By Scott Steinberg
When you think gaming computers, the typical image that springs to mind (besides a giant question mark, if you're not a video games enthusiast) are pricey systems from the likes of HP and Alienware. But while desktops and laptops offering superior 3D computing performance were the norm yesterday, consider. Thanks to the emergence of new video game genres and trends, even older PCs can now provide a satisfying electronic entertainment experience.
From massively multiplayer online (MMO) virtual worlds that exist and evolve 24/7 online, and let thousands of players interact in real-time, to social games designed for play on Facebook, options are suddenly endless. Case in point: Literally thousands of games can be downloaded from, or played free within, your Web browser. Likewise, streaming "cloud" solutions such as OnLive and Gaikai (which process games on cutting-edge, remotely-located servers and beam them down on-demand over the Internet), now let everyday machines run new and premium game experiences.
The next time that your teenager tells you they need a gaming computer, consider pointing out the following trends - most of which your average, reasonably-priced system can run without major upgrades. While doing so may earn you a nasty look, you may wind up saving thousands in the end.
Free to Play Games - Literally tens of thousands of simple and free downloadable video games - some even starting to approach retail quality - can be had at websites like Shockwave, Kongregate, and NinjaKiwi.com. While most are lightweight, coffee-break style experiences, many are beginning to feature added depth and 3D complexity, and are designed around affordable, low-end hardware requirements. Collectively, all have turned the Internet into the ultimate arcade.
Social Games - With more than 850 million people actively using Facebook, a new breed of "social games" that piggyback on it and similar sites' infrastructure has rapidly gained in popularity. Packed with free, user-friendly titles meant for play in short spurts and designed to run in your Web browser, popular networks now offer titles in nearly every imaginable genre. From FarmVille (simulation) to Bubble Witch Saga (arcade action) and Empires & Allies (strategy), these outing are designed for mass appeal - and hence to run on nearly any PC.
Indie Games - Most retail games are sprawling affairs made by large corporations. By contrast, indepdent (indie) games are often made by small groups or lone individuals. Many such as Braid and Minecraft eschew fancy graphics, eye-popping special effects and other CPU-hogging clutter for more practical benefits like novel themes, catchy storytelling and unique gameplay concepts. Frequently among the most innovative and boundary-pushing titles available, they're also among the least punishing on system resources.
Digital Downloads and DLC - Courtesy of online retailers like Steam, GamersGate and GameStop PC Downloads, entire games and reams of downloadable content (DLC) add-ons (i.e. new missions, maps and characters) can be download right to your desktop. While some are simply copies of boxed retail cousins, many more like Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 are original, download-only options. Not only are many choices provided here value-priced and more affordable. They also typically offer highly-polished experiences (albeit in smaller chunks) in a format that - because of bite-sized price points and corresponding fan expectations - delivers hours of fun that even budget-priced gaming computers can enjoy.
Cloud Computing - Cloud computing - and cloud gaming - are growing in popularity as well. Using this practice, software developers don't store files and software on your home machine, but rather offload intensive computing and graphics processing functions remotely, then beam results back to your PC via high-speed broadband connection. Courtesy of providers like Gaikai and OnLive, cloud gaming technology allows even value-priced and older systems to provide high-end gaming performance. That way, you can play many of today's top titles without having to worry about hiccups, stutters or programs refusing to run because of hardware limitations.
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