Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 137 / JANUARY 1992 / PAGE 106

The ultimate game machine. (includes related article on CD-ROM software) (World of Electronic Games)
by Peter Spear

Normally when you read about an "ideal" this or a "perfect" that, what you get is a wish list of what someone would buy if cost were no object. This isn't one of those. You hold in your hands a down-and-dirty survival guide to playing state-of-the-art computer games in the 1990s. All the more exciting and frightening because it covers only the basic necessities, this guide puts you on the road to the upper limits of gameplay on the PC.

As inconceivable as it may have sounded just two or three years ago, the following statement is now true: In order to play the newest generation of computer games, you need a 386-class machine. Sure, plenty of titles still run on 286s or even XTs, but the next wave of games, even more than the current crop, will need everything the 386 has to offer. The expectations of today's computer game players contribute to this head-long rush toward high-end machines. People demand wall-to-wall VGA graphics, sound, and animation.

Fred Schmidt, general manager of Origin System, says it's all quite simple. "If you're going to have graphics and sound moving at high speed, then you need a 386." He means it. Most of Origin's recent major releases basically require a 386 to run satisfactorily. Strike Commander, Ultima VII, and Wing Commander II all warn buyers that they need at minimum a 12-MHz 286 to run, but even then, Schmidt admits, the games' performance on those machines tends to be unacceptably slow. "The settling point for writing games is now a 16-to 20-Mhz 386."

John Williams, vice president of marketing at Sierra On-Line, agrees. "This is the ... shame of the system right now--VGA is so far ahead of the machine that it necessitates a 386." Simply put, yout 286-based PC and youg VGA card are not the most compatible of partners. David Bradley, developer of Bane of the Cosmic Forge, allows that the 386 chip offers "realtime speed, and that's what's needed for realism."

When these folks talk about speed, they don't just mean chip speed. A 16-MHz 386SX chip, for example, moves information around twice as fast as a comparable 286. On top of that, a 386DX moves that info out twice as fast as its SX cousin. That makes it at least four times as fast as a 286 with the same clock speed. This striking speed advantage allows animation at a realistic rate. A 486 is faster still, but no one expects games to demand 486s for another four or five years.

Today's game machine demands VGA color. A high-resolution video mode that also allows 256 colors to be displayed on the screen at the same time, VGA exhibits dramatic improvement in sharpness and clarity over EGA graphics. VGA comes in a number of different flavors, but as a gamer, your VGA or Super VGA (SVGA) card should have at least 512K of video RAM (VRAM) on board, which handles higher resolution and more colors. Of course, you'll also need a VGA or multisync color monitor to go with the card.

Most game producers now add sound effects and musical scoring to their work, but to hear these, you need a sound card. Sound cards sport everything from low-end synthesizers on a chip to the glorious Roland MT-32, a full-powered synthesizer in a box. Games that support one board may not support another, though most support the Ad Lib board--the de facto tandard.

There are still three major items to go. Two of these are absolute necessities today; the third is going to be a necessity very soon.

The problem with all of this gorgeous, cinematic animation and sound is that it consumes an enormous amount of disk space. King's Quest V fills over 9 megabytes; Falcon 3.0, 8 megs; Trial by Fire, more than 4 megs; and Bane of the Cosmic Forge, about 3 megs. Most impressive computer simulations, adventures, and role-playing games today begin at about 3 megs. With DOS, Windows, and one or two other "serious" applications installed, a typical 40MB hard drive only has room for two or three of the newer games before it runs out of space.

Asked what size hard drive he'd put in a PC game machine, Sierra's director of engineering, Chris Iden, recommends 80 megabytes--minimum. Other experts feel 100 megs would leave room for comfort. So add a jumbo hard drive to your list of necessities.

Don't think you can get along on just 640K of RAM, either. Wing Commander, for instance, needs a full meg in order to take full advantage of the game's sound. Soon, games demanding two megs of memory won't be uncommon.

Finally, we arrive at the one piece of optional equipment that will be a necessity before we get the shrink-wrap off this year's latest and greatest games--a CD-ROM drive. The first trickle of CD-based games from major publishers began at Christmas. Soon you will see a steady stream.

The reason for CD-ROM's inevitability, in a word, is money--the cost of duplicating each disk in a game box (over $1 per disk in many cases) multiplied by the large number of disks it takes to contain one of these monster games. Then there's the added cost to publishers for shipping the heavier boxes. It's no longer economically feasible to ship large games on floppies when publishers can put significantly more information on a CD-ROM that can be duplicated much more cheaply.

Also, the cost of developing these games with all the sound and animation has broken the $1 million barrier. This adds up to a retail price of $70 to $80 on many new games. That, too, is frightening. Schmidt comments that customers can't afford to pay any more. "From now on, [CD-ROM] is not a novelty; it's a requirement. In two years you won't see products from major companies shipped on disk." Williams agrees. "CD-ROM is inevitable. Most games will be shipping on it in two years."

How much will your next gaming PC cost? Today, including a CD-ROM drive, somewhere in the vicinity of $600 to $800 more than a basic 386 with VGA and a hard drive--a price that has dropped to well under $1,500. The extra cost moves closer to $1,000 if you upgrade from an XT or a 286.

As demand increases, spurring competition among manufacturers, hardware should cost you less. For your money, you'll receive a serious computer with enough power to desk-top publish, prepare presentations, and run a business--all without stretching the limits of what you really bought the machine for--playing the best of the newest games.