Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Trouble With New Computer Games

I've noticed a bit of a pattern here.

Ok, Shortly after my wife and I first got married, one of our first purchases was a new computer. We made this purchase back in 2000 or 2001--can't remember which--and, in order to save some cash (just starting out, you know), we didn't get the top-of-the line machine.

Which was just fine. For the kinds of things we did with it, we didn't need all that much power. Still don't, for the most part. It's not like we're trying to simulate nuclear implosions or anything. Simple spreadsheets, Internet access, the occasional game--and most of these games are the strategy games, not the really graphics-intensive 3-D shoot-'em-ups.

So we were content.

That is, we were content for about five years or so. And then our computer started hiccuping. First, our DVD drive began to give up the ghost. This was an absolute tragedy. You see, we don't keep a TV around here, and we don't subscribe to cable; so if we want to watch something, we have to have it on disk. And the drive must work. So when that drive died, our kids thought the world had ended.

It hadn't, of course. We would have been fine. But! We parents sometimes succumb to the temptation to use the 'tube as a babysitter, and while we try to keep this to the minimum around here, it sure is handy to be able to pop in a disk and get just a little time to ourselves to get something done. So we tried buying and installing a new DVD drive, and that worked--sort of. It frequently hung in the middle of our disks, which caused much wailing among our kids....

Off topic. So about this time we saw the game Pirates! in the store. Now, I very fondly remembered the earlier version of this game from the late '80's. It was addicting. One could play that game all night--and I'm afraid I came close to doing so on occasion. And it did wonders for one's knowledge of Caribbean geography. So of course, we made an impulse buy.

And we couldn't get it to run on our system at home. The our then-six-year-old video board wasn't beefy enough to handle it.

Well, we figured that our computer was old enough anyway. With all the glitches it was having, and the fact that it wasn't quite powerful enough for all the new software that was coming out, we figured it was time. So early 2006 we plunked down the moolah and bought our current system.

Finally, we could watch videos again! And we could play Pirates! And it was every bit as addicting as I remember.

Fast forward to early summer 2008. We download the Spore Creature Creator, which I blogged about here. The girls love playing this, and frequently take turns. (Or rather, the Pillowfight Fairy "lets" the Adrenaline Junkie "make" a monster--by dictating the parts that she wants, while the Fairy--with her superior motor skills--actually mans the mouse.) But, we've noticed something weird; occasionally we get buggy graphics--odd shapes that shouldn't be there, garbled bitmaps for some of the icons, that sort of thing. Now, I realize that this software could in fact be buggy. It could be that all us users are actually being used by Maxis as unwitting Beta-testers.

But the fear remains...

Fast forward to this weekend. We pick up a copy of Caesar IV, by Sierra. We've got all the minimum system requirements, so we install it, and it works! It runs! I play a scenario...

Then my wife monopolizes the machine, and plays about a scenario and a half, whereupon the system crashes. So she restarts it from the last Autosave, plays to almost the exact same spot in the scenario, and it crashes again. So I come back, start playing my own game, get to the same spot my wife was in, and... it crashes.

Hangs the system--cold-boot required.

So I look through what troubleshooting stuff I can find, and get the boilerplate stuff:
  • Turn off all "unnecessary software", like virus checkers. Right. Uh-huh.
  • Upgrade your video device driver. I looked into this. First step: uninstall your current device driver. I decided to pass, in case there were some other easier things to do first.
  • Go into the game settings, and dial down the detail levels...
I decided to start with this last one. My wife and I noticed that the crashes all occurred just after we had placed fountains in our cities. So I clicked off on the "animate water" option, and tried it again. It crashed.

So I got online to look at the tech support forums. (Forums? Fora? Forae? I think the proper plural should be Fora. This is Rome we're talking about, after all.)

And as I was reading through all the entries from dissatisfied users, the thought hit me: I'm here reading through a technical forum for a game! Does anything strike you as odd about this picture? I mean, most of the time, when I'm reading through technical fora, it's because I'm trying to figure out how some feature of Oracle works; or how Kodo and other Java-Relational mapping systems are supposed to work; I'm generally trying to track down and fix some kind of hairy bug in my software. Here I'm reading through a forum, trying to find the magic bullet that will get my silly game up and running! What's the world coming to?

Oh, there were lots of suggestions, all right. But there were dark forebodings. Seems our graphics card (ATI Radeon X600) doesn't like Caesar IV. But some users with this video board had no problems at all; others could get it to work, but only if they set their game (or Operating System) settings just right; others couldn't get the game to work at all with that video board, no matter what they tried.

