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February 17, 2009

Targeting Older Systems

Way back when, when the Vespers project was first starting out, I had to decide which game engine to use. Initially, the choice was between the Torque Game Engine and the Unity engine. I eventually chose TGE for a few reasons -- at the time, the engine had been around longer than Unity, the community was larger, and it was less expensive and more straightforward to develop cross-platform games (specifically, Mac and PC).

Once that decision was made, then there was the choice of which Torque engine to use: the basic TGE engine, or the higher-end TGEA (TGE-Advanced) engine, which back then was called TSE (for "Torque Shader Engine"). TGEA offered a number of more advanced features, the most obvious of which was higher-quality graphic rendering. That came at a price, though; at the time, the engine would only run on Windows machines, and it required machines with graphics cards that could handle the bigger load. Also, although TGEA does now support OpenGL and Macs, back then it was not so clear if that would ever actually come to pass. Since I was more interested in developing simultaneously for Windows and Macs, TGEA didn't seem like the best option at the time. TGE had been around longer and was more stable, even though its graphics performance was not at the same level as TGEA.

For me, though, stunning shaders and slick water rendering were trumped by the desire to create a game that would run on a wide range of machines, especially machines that are older or without the top of the line video card. The problem there is that, given the length of time for development, it's hard to put (or perhaps keep) a finger on what constitutes an appropriately "old" machine. When I started development of Vespers, my main desktop dev machine was still fairly new and probably middle of the line. Now, however, the machine is going on six years old. That doesn't seem very old, and it still runs most of my applications nicely enough, but in computer years that's almost geriatric and at this point it's naturally much slower than the machines from the past couple of years.

This is not a big deal for day-to-day activities, but as we add more and more content to the game, we're seeing some serious performance issues on my now old machine, despite a few rounds of optimization. But that makes me start to question what I should be targeting for a minimum system requirement. I had always thought that my machine would still be somewhere in the middle by the time we finished development, but now I'm beginning to feel like it's toward the bottom end.

(In case the four of you reading this are interested, my dev machine is a Mac G5 Dual 2 GHz model, circa 2003, with an ATI Radeon x800 video card, but it also runs well enough on the same setup with an ATI Radeon 9600 card. My wife still uses a Mac G4 laptop, so there are certainly G4 computers still perfectly usable. But Macs have evolved over the years to faster G5 chips and now a couple of rounds of Intel chips, as well as more modern video cards.)

I've generally been going on the assumption that if the game runs well enough on my dev machine, by the time it's released that should be a fairly reasonable minimum system requirement. But it will be progressively more difficult to ensure it runs well enough on machines that are even just a little bit older. Still, my goal is to try and include as many older machines as possible. The more the merrier -- but within a still to-be-determined limit.

So that leads me to wonder: how long do you all typically own a computer before replacing it with a new machine? Adding memory or upgrading the video card extends the life of a computer, of course, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm interested to know how long people generally keep their rigs before replacing them with a new box. Some people of course keep their old rigs around for different tasks, but I'm interested in knowing how old some of the systems are out there that people still use for gaming (particularly 3D games, like Vespers), and what kind of system people would be interested in seeing this game run on -- Mac or PC/Windows. If you would, let me know in the comments below.

12 comments:

Victor Gijsbers said...

I think I usually replace my computer after some 5 years; but during that time it will generally have seen some upgrades, like more RAM, a better CPU. or a faster video card.

I would like to see Vespers running on Linux.

grassBlade said...

I seem to be averaging 1 per 2yrs (20 year span); however, at least 2 of those blew up and 1 (x286) was archaic. I'm currently running x64-bit Vista, 8800 nVidia

Anonymous said...

i'm on my 2nd pc in twelve years... and have no plans of ditching this one in the near future.

DavidMB said...

My G5 is only slightly newer than yours. I would be interested to know if yours can actually render games in Unity. Unity hard-locks my Mac and I have to force a power-down by holding the power button until it dies.

I usually try to upgrade every 4 or so years as I can afford it, though my machines (especially my Macs and laptop) are getting long in tooth.

georgeolivergo said...

I've owned only laptops, and so far I get a 'newer' one (I get a new used one) about every four years.

I've had the current laptop for about two years, WinXP, 1.5 ghz and 1 GB RAM (which I upgraded from 512), and the original Radeon 7500 video card -- this is pretty decent for most older 3D games but obviously fails on anything with shaders or more intense cpu requirements.

Nevertheless I think I won't fully upgrade for another two years or so.

indigostatic said...

I upgraded from a Pentium 2 300Mhz to a 2.53Ghz celeron about 3 years ago... yeah, I know.
Now it's kind of dated, but I can run most indie games released recently (except a few ones which require some shader mumbo jumbo).

Speaking broadly, the mayority of the people I know (who aren't tech geeks) have integrated graphics cards. But I think it's safe to say that the audience interested in Vespers are tech savvy, so the mayority of them are going to be equiped with reasonable computers.

The casual market would be the one really affected by minimum requirements.

Optimizing never hurts though.

Rubes said...

I would like to see it running on Linux, too. TGE does run on Linux, but that flavor stopped being supported by GarageGames a while back and I'm not sure where it currently stands. I don't know much Linux myself, so I'd probably need some help with that.

As for Unity, I've run the development environment without much trouble, but I don't recall playing any games written in Unity to know how it runs. I should probably try that out.

I think most systems with dedicated video cards that were made within the last five years should be able to run Vespers fairly well. It's the integrated graphics chips that I think will cuse problems.

Mike Rozak said...

I have some actual numbers for you:

Hardcore gamers - http://store.steampowered.com/hwsurvey

More casual - http://unity3d.com/webplayer/hwstats/

Rubes said...

Thanks, Mike. Those were both very helpful links.

El Clérigo Urbatain said...

I think indie market is plague with old machines, so, maybe you should keep worrying about the good old ones.

For me, I have a P4 1800 and an AMD 1800+. It has served me quite well through this years (more than 5), and now is when I feel it is being old for some indie games. Flash games lately are being quite CPU demanding, and now we are seeing top noch 3D indie games like The Path, so I think it's time for me to buy some new hardware. But man, I can play 90% of indie games of today with my slow and old machine, and I'm quite happy about.

So you must think about potential buyers. I think most indie gamers are like, but I could be wrong...

Rubes said...

I think the real issue stems from the fact that the game will need a dedicated graphics card -- integrated graphics chips are probably not going to cut it. The problem is that a lot of new systems include the integrated chips because they're cheaper and draw less power, and are pretty good at handling most graphics applications except the more demanding 3D games. So even if people are exchanging their older systems for newer ones, that still can be an issue (for me) if the new system uses integrated graphics chips.

El Clérigo Urbatain said...

Well, the average indie gamer will have a graphic card for sure (not the casual one). And integrated peripherals are more advanced day by day. You can check portable ones, that have massive processing both in CPU and graphics. So I think that that is not an issue.

Regards,