end up with talk like, "But this one here has four cores, surely it must play games better than the one with two"—or the good old, "But this one has more gigahertz!"

Sigh.

GPU makers need to get their act together on the driver front
Yes, I know, this is technically a software topic. However, graphics cards and their drivers are symbiotic.

I won't mince words: graphics drivers need work. Far too often over the years, I've run into bugs and compatibility issues. Insufficient testing often seems to blame. Way back when, before game-specific optimizations became the norm, testing wasn't too difficult. However, GPU makers' obsession with inflating benchmark numbers or FPS scores in the latest triple-A games has led us down this path, where driver issues have become the norm rather than the exception.

For example, I remember spending many, many hours troubleshooting an apparent overheating problem with a Radeon, only to find out that the driver's Catalyst AI (snicker) had a memory leak in Unreal Engine games. No, I hadn't fiddled with any settings there. I also had to play Civilization V in DirectX 9 mode for months because Nvidia's drivers decided to crash every time another civilization stopped by for a chat. To this day, a thread in our forums about AMD's aspect-ratio upscaling still gets hits because AMD hasn't fixed the problem. Similarly, my gamma settings still aren't applied reliably at bootup on my GeForce-powered system.

Many problems, so few solutions
It's 2012. PCs have been entrenched in homes for the better part of two decades, and these ridiculous problems persist. Does it really have to be this way?

These are tough nuts to crack, but they ought to be cracked sooner rather than later. PC gaming is in a position of strength right now, since current-gen consoles are stuck with circa-2005 hardware. However, the next generation is upon us, and it may offer enough of an improvement to make folks reconsider the value of their complicated and prickly gaming PCs.

My ideas are wild and crazy, but rarely do easy solutions appear for difficult problems. What are your thoughts?

94 comments — Last by TheTechReporter at 4:56 PM on 02/02/13

Into the Anomaly
— 11:36 AM on October 28, 2011

I was there with the platoon. That's how I got these burn marks. They were waiting for me at every corner, red eyes in the darkness, flashing at me. Blinding pain. I wake up.

What's that? Cut out the B-movie crap? Okay, fine, whatever. It worked for Max Payne, y'know. Sigh, there's no appreciation for creativity these days.

Creativity, my friends, is what makes Anomaly: Warzone Earth so tantalizingly refreshing. It's the proverbial ice cream truck in the middle of the desert for two reasons. One, it turns the tower-defense genre on its head and puts more spin on it than a pro soccer player performing a free kick. Two, the game creates a great movie atmosphere with simple-but-effective "2.5D" graphics, minimal CGI, and really good voiceovers. Interested?

Anomaly was created by 11 Bit Studios, a small Polish developer based in Warsaw. You'd think a small team would create one of those artsy but ultimately unfulfilling titles, with low production values and simplistic gameplay. (Quick disclaimer here: I love indie games, but the signal-to-noise ratio isn't as good now as it was a year ago). Well, you're in for a surprise. The first thing that hit me was how slick the intro is. Everything regarding the production values screams AAA more than bargain bin.


Despite the suit, this is neither an FPS nor a Crysis clone

The pre-rendered intro is well-edited and shows off some great sound work. It sets the tone perfectly, showing a rear view of your character with what appears to be a Crysis-esque suit and then of the convoy you'll be leading onward to glory. The clip ends with a glance at a robot that looks not unlike a Cylon, with the perpetually evil red eye—and boom, the main menu shows up, and you're hyped up and ready to go.

The story is simple and clichéd, but the delivery makes it interesting, and the presentation creates a sense of tension. The year is 2018, and Earth's been hit by a large comet, which us poor meatbags come to realize is actually the remains of an alien spacecraft. This crash creates (you guessed it) an anomaly of titanic proportions, and it's the 14th Platoon's job to investigate. (Yep, that's you.) There's more than one race of green men out there, developing the story further.