Well, I started trying solutions. The first one involved changing the way the OS allocated resources to the system cache. This "solution" caused hard crashes on bootup; we had to start in "safe mode" and revert to the previous state before we could do a normal boot-up.

Ultimately we figured out something that works, which was quite a relief for us. Basically, we turned off water and weather effects, and set the "Master Particle Density" setting (used for rendering fire and water) to its lowest setting. So far, we haven't had any further problems.

But this sort of thing bodes ill for the future. That is, so long as we continue to play new games on our system. (And I am so looking forward to Spore this September...). When you get a new computer, you can generally expect to be able to play any game already on the market. But game designers are motivated to design their games to the newest and best video and audio equipment out there. They want their graphics to look good. They want shadows! They want reflections! They want fire and water! They want fog and dust clouds! They want ray tracing! And so they program their games to make the maximum use of any hardware available. And since the state of the art is always advancing, it doesn't take long before that computer you just bought can't play that new game, and now that one, and now that one...

So for a serious gamer (and I'm not one), it's never enough to buy the new game. You have to be prepared to upgrade your video driver on a regular basis (and often, new versions of the drivers are written specifically because some popular new game comes out that uncovers previously-undetected bugs in the old drivers). More than that, you have to be willing to throw out and replace your entire video board semi-regularly. And by semi-regularly, that may be measured in two-year increments or less. And at the rate new processors become available, and how fast they are improving, it becomes inevitable that last year's CPU is not quite fast enough for this year's game, and the previous year's CPU is hopelessly outdated--so the serious gamer has to replace the entire computer after not much more than two years or so.

Good thing I'm not a serious gamer. I've barely gotten used to our new computer. Have we really already had it for two years?

But when I think about it, it's clock speed alone is nearly a thousand times faster than that of the system I got just out of college, back in 1995--not to mention that puny little pipsqueak of a processor that they used to guide the Apollo astronauts to the moon!


I remember back in the '80's when the conventional wisdom was that the dedicated game consoles were likely to go the way of the Dodo. After all, a computer could do everything a console could, and then some.

The conventional wisdom was wrong. The game consoles had an advantage that no computer could match:

They were standardized.

You don't have to worry about whether your Game Cube has a beefy enough video board. You don't have to ask whether your PlayStation has a fast enough CPU. You don't have to worry about whether your WII has gone obsolete. These consoles have standardized hardware and operating systems; if a game runs perfectly on one, it'll run on any of that type. Software testing of these games is much more straightforward, because the testers don't have to test a thousand different configurations of CPU, Motherboard, Video Board, Audio board, and all those driver versions.

You have the console, you buy the game, and it'll work. Period. It only goes obsolete when people stop making games for it.

You don't have to go through the exercise, as I did with Caesar IV, of trying to debug someone else's software.


So my system, even at the tender young age of two, is fast facing obsolescence--so far as gaming is concerned. Ah, well, 'twas inevitable, I suppose.

I just hope it holds on until Spore is safely up and running. ;-)


Anna said...

Oh, the stories I could tell.
When Hubby got the 40G hard drive, it was "bigger than he'll ever, ever need." Then we got an 80G. Now he has the 40 and the 80G installed, plug a bigger one, and I don't even remember HOW big that one measures.
And the video cards... he got a fancy card about two months before the motherboard crashed, and he bought a whole new computer. The computer came with... an even better video card.
I currently have the best system on my laptop- dual core intel chip, lots more of that cool stuff. In fact, if he wants to play an extra large map on Civ, he uses my computer. :-P

Uvulapie said...

That story sounds familiar... I bought my first PC because a month before I had purchased a game for a great price (Alone in the Dark, if you must know) despite not owning a PC. Cart before the horse? It seems to be my way of life!

biggerbetterfaster said...

I got my first PC in '87 - a Sanyo running DOS 3. I replaced it with an 8088 system in '89, certain that I'd never use a whole 40MB hard drive. Since then, I've upgraded components (hard drive, RAM, video) at the 1.5 yr mark and replaced the system at the 3 yr mark.

My wife hates it. She gets one figured out, and I replace it. Fortunately for her, my son is switching to the WII for Call of Duty and it'll be a few years before a game I'm really interested in hits the market.

My mom, she does e-mail and writes letters - occasionally surfs the 'net. Other than the odd go at solitaire, she doesn't play games. I got her a system in '97 and just replaced it this year.

Gareeth said...

I need to thank you. I bought Caesar IV right when it came out and was never able to get it working without crashing. Their tech support was no help at all and no one else mentioned the connection to the fountain which was my exact issue. Two years later and finally able to play.