PC gaming can be an expensive hobby, especially when it comes to hardware. Not every gamer can afford to build their own computer, especially when they're stuck with the most basic multipurpose setups around. Luckily, there's several steps that can be taken to play video games on low-end hardware. Whether it's using low framerate configuration edits, comparing system specifications before purchasing, or simply buying well optimized games, low-end gaming can be a manageable experience for players on a budget.

Feature: Playing on a Budget

Let’s be honest: not every gamer can afford high-end hardware. Whether it’s building a new rig, upgrading a graphics card, or buying the latest releases, PC gaming’s costs can rack up over time. Gamers on limited income may end up stuck with outdated hardware, waiting several months to build a proper gaming computer.

There’s different reasons why some PC gamers can only play on low-end machines. College students are often stuck with entry-level laptops, purchased for nothing more than writing papers and submitting online assignments. Gamers on a strict budget may have to cut back, purchasing computers for necessity over play. And PC fans in developing countries often face hardware inflation, ballooning mid-range builds into triple digit costs. Sometimes, playing on weaker hardware is the only option for PC gamers, because the mid-end and high-end simply isn’t a choice.

PC gaming is a versatile field, however. Today’s games are built for advanced modability, with a wide variety of graphics configurations in both the in-game options settings, and its configuration files. And the rise of the independent industry means dozens of games are built for low-end gaming. Today, it’s okay to be a PC gamer on entry-level hardware. There’s plenty of options out there for players short on cash.

Optimizing 101: Why Can’t I Play Fallout 4 On High?

Before we look into low-end gaming, we need to start with a simple question: how does PC gaming performance work, and what do PC gamers need in order to play demanding games? That means we need to do a little computer science 101.

Every game relies on two core processing units: the graphics processing unit (GPU, also known as the “graphics card”), and the central processing unit (CPU, or the “processor”). The graphics card is the penultimate powerhouse for all forms of video gaming, and high-end games require high video random-access memory (or, VRAM) and fast clock speeds in order to handle such features as anti-alias, depth of field, and texture filtering. Most PC upgrades are centered around the GPU, and any well optimized PC game will strive to make the most out of the GPU’s graphics processing capabilities.

The GPU doesn’t carry the bulk alone, though. The CPU is the engine behind the computer, making advanced calculations while executing in-game code during play. For most of today’s demanding releases, high clock speeds and multicore processing are basic necessities. This is especially the case for console ports, which are largely prioritized for the CPU-centric hardware found in PlayStation and Xbox.

Past the CPU and GPU is the random-access memory (RAM). Because software is loaded into the RAM during use, high RAM allows computers to store more data for quick access during play - such as models and textures. Low RAM can cause stuttering, slowdown, and framerate drops that bottleneck even the strongest GPUs and CPUs. This is especially the case for games such as Fallout 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, which feature texture-intensive open-worlds for the player to explore.

So, what do these parts have to do with your computer’s graphical capabilities? Simple: not all hardware is created equally. There’s a massive difference between an AMD R9 270x and an Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics processor, as there is between 2GBs of RAM and 8 GBs. Understanding your system requirements can help you figure out your computer’s limitations.

For instance, integrated graphics cards are built for casual video usage, but aren’t intended to carry the brunt of a dedicated card. Games such as XCOM 2, Metal Gear Solid V, Street Fighter V, and Fallout 4 struggle on these graphics processors, because they demand high VRAM and processing speeds in order to render in-game graphics at playable framerates. Meanwhile, CPUs with low clock speeds and cores will slow down the computer’s ability to process the game engine’s actions. And low RAM means longer load times and lower framerate when loading brand new areas.

Better hardware means better gameplay performance, and it’s easier to plan for games to purchase if you know what your computer is capable of rendering. So before you buy, open up your dxdiag and familiarize yourself with your hardware. From there, you’ll have a better understanding of what games you can play at which framerate, and with what graphics settings.

Shopping On a Low-End System

So you’ve looked over your specs, you have a solid idea of what your computer is capable of playing, and you have a bit of disposable income. You’re interested in buying a game on Steam during the upcoming holiday sale, but you’re not sure if your system can run it. What should you do?