At its core, Anomaly is a strategy tower defense game in reverse, with enough cowbell to make Christopher Walken happy. Tower-defense games typically ask players to defend an objective from relentless waves of enemies by strategically placing turrets and other assets to keep the little (and big) buggers out. In Warzone Earth, you're the one on the offensive. The objective is to dig deeper and deeper into the anomalies to find out what in the name of Chuck Norris is going on.

To aid in the offensive, the player is given a convoy of weaponized units. Killing enemies and completing secondary objectives generates income that can be used to purchase additional units or to upgrade existing ones. The number of units in your convoy is limited, so in the words of a certain templar knight: choose wisely.

There's another twist here: in addition to managing the convoy, your role as squad leader is also, well, to lead the squad. Rather than directing from the sidelines, you put boots on the ground and actually run along with the convoy. That's where the funny-looking suit comes in. Your character can deploy power-ups that perform repairs, create smoke screens, and enhance shareholder value, just to name a few. As the game progresses, you'll get to play with new toys and different units. Extra power-ups are air-dropped close to your vicinity, and it pays to go out of your way to get them.


Control your squad leader with the action view

With dual roles, your time in the game is divided between two views of the playing field: an action view that provides real-time control over the squad leader, and a strategic view that freezes time to allow the convoy's route and units to be managed. Your enemies consist of unmoving turrets in more varieties than Starbucks coffee, and the objective is usually to get from point A to B without dying.

The thing is, your armored (though early on, rather flimsy) convoy can't really stop. If you need a break to use power-ups or to recharge shields, the best you can do is order the convoy to go around the block to buy time. Otherwise, you have to keep on truckin'. Be sure to keep your squad leader safe; if he dies, you'll have to go without the aid of power-ups until he respawns.


Convoy management via the strategic view

Anomaly's graphics are very detailed, and everything looks consistent thanks to an effective lighting engine. The visuals are somewhat desaturated, but when viewing the game zoomed all the way out, the contrast between the scenery and the action helps to differentiate the buildings from the aliens—except when the latter blow up inside the former. The post-processing and effects are applied tastefully, from the smoke and drab brown of Baghdad, to the distortion caused by explosions, to the screen shakes that occur every time something big blows up. Warzone Earth has the right mix of quietness and explosions, and I quickly learned to dread those moments where everything was just too quiet.

The animations and graphical transitions in both views are smooth, and I found the user interface intuitive and responsive. Incidentally, this game has already been ported to the iPhone. Assuming 11 Bit did a good job with the port, the game is a perfect fit for a touchscreen. Don't let that fool you: it plays just as well with Ye Olde Mouse. There are configuration options aplenty, and Anomaly follows almost all of the 10 commandments I outlined for PC games. One exception is the selection of graphics options, which is limited and lacks antialiasing. This isn't a graphically intensive game, so that's not a big problem.

I believe less is more, so the minimalist soundtrack provides just the right ambiance for me. This isn't Jeremy Soule material, but it's not trying to be. The rest of the sound design shines, though. The exploding enemies and rockets all have impact, and the alien weapons have suitably sci-fi sounds that aren't overdone. Despite some occasionally cheesy and repetitive lines, the voice acting is very much above par and enjoyable. You're treated to several flavors of British ah-ccent, which leads you to believe you're part of Her Majesty's army forces. Naturally, when in Japan, you'll meet the obligatory Engrish-accented honorable Japanese commander.


Boom. Headshot.

The missions take place in two major scenarios split between Baghdad and Tokyo. The former is really just a lengthy tutorial—an easy walk in the park, whose existence is justified by the need to prepare you for the royal ass-kicking you'll get when you hit Tokyo. I walked in brash and confident, only to have my backside handed to me in little origami shapes. In Tokyo, the enemies are much tougher. You'll also have to work harder to generate income, since you'll need every cent. Although some of the missions seem simple at first, the battlefield is constantly changing due to enemy intervention of one form or the other. What once looked like a simple path through enemy lines can suddenly become heavily reinforced.

