PC Gaming Is Still Way Too Hard
Getting into PC gaming involves blood, sweat, and tears.
Image: Emanuel Maiberg
Here's Motherboard's super simple guide to building your first gaming PC:
- Step 1: Have an unreasonable amount of disposable income.
- Step 2: Have an unreasonable amount of time to research, shop around, and assemble parts for your computer.
- Step 3: Get used to the idea that this is something you're going to have to keep investing time and money in as long as you want to stay at the cutting edge or recommended specifications range for new PC games.
The details, of course, are much more complicated, but that's the gist of what it takes to enter the holy kingdom of PC gaming. If it sounds like a bad deal, I agree, which is why the majority of people are better off with an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, despite why the awfully self-titled "PC Master Race" might tell you.
I know this because I've recently built a new gaming PC, and while I'm very happy with the final product, it was a first-hand lesson as to why the best place to play games is not where most people play games. From picking parts to putting them together, building a PC is too damn hard, even in 2016.
I decided to build my PC now because I finally saved up enough money to afford it, and because Nvidia just released its new GeForce 10 series of video cards, which have been getting great reviews. There's the GeForce GTX 1080, which at $700 is simply the most powerful GPU on the market, and the GeForce GTX 1070, which at $450 is stronger than what was the most powerful GPU prior to the 1080, the Geforce GTX Titan X, but at half the price. Nvidia also recently announced the GeForce GTX 1060, which is even less powerful but only costs $300.
The computer science of what makes a video card great is very complicated, but all the average user should care about is getting the best bang for their buck. I wanted to spend enough money so whatever component I bought lasted for a while and potentially played well with future upgrades, but not too much.
This makes the 1070 a no-brainer, and its release is a good excuse to build a new PC, but I wasn't going to spend time researching other PC parts. PC hardware companies like Intel and Nvidia are always in the process of introducing new chips while phasing out older ones, and doing enough research to say with authority that I got the right CPU at the right time is a full time job.
Luckily, that's someone's job at PC Gamer, which has an excellent, frequently updated high-end build guide. I asked PC Gamer editor Wes Fenlon if that build would do right by my 1070 and he said yes, so that was good enough for me to start putting money down.
You'll notice that parts on that list link out to online stores which often offer the cheapest price you could get from a major retailer in the United States. Sometimes a CPU is cheaper from Amazon, while RAM is cheaper from Newegg, while a power supply is cheaper from Walmart.
I could have saved a significant amount of money bargain hunting, but this was an inconvenience I was happy to avoid for a price. I ordered everything from Amazon because it delivers quickly, allows me to keep track of all shipments in one place, and because I trust it to take care of me if something got damaged in transit. Overall, I paid around an extra $100 to buy everything from one store. Another change I made to the PC Gamer build in the name of convenience is buy one, slightly slower 1TB solid state drive instead of one smaller but faster solid state drive and another smaller, cheaper one. I just didn't want to manage storage across multiple drives. I also got a MasterCase Maker 5 Mid-Tower Case instead of a Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5 because that's what was readily available on Amazon and all PC cases are ugly anyway.
By this point, the process was expensive, but not that frustrating. I ordered the parts on a Wednesday, and by next Monday everything was delivered and ready to build. Overall, I spent just under $2,000, though keep in mind that I already had a monitor, mouse, and keyboard.
Then came the hardest, most nerve-wracking part: building the damn thing. To prepare, I rolled up the carpet (static electricity can damage PC parts), cleared off my desk and pulled my coffee table near so I had a lot of surface area to work with. The only tools I needed were a screwdriver and a laptop open to PC Gamer's How to build a gaming PC: a beginner's guide, which got me through most of the process. There were some things about my build that were different from the guide, like my CPU Corsair Hydro Series H100i water cooling system, which, unlike a standard heatsink, doesn't require applying thermal paste. When I wasn't sure what to do, a little bit of Googling and a lot of time watching YouTube videos of people more experienced than me solved the problem.
One thing is for sure: Online resources from publications like PC Gamer and videos from experienced users are far more helpful than any manual that came with any component.
For example, it would be nice if the instructions on my Intel i7 processor said that it might sound like I'm crushing the delicate pins that connect this $300 piece of equipment to another $250 piece of equipment, but not to worry. It would be nice if the instructions for my MasterCase Maker 5 PC case, which unfold to a single, four-foot long sheet of paper, made it clear that I had to run a SATA cable behind the motherboard to a separate card so the fans could get power, but it didn't. Every part came with its own manual, which sometimes contained conflicting information, and all were badly written.
