Last week, Emanuel Maiberg of Vice made waves among some Internet circles—all the ones in which I move, apparently—with a column for Motherboard titled “PC Gaming Is Still Way Too Hard.” In it, he related his recent painful experience building a gaming PC from scratch and lamented that, despite being happy with the computer he ended up with, he still had to jump through ridiculous hoops in order to get there and play the games he wanted.
Though I sympathize with Maiberg’s troubles, he let his frustration get in the way of his common sense. Maiberg couldn’t be more wrong about the state of PC building or PC gaming. There are at least seven excellent reasons why.
1. Parts—and Full Computers—Are Easier to Buy Than Ever
Although system building used to be wider spread within the computing community than it is today, it also had a much higher barrier of entry when it came to shopping. You had to track down all your parts without a strong reference as to what they were or whether they were likely to go together, and if you lived in a relatively small city as I did growing up, good stores that sold a good selection of good parts were either difficult to find or nonexistent. Even in the earliest years of the primacy of the World Wide Web, finding reputable online outlets was seldom easy, and finding just one that had everything you were looking for when you were looking for it was a rare accomplishment.
The advent and development of major online retailers changed all that. Once Newegg found its foothold, builders gained the best (digital) friend they could ever hope for. The company has always had a ridiculously exhaustive collection of components, new and not-so-new, and though its various search functions have been good from the start, they’ve only improved over the years. Now, you can browse, sort, narrow down, expand, and pinpoint in ways that guarantee you’ll never be without at least five or six solid options for every piece of hardware you need—and maybe more. Every time I start a new build project, I prowl around looking for a vendor that can seriously compete with Newegg, and I have yet to find one that comes close. If you want to buy components online, there’s simply no better—or more fun—way.
Although building your own gaming PC remains the best way to ensure that your desires and your budget will both be satisfied, buying one from someone else is as foolproof as it’s ever been. The same aesthetic that drives Newegg, watered down slightly, also powers configurators at major and boutique manufacturers’ websites. With just a few clicks, you can put together the beefiest PC you can afford and then have it shipped directly to your door. No longer do you have to rely on the few cookie-cutter models you unearth at stores, if you’re lucky—even if you don’t compile the parts yourself, you’re still getting a highly personalized system. If you want a gaming PC, regardless of how much money you have to spend, getting it is a snap.
2. You Don’t Even Need a Screwdriver Anymore
Okay, okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration. If there’s a case into which you can install a motherboard without needing to twist in six to nine Phillips-head screws, I have yet to see it. But building has evolved to the point that you now need a screwdriver for almost nothing else. Thumbscrews are ubiquitous, not only on the outside of cases but on the PCI Express (PCIe) card retention rail. Advanced mechanisms for 3.5- and 2.5-inch drive bays alike make it possible for you to secure a half-dozen drives (or more!) of all varieties without need to keep track of a single screw. Even complex multiplatform fans and liquid cooling packages can be installed via completely tool-free means. This is, admittedly, not true of all cases; you may still need a screwdriver with lower-end models that can’t keep costs way down any other way. But for most builds, those will be the exceptions rather than the rule. You’ll definitely still want to keep your trusty Phillips screwdriver around, but don’t be surprised if you need to blow dust off of it every time you pick it up.
3. CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT Are Things of the Past
I have a wicked case of nostalgia for the frontier-exploring and boundary-breaking computers of the 1980s and early 1990s, and rare indeed is the day that I don’t wish I couldn’t go back and play many of the games programmed to run on them again for the first time. But there’s one aspect of that era that I don’t miss at all: messing with CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files.
If you’re too young to remember those—or if you’re old enough, but have since (wisely) blocked them out of your memory—these were MS-DOS files that governed key hardware settings and software execution on your PC when it booted up. For example, if you added a piece of hardware to your computer, such as a sound card, you had to edit the appropriate file manually to make sure your new acquisition didn’t conflict with something else you already had. Or if a game you wanted to play was performing poorly, you could delve into these files, change a few settings (say with a memory manager), then reboot and see if things improved. If they did, great! If things were worse than before, you’d have to undo your changes and try again. If your computer crashed altogether, as occasionally happened… you had a big problem.
Twenty-five or so years ago, gamers (such as yours truly) would spend hours poring through these files, trying to get everything to work at the highest level your setup allowed. Although there was something of a fun aspect to it—due, I’m convinced, to the much more intimate relationship it forced you to forge with the hardware, beyond anything we have today—by and large it was a source of headaches and heartbreak. Now that you no longer have to worry about this stuff at all, you can spend a lot more time focusing on the games themselves—and isn’t that really the point?
4. Steam Is Hot
Sad but true: I still have dozens of computer game boxes from the 1980s and 1990s piled on the shelves in the bedroom of the house I grew up in but haven’t lived in for almost 16 years. (I can hear my mom cringing even as I type this.) But back then, if you want to have and maintain a game collection—a legal game collection, I hasten to add—you had no other choice. The boxes were big, and they were usually chock full of either software media, paper, or other things needed to play the games. Even if you had a hard drive that was “big” (in relative terms), you couldn’t really keep all your games on it at the same time. If you needed to uninstall one to make space, you’d better have the disks in a good, safe place if you wanted to revisit it later.
Not only do we not have this problem anymore, but many games now don’t even come with boxes! Steam, Origin, and other such online game purchasing and distribution services let you buy games (often at eye-popping discounts) at any time and maintain your complete catalog in the cloud, so you have instant access to all the titles you own on any computer you happen to be sitting at. You can install anything at any time, delete anything whenever you need to, and change your mind again later on just seconds’ notice. You can come back to old titles as instantly as you can play new ones and, in almost every case, be assured they will work every bit as well as when they were released.