The action is hectic and sometimes overwhelming. Being a split-second too late with your moves can easily cost you the level. I found myself constantly on edge while scouting out terrain, activating power-ups, and collecting air drops with nary a moment's respite. Games have started holding the player's hand too much in recent years, I think, so it's nice to see a real challenge for once. That said, there are times when Anomaly is extremely tricky. I admit to slamming my mouse down in frustration on a few occasions. When you do get through a difficult section, the feeling is quite exhilarating, spurring you on. This is one of those addictive, "just one more mission OH DEAR IT'S 3AM" titles.

As much as I like the game, I do have some complaints. The checkpoints aren't common enough to prevent frustration in difficult sections, when several minutes of play must be repeated before having your plans foiled... again. A quick-save feature would've made the game far too easy, but given the steep ramp up in difficulty moving from the Middle East to Japan, a few more checkpoints would have been appreciated. Thankfully, Anomaly's three difficulty levels can be set on a per-mission basis. I played the game on normal, which was challenging enough.

Warzone Earth isn't very long, but then it costs only $10 (or 10€) Steam. All in all, it's a solid and engrossing game with great attention to detail. The gameplay is original, easy to learn, and hard to master. Despite being an indie title, I think it puts many big-name releases to shame. Anomaly: Warzone Earth is prime rib at a bargain price.

10 comments — Last by Meadows at 12:42 AM on 11/23/11

Cloudy with a chance of backups
— 10:44 AM on September 13, 2011

You've probably been there before. You just realized that you've overwritten an important file and have no way of getting it back. Last month's backup is too old to be of any use, because what you want recovered was written two weeks ago. Insert lame Vader scream here. You cringe, facepalm, hiss and pout, maybe shed a couple of tears, put on some Nick Cave, and get your butt to work on overtime you'll never see a dime for.

So yeah, this might be a blog post about backups (I bet the intro didn't give it away, eh?). More specifically, this is a blog post about a newfangled backup scheme that's full of goodness—cloud backups—and about a specific cloud backup service called CrashPlan.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't yet tried other providers. I read the blurb on CrashPlan's website, did a little digging of my own, and found a lot of people switching to CrashPlan from other services. Even though fashion is fickle, this is a backup service, so its popularity seemed like a good sign. Seeing the promise of unlimited storage (as "unlimited" as any terms of service define it to be) and impressively low pricing, I coughed up five bucks and gave it a whirl.

If your needs are modest, CrashPlan offers a 10GB plan for $2.5 per month. However, the real fun starts at $5 a month for unlimited backups from a single PC or Mac. There's also a family plan available for 2-10 computers, once again with unlimited storage, for $12 a month. All plans are eligible for heavy discounts if you sign up for one or more years, which I ended up doing. "Pro" and "Pro-e" services with different features and pricing are also available, but this blog post will focus on the vanilla service, CrashPlan+. (Full pricing details can be viewed here.)

I should note that CrashPlan provides its client software free of charge, and you can use that application to save local backups (in what looks to be a proprietary file format) without having to subscribe to an online plan. The idea is that you install and use CrashPlan, and then optionally rent online storage space. The client software works on Windows, OS X, and Linux, and it serves up all sorts of goodies even to non-paying users.

 

Smooth operator
The CrashPlan client is a small download, weighing in at 30MB and change for the Windows x64 version. Installation is quick and relatively painless. It adds a new background service and an extra tray icon, which lets you pull up the user interface or quickly perform certain operations, like disabling automated backups.

The first thing you should do is pick the files and directories you want to back up, and then select their destination. That destination can be a directory on your hard drive, another computer running CrashPlan, and of course, the grand conjuration: CrashPlan Central. You can save your backups to a friend's computer—just enter your friend's backup code (a string of random letters) in CrashPlan, and his computer will pop up as a valid destination. You can have as many computers tied to your account as you wish, although the online plans are kept separate.

Here's what's pretty amazing about CrashPlan: it works so smoothly that you stop noticing it. On my main box, a Core i5-750 desktop with a WD Caviar Black, I haven't witnessed a performance drop since I started using the service. CrashPlan ties into Windows' Volume Shadow Service, which lets it manipulate open files. So, outside of some very rare occasions (like when you try to delete a file that's being backed up), you can keep on working and CrashPlan will go about its business, invisible in plain sight. That's just the way I like my programs.