Let's take for example the manual for my—brace yourself—"ASUS Republic of Gamers Maximus VIII Hero" motherboard. As you can tell by its ridiculous name, this thing is being marketed specifically to people who are building PCs to play games, but there's no easy-to-find "quick setup guide." Instead, there's an inscrutable 160-page manual that didn't help me find out where to plug in anything.
The process of physically building a PC is filled with little frustrations like this, and mistakes can be costly and time consuming. I have big, dumb, sausage fingers, so mounting the motherboard into the case, and screwing in nine (!) tiny screws to keep it in place in a cramped space, in weird angles, where dropping the screwdriver can easily break something expensive—it's just not what I'd call "consumer-friendly."
This is why people buy from Apple. It designs everything from the trackpad to the box the computer comes in, which unfolds neatly to reveal everything you need. Apple reduces friction to the point where even my mom could upgrade the RAM on her iMac, and it can do this because it controls everything that goes in that box.
There isn't a company in the PC space that's been able to corral all the different components manufacturers to deliver a comparable experience.
I could have paid a site like CyberPower or Falcon Northwest for a pre-built PC, but buying parts of equal power from them would have cost me an extra $300-$500 before taxes and shipping. Also, their websites are atrocious, and offer no help in picking parts. It's just not worth it, and why PC gamers always recommend building over buying in the first place.
That's why I recommend Apple products to people who aren't tech savvy. They just work. When I'm pushing a water cooler down on the CPU while twisting its radiator into place and screwing it into place at the same time, it becomes clear that PCs don't just work.
Beginning to end, the whole process of building the computer took me almost five hours, and I had to make two emergency calls to PC Gamer's Fenlon during the process: once when I couldn't figure out why the case fans weren't spinning, and again when the computer didn't recognize an ethernet cable. I was literally bleeding from a cut on my hand by the end of it, which my YouTube guides said was common. I bled for this fucking thing.
Eventually, I got it working, and the PC is awesome. Just Cause 3, which didn't work on my old PC and which runs so poorly on the Xbox One it probably shouldn't have been published there in the first place, runs beautifully.
But getting there was a nightmare. It is by far the most difficult product I've ever bought and put together.
Really, there is no good way to do this.
"There are so many competing products, wading through that stuff to get the ones you think are right is definitely a challenge," Fenlon told me. He noted that some companies like Razer and Asus are trying to solve this problem with modular PCs that you can simply slide parts in and out of, but neither has hit the market yet.
Also, it seems the people at the forefront of PC gaming and who spend the most money on it are totally fine with the status quo.
"I wonder if the internet has had an effect here," Fenlon told me. "Building a PC was way, way harder 20 years ago, obviously, but maybe there's less impetus to reinvent the way all the parts fit together when anyone who wants to build a PC can watch a walkthrough on YouTube or read one of a million text guides."
It's hard to put all these PC parts together because they're made by different companies, but there isn't even pressure from consumers to come up with better, universal standards that will make the whole experience easier.
The fact that building a PC is an arduous process builds a community. I was only able to build my own because of free resources created by passionate individuals, publications like PC Gamer, and friends like Fenlon (it's also his advice for novices who want to get into PC gaming: find an experienced friend). Users on subreddits like r/BuildAPC and r/PCMasterrace are supportive and helpful, exchanging tips like a community of hotrod tinkerers.
However, this also makes PC gaming insular. Accessibility isn't a priority for the most enthusiastic users, so there's no reason to make the experience of getting into PC games easier.
I also think that, with the exception of crazy PC case creations, the notion that building a PC is some sort of craft is ridiculous. People who build their own PCs aren't like garage woodworkers building their own birdhouses. They're not making anything in the same way that someone might restore an old hotrod. They're just taking different parts from different companies and plugging them together. The only reason it's hard is because of poor design, and the design continues to be poor after all these years because they're willing to put up with it.
It doesn't have to be this way. PC sales overall are down, but if you examine PC hardware companies that cater to gamers, they're actually growing. There's a market here because PC is so clearly the best place to play games. It's a relatively open platform that gives players the widest selection of games to choose from and the ability to modify those games for free. The only thing you can't do on PC is play exclusives for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, which there are fewer of than ever.
Sadly, most players will never make the switch because they rightly assume that it's too much of a headache. I can tell you with some authority, it is.