Another, related benefit: less onerous copy protection. I used to be—and, confession, still am—a huge fan of the text adventures from Infocom. Besides being best known for amazing, now borderline-legendary “interactive fiction” works like Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Trinity, and A Mind Forever Voyaging (AMFV), the company was renowned for its innovative use of props, or “feelies,” in its games. Although these added an enormous amount of fun to the gameplay experience—remember Hitchhiker’s Guide’s opaque “peril-sensitive sunglasses” or the mysterious drug tablets packaged with Deadline?—they frequently served another function: copy protection.
If you lost the “Infotater” or “Field Guide to the Creatures of Frobozz” book from Sorcerer, you couldn’t win that game; twirling the “Class One Security Mode Access Decoder” was necessary every time you entered an AMFV simulation; and good luck not going insane while trying to figure out the robots’ purposes and locations without the map and in-box data from Suspended! Even back then, this kind of stuff drove players crazy—and Infocom was far from the only company that did it—but disks were so simple to copy, that it was, on some level, needed if makers of popular titles were to survive. (Yes, I know that many of the games were cracked and pirated anyway. But imagine what would have happened otherwise…!) Digital delivery of games that are permanently tied to an account only you can access is a smarter, simpler, and less aggravating method of ensuring you play only the games you pay for.
5. You Don’t Have to Wait for the Good Stuff
There’s almost nothing harder than waiting. When you’re into PC gaming, you almost never have to wait. Yes, you get just about all the best games the day they’re released, but we’ve come to expect that with AAA titles. But you also get the newest technological advancements as soon as they’re available, so you’re not stuck waiting for the next console generation to rev and support whatever the latest and greatest thing is. Virtual reality gaming, with the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift is already here, and video card companies aren’t grudgingly supporting it—they’re actively competing for your dollars and eyes.
The same with 4K: Nvidia and AMD want to be the company you think of when you come to the conclusion that today’s paltry resolutions of 1,920 by 1,080 or even 2,560 by 1,440 just aren’t quite good enough for gaming anymore. How about portable full-system gaming with devices like the Nvidia Shield? You can do that, too. And Intel is already out of the gate with its crazy-fast 10-core processor, which obliterates anything you’ll find in a standalone box.
If you commit yourself to PC gaming, you’re always on the cutting edge, with the fastest-moving and best-looking games you can buy.
6. Advice, Help, and Camaraderie Are Always Available
It’s not easy, but I admit it: During my earlier days, I had a terrible habit of calling 1-900 numbers. Er, not those 1-900 numbers—the kind that offered recorded hints for computer games. After the days of separate hint booklets ended, companies realized they could sell you hints to their most complicated games over the phone. If you got stuck, you could just ring them up, punch a few buttons, get your answer, and go on with play. And if you played a lot of games or got stuck a lot, you really ran up the phone bills. But there just wasn’t any other reliable way to get help back in those days, especially if you were one of the very few people you knew who liked playing those games.
Although I won’t say that GameFaqs.com is the greatest website ever, I can’t think of a better one for PC gaming lovers. It’s loaded with strategy guides, walkthroughs, maps, and every other kind of hint and answer for almost any computer game you can name—and everything is free. Last year, I found myself on a Magic Candle kick—yes, I own the game legally, shut up—and was able to find tons of resources to make my first journey through Deruvia in a quarter of a century go a lot smoother than it ever did the first time.
If your tastes run less toward the linear adventure or RPG side of things, there are a seemingly infinite number of Web forums, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, podcasts, and so on that will let you chat, swap strategies, commiserate about failures, or brag about successes with fellow players—people you never would have met otherwise. The same is true of getting troubleshooting help while you’re building a computer, maximizing the speed you get from overclocking it afterward, or reading product reviews.
PCMag alone can point you toward the best gaming desktops or the best gaming laptops, give you a full primer on how to build a PC yourself, and give you the definitive rundown of the best PC games out there. In the olden days, you had to subscribe to a bunch of different magazines in hopes that, together, they would have the information in your time frame (which, naturally, was seldom the case).
The resources you have at your disposal are functionally infinite, for every aspect of PC gaming. No matter where you live, no matter how inexperienced you may be, and no matter how introverted you are—you are never, ever alone. It’s not news that the Internet has made the world a lot smaller in most ways, but for PC gamers it’s made the world a lot bigger in all the best ways.
7. It’s Good For the Soul
Perhaps this is the least defined reason, but to me it’s also the most important. When you build a computer of your own, or when you take the time needed on a manufacturer’s website to really personalize a prebuilt system to your own tastes, you’re claiming ownership over it in a way that you otherwise can’t. If you like the Sony PlayStation 4 or Microsoft Xbox One, more power to you—but nothing about your console is any more special than anyone else’s. That’s why the companies like them: They know what they’re developing for, and they don’t have to worry about it. For all intents and purposes, your PC is a completely unknown quantity, because it’s uniquely yours, and if you run the risk of some problems with it, it will, by its very nature, be more fulfilling than anything you could pull, fully formed, from a box.
Taking that leap, assuming that control, makes everything that follows easier because you will want it all more. You’ll want to play games that look the best they can. You’ll want to take care of that computer. Chances are, you’ll want to upgrade the parts someday or maybe build another one from scratch. You’re making your first steps down a wonderful path that will take you places you can’t imagine in ways you can’t predict. All for the low price of just a tiny bit of extra time, work, or money.
No, PC gaming isn’t effortless. No hobby or pursuit of any kind is. But if you make that investment, when you sit down to play you will be far more free and have far more fun, which in turn makes your leisure time and your life as easy and rewarding as they can possibly be.