If you want more control over how CrashPlan works its magic, you can tweak it to your liking. Settings for maximum processor utilization, maximum bandwidth utilization, buffer sizes, and packet QoS are all available. You can even set different CPU and bandwidth utilization limits depending on whether your system is in use or at idle. Also, you can adjust the schedule and frequency of backups—something that should come in particularly handy, since the service saves multiple versions of your data. By default, CrashPlan retains backups from every 15 minutes in the last hour, every hour in the last day, every day in the last week, every week in the last year, and every month in previous years. That ought to enable some serious time travel, sans DeLorean or lightning.

Additional niceties include automatic alerts and backup reports, which can be sent periodically to your e-mail address or Twitter account. I get a weekly report by e-mail detailing how much data was backed up and transferred, but I haven't tried the Twitter integration yet. (I actually have a life, and it doesn't fit in 140 characters.) The online documentation is also surprisingly comprehensive—and, amazingly, it appears to have been written by humans. Humans with a solid grasp of the English language, too.

What goes up...
Since this is an online backup service, one has to understand that, for the most part, you're limited by your Internet connection's upload speed—and any bandwidth caps or quotas your service provider may inflict. A 3G cellular connection isn't quite the best choice, then.

The good news is that CrashPlan is actually quite smart about minimizing data transfers. It includes a series of algorithms (think rsync) to upload only the difference between old and new data. The software tries to compress that difference data as much as possible before sending it out, further easing the pain. CrashPlan also lets you prioritize different file sets. For example, you can have your most important files first in line and backed up to the cloud, with your music collection set to a lower priority and saved to a local folder. You can mix and match as you see fit.

The bad news is that your initial backup may take days, depending on your upload speed and the size of your data set. But once that's done, it should be clear skies and smooth sailing ahead.

For folks in the ol' US of A, CrashPlan offers an additional service: physical backup seeding. For a fee, CrashPlan sends you an external 1TB hard drive and a pre-paid shipping label, so you can get your files up in the cloud without using up all of your bandwidth. Incidentally, this service is available in reverse. CrashPlan can ship your data on a physical drive if you're in an emergency situation and need to rush the restoration.

As far as restoration goes, it's simple, quick, and painless. You're shown your backup set, you tick boxes for what you want restored, optionally choose a destination (the default is your computer's desktop), and off it goes. I've seen it downloading at 3Mbps, but my ISP ain't the hottest thing in town, so I'd hazard a guess that you can download faster.

Since CrashPlan lets you download any file or file set from your account, you can use the service to grab something from your main PC while you're on the go (or temporarily without access to the machine). This feature has a 250MB limit, so it's only good for emergencies, but it's nice to have nevertheless.

I have a nice hat, and it's made of tinfoil
CrashPlan has measures in place to stop unauthorized parties from snooping on your data. According to the official FAQ, backups are kept under lock and key using either 128-bit or 448-bit Blowfish encryption, depending on whether or not you're using the free service. (Paying for CrashPlan+ will enable the longer key.) Blowfish is open and easily verifiable for efficacy, and to this day, no attack vector has been found for it—the only way to break the cipher is by brute force. The fact that the encryption scheme was created by Bruce Schneier, the Chuck Norris of encryption, probably doesn't hurt.

For an extra layer of security, you can set a "private password" in addition to the main account password. CrashPlan claims it doesn't store the private password on its servers, so in theory, losing your private password means saying goodbye to your data—not even CrashPlan tech support staff will be able to help you there. On the flip side, that should mean nobody but you can ever access your data, unless they manage to learn your private password.

Quirks mode on
CrashPlan does have a few flaws. First and foremost, local backups can't be saved to a network share without some ugly workarounds. (Code42, CrashPlan's parent company, plans to implement network backup capabilities in a future version, however.) The software's main user interface is sometimes sluggish (the curse of Java), but that's not a huge problem, since you'll seldom need to consult it after the initial setup. CrashPlan also can't back up disk images, which means you can't keep a copy of your entire hard drive, boot sector included, for one-click restoration.