Luckily, there are a number of steps you can take to see if your hardware is compatible. Before making any purchases, keep these tips in mind:

Compare Your System Requirements Online

Don’t just figure out your system specs. Compare them directly with other users. Sites such asGame-Debate let gamers rank their system’s components against high-end parts, and rate them for their performance value. Likewise, Game-Debate hosts both official system requirements, feedback from other gamers, and suggested builds for minimum, maximum, and recommended play. The Witcher 3’s page over at Gamer-Debate is an excellent example. Listing both Intel and AMD CPUs alongside Nvidia and AMD GPUs, their entry provides a useful benchmark for figuring out whether your current system specifications are suitable for Geralt of Rivia’s world.

Game-Debate isn’t the only site worth visiting. Consider checking out the official homepage for your CPU or GPU manufacturer too. Companies such as Intel provide an in-depth list of games that can be played on their integrated hardware, as well as setting optimizations and configuration edits for specific titles. Their page for the Intel i3-4000M is a perfect example, and includes graphics settings for everything from Rocket League to The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

Watch Gameplay Footage & Let’s Plays

Like gamers, not every YouTube channel host can afford the latest computer technology. Many are stuck on low-end systems. However, a couple players using entry-level laptops and OEM desktops have decided to make the most of their situation by hosting YouTube gameplay videos of contemporary PC releases on their systems. These videos are extremely helpful for players struggling to figure out if their machine can play a specific game, because they feature recorded in-game footage with notes on graphics settings, and in some cases, information on framerate outside of recording.

Finding these videos are simple enough, too. Just type in your system specifications into YouTube and list a game you’d like to play. For instance, typing in “Intel HD 5500 Battlefield 4” will lead to a rather informative Battlefield 4 >playthrough from Brue Computing, as will “XCOM 2 Intel HD 4000” bring up 4aLse’s XCOM 2 footage. So instead of comparing parts and making a performance estimate, low-end gamers can simply watch a YouTube video showing how the game looks and plays for a player with similar specs.

Just remember that performance isn’t dictated by one sole part. Even if two computers feature the same GPU, there’s a major difference between playing Battlefield 4 on an Intel i3 and playing on an i7. So be sure to check out multiple videos from various similar builds if you can’t find your own, so you can get a more realistic look at other players’ experience.

Search for Performance Configuration Edits

Configuration edits have always been popular in PC gaming, and graphics tweaks are no exception. But did you know that engines such as Unreal and Source specifically feature a large amount of programming lines that can be modified by hand? It’s true, and even among contemporary releases, it’s relatively easy to alter configuration files to get your games running at a decent framerate.

But what are configuration edits? Well, stored in .ini and .cfg files are engine codes for additional graphics features that aren’t listed in the in-game options menu, such as dynamic lighting, shading details, physics engines, and map shadows. These options can serve as the backbone behind a game’s physical design, and make the world stand out. But they can also be taxing on older hardware, hence the need for a change.

Today, config modifications are extremely easy to find, and most modern releases feature some sort of graphical tweak to gain framerates.There’s already a couple excellent guides out there for more demanding games, too. Just check out OldManGamer’s Killing Floor 2 graphics tweaks on the Steam Community hub, and SegmentNext’s BaseEngine.ini engine edits for XCOM 2.

Shop Smart, Buy Smart

When all else fails, remember to be frugal. Instead of buying games that surpass your hardware’s capabilities, save the money and look for games that run well on low-end systems. Visual novels, 2D adventure games, side-scrolling roguelikes, pixel art games, and DOS titles are all excellent choices. These games are perfect for entry-level hardware because they require lower RAM and processing power than, say, such intensive AAA releases as Star Wars: Battlefront and Metal Gear Solid V.

If in doubt, if there’s a PC exclusive release you’re looking forward to that you simply can’t run, consider putting money aside for building your own computer later on. It’s relatively easy to do, and sites such as PCPartPicker even let users share their own build guides - many of which optimized for the highest system performance at the cheapest price. So alongside buying games you can currently play on your hardware, consider tucking some money away for a gaming computer proper. You might just end up building the gaming machine you’ve been dying for, at the same price of a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One.

Fin: Playing on a Budget