So all your friends are on Steam playing a ton of multiplayer games and you want in on the action.  There’s just one problem.  They all spent a bunch of money and time building these awesome gaming rigs and all you have is a store bought HP with a basic graphics card you installed.  Maybe you primarily game on consoles, and you’ve invested just enough to play some PC only titles.  Maybe you’re brand new to gaming in general and wanted to dip your toe in the water by upgrading the machine you do your taxes on just enough to get stuff to work.

Ether way, the first thing you notice is that anything older than four years might give you a little trouble getting running in a playable state.  Try running Battlefield 4 on that kind of machine and you’ll likely be looking at murky slideshow.  But it doesn’t have to be that way, and you don’t really have to dump a bunch of money into a new PC to fix that.  There are some tweaks that the more tech savvy of us use to get a smoother experience by sacrificing some minor (and not so minor) graphical prettiness that doesn’t really add much to the overall experience.  The catch-22 is that most of the people who know to make use of these changes are often the guys who have amazing setups in the first place, and most of their advice only gives you a negligible difference in quality from the point of view of the uninitiated.  So, let’s delve into some changes that’ll make a real difference.

1. Turn down/off shadows and reflections

Every new generation of 3D games for as long as I can remember has focuses on lighting and shadow engines.  You see these sweeping trailers including day to night changes showing off torches casting shadows off of passersby, the sun moving overhead changing the direction of shadows off of trees, and reflections off of bodies of water.  Years of work and millions of dollars are poured into programming that tasks your video card to create these pretty effects.

There’s just one problem, they add next to nothing to the gameplay experience.  On top of this, it’s really hard to make these advanced lighting effects work, and doubly so for your hardware to run it.  If your game is a slideshow, turn that crap off.   You’ll probably never miss it, and any game will run so much smoother that the difference will be like night and day.

Note that there is a new exception to this.  A few stealth action and survival horror games have actually started using shadows effectively for gameplay purposes.  It only took them the better part of a decade to figure this out.  The good news is that those games usually won’t let you turn them all the way off, and most of them have a setting that makes the shadows look like pixilated crap, but at least it’ll make it so you can run the game on lower end PCs and still use the shadows for gameplay purposes.

2.  Turn off V-Sync

Vertical sync is an option that offsets visual horizontal “tearing” that can occur on the monitor from time to time while gaming.  Can it be distracting?  Maybe, but does it impede gameplay?  Probably not.   It takes a lot of power to run V-Sync, just to solve a minor annoyance, and you can easily live without that.

Another, less viable, option is turning on “triple buffering” on OpenGL games.  But, there aren’t many games built on OpenGL these days, and there are only a few third party options to enable this.  It is a more efficient solution to the problem, but it still takes CPU/GPU clock cycles to “buffer” the frames, and while the game will run smoother than with V-Sync, if your machine would have been crippled by enabling V-Sync it would likely not handle the “triple buffering” solution, either.  What will happen instead is the game will run in slow motion, and while smooth, it won’t be very fun to play.

3. Changing some OS settings

Chances are, you are running Windows 7.  You might be on XP, and if that’s the case much of this won’t apply to you, and it’s likely you should be looking at new PC if you need this kind of guide.  God help you if you are using Windows 8 or Vista (though there are some slight performance benefits built into Windows 8).   Vista users need to move over to 7, and Windows 8 users can work around some of the design decisions that went into the system.  All of the instructions below are for Windows 7, though Windows 8 does have these options nestled somewhere within the mess that Metro has become.

The first thing you can do if you are still having issues running a game in modern Windows environments is right click on the game’s icon, and left click on properties.  From here, click the compatibility tab and here you’ll see a set of options designed to make programs run properly in various environments.  Check “disable visual themes” and “desktop composition”.   Click ok and give the game a shot.

What you’ve done is told the computer to not draw the desktop environment in the background, which should take some of the load your operating system has on the GPU off.  Another option is to go into the system properties, click advanced and then the settings button under performance, and click “adjust for best performance.”  You’ll notice an immediate difference, mainly that all of the jewely niceties of Aero are suddenly gone.  You are now left with something that looks like Windows 2000, and this is what you want.  Without all those translucent panels, your system should run a lot better (inside or outside of the game).

4.  Turn off all anti-aliasing

Aliasing is a fancy term for producing these unnatural “jaggies” surrounding polygons in 3D games.   Anti-aliasing fights that by smoothing all of the edges in the polygons that make up models.   Here’s the deal, you probably won’t notice this unless you are really looking for it, especially these days when there are so many polygons in a character model that you have to take a close eye to the surrounding edges of the model.  It takes quite a lot of GPU power to smooth this stuff out properly, so turn that crap off.

Another way to fight aliasing is to simply run the game at a really high resolution.  If the resolution is high enough, the picture is so sharp that aliasing isn’t even visible.  Of course, high resolutions really hurt framerate, which leads us to our last and best method of improving game performance….

5. Lower the screen resolution

For goodness sakes, turn that resolution down!  You do not need to play the game at exactly 1080p for it to look good.  The single hardest thing for a video card to do is maintain all of the physics and graphics while being at HD or beyond HD resolutions.  If you don’t have a top of the line system, don’t count on the game running properly at the same resolution you work in Windows.

Turning the resolution down in the game options just a few notches can drastically improve framerate, even if you have all of the other settings on high.  Sure, there’s a visibly noticeable difference in image sharpness when you start turning this setting down and the user interface will generally become more crowded,  but you are going to have to make some sacrifices if you want to game on a cheap PC.

What if the only way you can get a game to work is by turning the resolution so low that it’s a murky mess?  Well, there is an option, but it’s very situational.  Throw the game on an old monitor.  Got an old square plasma or early LCD monitor lying around?  Or maybe a working CRT behemoth you haven’t touched in the better part of a decade buried somewhere in the attic?  Hook that sucker up and try the game on that.  Modern high resolution monitors make games that run at lower resolutions look like crap because you can see all of the defects, but if you play the game on a monitor from an age when 800×600 or 1024×768 was the norm, suddenly the game looks fine, great even.

It might not be the sexiest thing in the world, but you can make a store bought PC run Skyrim on medium to high settings if you view it through a tan box.   No one will laugh at the five hundred bucks you saved by swallowing some pride, and making a few sacrifices.

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