That's the way I like it
Before I tried CrashPlan, I was suspicious of the whole cloud backup thing. I couldn't really see many upsides, and my imagination ran wild with thoughts of lost privacy, quirky software requiring constant maintenance, and stratospheric prices. It turns out that pretty much all my fears were unfounded. I've entered a pleasant world in which I've stopped worrying about my backup schedule and the possibility of backup drives biting the dust. CrashPlan is what I consider a fire-and-forget application—it does its job perfectly and stays out of the way, yet it's always ready for when you need it. I highly recommend it.

30 comments — Last by ShadowTiger at 3:58 AM on 09/15/11

The 10 commandments of PC games
— 11:05 PM on June 13, 2011

Picture this for a second: you just unpacked the latest PlayBox 720-X blockbuster game, Gran Gears of Duty Fantasy XVIII. It's a game so juicy and dreamy that it'll send you flying into all the colors of the rainbow, twitching and jerking with pleasure-induced spasms just from looking at the loading screen. Let's assume for the sake of argument that said game is a first-person shooter, like, oh, about 135% of recent releases. You insert the Megaray disc, go about the installation process, and merrily start to play.

All of a sudden, you notice the left stick is used for switching weapons. The right stick moves the character, and shooting is only accomplished by pressing it. The camera is moved with the directional buttons, and the triangle, square, A, and B buttons are used for your character's smartass quips. You enter the menu to change the controls, but you can only navigate them using the motion sensors. After five minutes of furniture-dusting motions, you finally enter the options menu and find out there are barely any options, and none that matter. Frustrated, you throw the TenAxis controller at your 4D TV screen and take the shiny disc out of the console to find out whether it will blend.

Now you see what us PC gamers have to put up with.

Let's make one thing clear: this is not meant to be any sort of attack on consoles—and yes, trolls, that means you can all go back under the bridge now. What you've just read is merely an analogy for what's been happening in the PC gaming world in recent years. The underlying reasons merit another discussion altogether (and a lot of violence inflicted on dead horses, I might add). This post is a filing of complaints—a request for a redress of grievances. My intention is plain and simple: to tell game studios how they're doing it wrong. 

No comment. 

I. Thou shalt not shun thine player's mouse
See this nifty thing called a "mouse pointer"? It was invented quite a few years ago, and it's positively great for, you know, pointing at menu choices and item lists. Thanks, Captain Obvious, you're my hero! So, pray tell, how come I have to press keys and/or gamepad buttons in your game to select options and choose the color of my character's underwear? Why do you have to add insult to injury by choosing menu navigation keys other than the arrow keys and then not letting me know what they are—or, alternatively (and this is my personal favorite), showing me which Xbox 360 controller buttons to press? Dude, come here for a second and look at this box I have with cables coming out of it. It doesn't have a red ring of death at the front, now does it?

The shop and inventory interfaces in Borderlands are good examples. Pointing at items? Psh, that's too old-school. Mmmm, arrow keys—let's have arrow keys for nearly everything. Hit a button to compare guns! Back in my day, we had to point and click to dress our characters... and it took a tenth of the time.

On that note, Burnout Paradise, son, come here. Now, explain to me whose idea it was to make me press F1 and F2 (of all keys) to go back and forth between menus. You can speak up son; no one's going to hurt you. Yet.

II. Thou shalt not accelerate mouse input
This issue mostly affects shooters, but it's one of the worst and most widespread—and it's actually a show-stopper in a number of so-called "triple-A" titles. Maybe it's the proliferation of Unreal Engine-based games, but it seems like having mouse acceleration enabled has become the default for many titles. Yes, Mass Effect 2, it's your turn on the chopping block. ("Game of the year," my shiny metal bottom.)

Mouse acceleration is a good idea for moving an on-screen pointer, but it's not such a good idea when the mouse is controlling a camera or an aiming reticle. Games that have acceleration enabled can sometimes end up totally unplayable with a high-sensitivity mouse. Usual symptoms include overly fast movements, headaches, nausea...

