System Requirements

Sunday 13th Nov 2011

A few years ago I was a bit of a gamer. I was a ‘PC enthusiast’ too. I built many PCs, played with many operating systems, deciphered many impenetrable interfaces and networked several flats. It seemed like a kind of fun at the time, in a way, until it it just… didn’t, anymore. The same shitty interfaces, the same having to learn loads of stuff about something you don’t want to know to fix what shouldn’t be broken, the benefits of technical win didn’t seem to be enough of a compensation for all that effort. It’s not like it was bleeding edge stuff – basic networking? Come on. I had other things to do. If I’m going to solve technical problems I want them to be interesting, not ones already solved and on the shelf of Dixons for £9.99 including VAT.

Since then, I realise I’ve developed a bit of an aversion to tech specs. “Does it do the job? OK then.” That kind of thing. I still play games, though mostly on the iPad or the PS3. The games work, work well, and I don’t need to think about whether they’ll work on my device before trying them.

So, having said all that, I was looking at the Mac App Store this morning. I saw two games I recognised, Arkham Asylum and Duke Nukem Forever. I had a look just to see what the screenshots were like, and noticed on the descriptions of both games a set of ‘important requirements’. Actual system requirements. Both are below.

Lists of numbers. Reference to ‘video cards’. Integrated video chipsets. ATI X1xxx series. I only know what these mean from fairly long experience. It should be obvious just what bullshit jargon terms they are to dump on someone who just wants to play a game. Without support, they’d have to find out what a video card is, or a video chipset. Volumes formatted as what? What volume? The space inside my computer? Do I have to move bits around? Searching for X1xxx will never return anything particularly helpful either.

But what do you mean it’s all in “About This Mac, then click More Info… then System Report and, oh my!” It’s all utter, utter, bullshit. It’s a contemptuous arrogant put down of the potential buyer – you don’t have the technical knowledge to play a game. Go away and write your shopping lists, little person. Why should technical knowledge of the workings of a computer be a requirement for gaming? Strategic and tactical thinking, yes; problem solving, yes; all sorts of things, yes; knowledge of video chipsets, no. Solving the problems of finding this stuff out is not a game, it is not fun.

But it’s not really the game studios’ fault. They’re often doing something with the game that does require specific hardware. Like it or not, for a lot of games it’s just not worth making it run on everything. What’s needed is some clear bullshit-free way of letting the buyer know whether this game will work on this computer. There was some thing talked about by Microsoft (and others) a few years ago of having a ‘standard’ spec for computers at specific times, so you’d get the “2008 High End” computer and the “2007 Mid Range” computer and so on. Game boxes (for this was before digital download was big) would say what they worked on, and you’d of course know what your machine was (so the magical thinking went), and would buy accordingly. Of course it came to nothing. The strength (and limitation) of the PC gaming market is the flexibility and variety of PCs, and besides you’d just be replacing one lot of jargon with another, albeit friendlier set.

But wait, I’m on a Mac. I’m looking at this games using the Mac App Store, an app that’s running on my computer. It knows what the spec of my machine is. Why should I need to know what the lists of numbers are? That’s the computer’s job!

The Mac App Store can (but doesn’t) tell me if my machine is capable of running the game well. There are loads of ways to do it that would be friendly and informative and yet be face-saving and PR-fluffy enough for both Apple and the game studios – from a “This game was designed for a bigger/better/faster/more computer than yours” to just not featuring games that won’t run.

Yes, it’s more work for Apple to maintain the App Store, a little harder to publish ‘featured app’ lists, but surely that’s better than just dumping it on the poor sod who just wants to play a game?