III. Thou shalt not make a mockery of third-party controllers
You know a game like Gears of War has problems when my most vivid memory involves my character swirling around after the game first started. I actually sat and waited a bit for the cut-scene to end... until I got motion sickness. I finally caught on that it wasn't a cut-scene, and after spending the better part of 10 minutes quitting, restarting, and reconfiguring the game, I finally realized what was happening. One, you had defaulted to use my joystick (yes, my joystick, not my gamepad) as the default control input method. Two, it didn't even work, and I had to disconnect the joystick just to be able to play.

Bad Company 2, I was hoping to use my joystick when playing you. Too bad you're somehow too thick to notice my joystick's throttle function, and the best that you can come up with is half-baked joystick controls with the configuration file editing du jour. Even then, the throttle still won't work.

Street Fighter IV, you bring a real challenge. I'm not talking about Zangief; I'm talking about getting past your thrice-damned gamepad configuration. You first assume that I have an Xbox 360 gamepad, which I don't. Then, you let me map the buttons on my gamepad... to the Xbox 360 buttons. That's right. I can't map a button to "heavy kick". I have to map a button to "X" outside the game and then map "X" to heavy kick in the game. I actually had to draw out a little chart of the mappings so I could play without having the "guess-the-button" minigame thrown in. Hey, maybe they did this on purpose—a new concept, mixing Excel with a fighting game. Yes, this is the game that some people lauded for being such a great conversion. Capcom's marketing spin sure got a victory there.

The puzzle game for the controls in SF4 is quite annoying. They should have left it out. 

IV. Thou shalt not mix thine bindings
Bad Company 2, trust me on this one. I really don't need "reload" and "use" actions bound to the same key. I absolutely love trying to disarm a bomb only to keep switching guns with the dead guy on the floor like I'm some clothes-switching fetishist. And you, Borderlands, sonny: even though I love playing with you, reloading my weapon every time I want to pick up an item (like, say, ammo) makes me want to slap you hard enough to knock your teeth fillings out.

V. Remember thine user-interface conventions and keep them holy
Human beings tend to have short memories for important things, and some game developers seem to take that trait to a whole new level. By that I mean they willfully and blissfully ignore nearly every single UI convention in history. Icons, drop-down menus, combo boxes, modifier keys—they've all gone right out the window and are raining down on the unsuspecting hobo below.

Have you ever seen the convoluted, unintuitive mess that is the Unreal Tournament 3 menus? The game doesn't even have that much stuff to customize, yet you can easily get lost. Back, forward, oh wait, I want multiplayer... gah! Another example would be the menus in Bad Company 2, which were apparently designed by a sadist with little to no regard for organization.

Another common infraction includes the curse of the Huge Text of Doom. Apparently, developers expect PC gamers to sit half a world away from their 22" displays. Even when playing console games on the TV, the huge text in games like Fallout 3 seems to serve only as some sort of legal protection against lawsuits by near-sighted people. (You can't trust that bunch—I was one of them until I got my eyes lasered.) Now, here's a scary bit of math: a 22" screen viewed from two feet away has roughly the same visual viewing angle as a 100" TV at 8.5 ft. Didn't that just blow your mind?

VI. Keep thine configurations options exposed
PC gamers are used to be able to configure things. That comes from both necessity and whim, and while one doesn't necessarily need to cater to the latter, the former is a must. Games don't have to expose a 1000-line menu for every conceivable detail level on the torches of King Whatever's castle entrance, but we'd like at least some amount of granularity. A pet peeve of mine is the lack of anti-aliasing options in graphics-intensive games. Even recent heavy-hitters like StarCraft II lack proper AA support. There are old technical reasons for this, but come on; we're in 2011.

If your game has VoIP, letting us pick different audio devices would be a nice touch, especially given the proliferation of USB headsets and other assortments. Mr. Developer, just sit with us for a second, play the game, and think about what you would like to see. It's not that difficult.

More often than not, you're pretty much guaranteed to have to dig into some stupid configuration file just to tweak games to your liking. It's a good thing online tutorials are around, too, because most of those config files tend to be so convoluted that you don't know where the spaghetti ends and Cthulhu's barbels begin.

VII. Thou shalt allow players to host dedicated servers
Even though the amount of PC users playing the latest Call of Duty undermines this point somewhat, I'll put it plain and simple: we like dedicated servers in multiplayer games (where applicable, of course). We really love them. First, we can actually have people administering them (and dispensing righteous fury on the hecklers). Second, they often have customizations or improvements we've grown to know and love. Third, we get to pick where we play, which both makes it easier to gather friends around and lets us get optimal ping times. This functionality has existed pretty much forever, and stepping away from it is stepping back.

VIII. Enough with the save points already!
Once again, there are historical reasons for a poor or otherwise lacking feature: back in the early days, console games couldn't count on having much storage space, so they had to be stingy with saved games. But, once again, it's now 2011! Consoles and personal computers have gigabytes of storage at their disposal, so I can't really comprehend why you insist on having very defined places where progress can be saved. Even worse are those titles with auto-save checkpoints. Thanks, saving right as I run out of ammo or walk off a cliff is really helpful.

Granted, there are games where saving the progress at every millisecond might prove tantamount to cheating, but allow us gamers to be the judges of that. If you really must block us from saving in a few spots, at least minimize those. Let us play your game our way.

IX. Thou shalt not worship false gaming services
Ah, Games for Windows Live. Glad to see you've joined us. It just so happens that you're really late to the party and so many dollars short that I wonder how you managed to pay the cab fare. Got ID? Sure, you can get in... just come here for a sec and I'll let you in on a little secret: everyone hates you.

Steam is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the realm of online game services. Other than sheer weight, there are actually pretty good reasons why it's so successful. One of them is that, for the most part, it stays out of our way—unlike you, GFWL. When all I want is to play Street Fighter IV, you insist on making me create a profile. Without that profile, my unlocked characters won't be saved. Just brilliant. Did I mention the GFWL log-in screen also pops up after you purchase the game on Steam? 

GET... OFF... MY... GAME! 

X. Honor thine modders and mod communities
Counter-Strike. Even though I'm not into it myself, that's surely the gift that keeps on giving. I'm also pretty sure every game publisher on Earth would love to have a product that successful. For those who don't know, Counter-Strike started as a mod for Half-Life, and that mod wouldn't exist if Valve hadn't provided gamers with the necessary mod tools.

Not every game benefits from mod support, mind you. When they do and the tools exist, however, the result is almost invariably a much bigger and more pervasive community (especially on the multiplayer front). That, in turn, leads to a constant stream of sales. It truly is a win-win situation.

Of course, making mod tools in the first place is neither simple nor free. I am no stranger to software development, and I realize homegrown software tools tend to be quite quirky and lacking in features. Still, a small investment in polishing and releasing them to the public can pay off big time.

Addendum
Although I've mentioned a few titles by name, I don't hold a grudge against any of them. I love games. However, I've started to feel like I'm being punished for daring to buy, play, and attempt to enjoy games on my platform of choice. I get the distinct feeling that, when targeting the PC market, game studios are a bit passive-aggressive. They seem to be hell-bent on doing everything they can to annoy their customers, and when we complain, then they show us a bewildered face of incomprehension or turn on the waterworks about piracy or whatever the magic eight-ball came up with that morning.

I just don't get it, guys. This is first and foremost a business, so why can't you just sell us what we want? Maybe, just maybe, you'd sell more games if you did. It's that whole tailored-to-the-market thing your marketing folks love to talk about.

A handful of the problems detailed above have been fixed with patches, and you'll notice that many of them can be circumvented by the judicious use of game mods and configuration file changes. I don't want to do that, though. Sure, being able to tailor my experience is part of why I play games on the PC, but that doesn't mean I have some ingrained desire to do it without a really good reason. First and foremost, I want to pick up a game, play it, have fun. In this day and age, that's becoming difficult. Not providing a good out-of-the-box experience is what drives the average gamer away from the PC in the first place.

154 comments — Last by DarkUltra at 11:56 AM on 06/27/11