The PC gaming scene is a daunting one to enter. With difficult-to-understand hardware specs, loads of different storefronts, and hundreds of games to play, there’s a lot to look into—it can be a bit overwhelming. But just because you’re interested in PC gaming doesn’t mean you need to spend hours reading into what a graphics card does. You really just need to know the basics at first, which is exactly what we’re covering in this article.
There are plenty of reasons to get into PC gaming. Games look and perform best on PC (assuming you spend enough on your hardware to support it) compared to a gaming console, you can use a keyboard and mouse to control games (especially good for shooters and strategy games) in addition to controllers, and you also just have more choice when it comes to what to play.
But before you can reap those benefits, you need to prepare properly first, so let’s just jump into it.
Update, 12/6/21: Verified all content and links are current.
First and foremost, the PC components you need depend on what games you want to play. If you’re looking to run the most intensive games like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Cyberpunk 2077 at max settings, you’ll need a real beast of a machine, as those games are graphically incredible and have steep system requirements as a result. Meanwhile, simpler games can run on drastically less powerful computers.
If you’re planning on getting a gaming laptop, you don’t get a ton of choice when it comes to specs. You pretty much just receive whatever the manufacturer will give you at the price range. If you are planning on upgrading your laptop but can’t spend a ton on a high-spec gaming model, then look out for Ryzen 4000 and Intel Xe laptops, where the integrated graphics deliver impressive performance for the price in modern games.
Now, when it comes to gaming desktops, there’s plenty of nitty-gritty info to talk about, but we’re going to keep things fairly straightforward here. Let’s just talk about the main stuff you need to be concerned with when it comes to specs—namely the graphics card (GPU), processor (CPU), storage, and RAM. When it comes to more complicated games your GPU and CPU work as a team of sorts, with the former handling the visuals and the latter basically everything else.
This may lead you to think it’s more worthwhile to drop a ton on a super-good CPU while getting a budget graphics card, but that’s not the case. You want both to be fairly balanced—having one part be vastly superior to the other is just wasteful a lot of the time. Although, it is worth knowing the GPU is significantly easier to upgrade later on as replacing the CPU generally requires switching out the motherboard as well. Overall, the system works together as a whole—there isn’t a single “most important” component in gaming PCs.
When it comes to specific brands, AMD provides the best performance for the dollar in the realm of processors. Intel is the other main player in that field, and while its processors are by no stretch of the imagination bad, they just can’t keep up with AMD when it comes to gaming.
For GPUs, NVIDIA is the favorite of many because the company pioneers a lot of tech (such as RTX ray tracing) and the cards work well with modern AAA games. But AMD also produces graphics cards and it competes well with NVIDIA’s offerings—you really can’t go wrong with either. It’s also worth noting that you can mix and match; just because you get an AMD processor doesn’t mean you have to get an AMD graphics card.
When it comes to storage, speed is the name of the game. This not only affects how fast games will load but also how quickly they’re able to pull up data in-game as well. Modern games need to pull countless assets and textures while you’re playing to properly load the world—if your PC’s storage can’t keep up, it will negatively affect your game performance. Because of that, you’re going to want a decent-sized SSD (solid-state drive) in your PC for your games.
Now, SSDs used to be pretty expensive, but the price has dropped considerably in the past few years. We heavily recommend getting at least a one terabyte drive (because games are massive now) from a company like Samsung or Western Digital for all your game storage needs. If you need more storage for excess files, then an inexpensive hard disk drive (HDD) as a secondary storage drive will work well for that—even if it’s slower than the SSD.
There’s also the matter of NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) SSDs, which deliver even quicker load times. These are more expensive, but they’re certainly worth it if you’re trying to reach max performance.
You’ll also need ample RAM for your PC, usually in the form of DDR4 RAM, but some motherboards will still require DDR3 (you can check your motherboard’s manual to see which type it requires). Generally speaking, 16 GB of RAM is enough for a gaming PC and is what we’d recommend for first-timers. You can go higher if you want, but it’s not necessary unless you’re doing other stuff like photo editing.
Finally, we have to discuss custom-built computers. A large portion of PC gamers decide to purchase their own parts and build a gaming PC from scratch. This is sometimes more cost-effective than purchasing a pre-built from a store like Best Buy or Amazon, but oftentimes this is done for the sake of added choice when it comes to parts and configuration.
You don’t need to be intimidated by building a PC either—while on the surface it may look complicated, it’s a pretty simple process all around. And, there are loads of articles and videos online to further educate yourself on the building process and the parts themselves.
You’ll see plenty of items marked as “gaming” peripherals, including keyboards, mice, monitors, and headsets. Now, you can easily go without these items—they tend to be pretty expensive after all—but they provide some features competitive gamers, in particular, are sure to appreciate.
Gaming keyboards and mice tend to offer the same kinds of benefits. They have lower input lag than their non-gaming counterparts, you can reprogram the keys/buttons to do whatever you want a lot of the time, and they tend to be more accurate when it comes to registering inputs. You also might want a controller for some games like racers or third-person action titles. The official Xbox controller works with almost all of the titles.
For monitors, the main thing you need to be on the lookout for is the refresh rate (measured in Hertz). The refresh rate represents the maximum frame rate the monitor can display—for example, a 60 Hz monitor will max out at 60 FPS. This is important for getting the full benefit of your powerful PC and also just makes games look better. Some monitors also have some additional integrations with certain GPUs through programs like NVIDIA G-SYNC to help provide a smoother gaming experience.
There’s also the matter of resolution—do you want a 1080p, 1440p, or even 4K display? Keep in mind the higher you push the resolution, the more taxing games will be on your GPU. If you’re looking to push 4K, 60 FPS in modern games, you’ll need a pretty powerful graphics card, such as the NVIDIA RTX 3080.
Finally, the gaming headset. A headset is a great idea if you plan on playing online and need to talk to your teammates. And gaming variants can offer a couple of small perks, such as 3D audio, so you can hear from which direction sounds are coming. Besides that, there’s little difference of note between standard headsets and gaming models, but gaming headsets tend to make up most of the high-end options in this market anyway.
At the end of the day, most gaming peripherals don’t offer anything that’s going to change your life. But they’re still nice to have if you can afford it—high refresh rate monitors especially can make your gaming experience much better.
Now that you have the stuff in the real world set up, let’s talk about the digital. Nowadays, physical PC games aren’t really a thing, so all your games will be bought and downloaded through digital storefronts. But what gaming platform should you invest in?
There are three main stores that will cover most of your gaming needs: Steam, Epic Games Store, and GOG. Steam is the most well-known and has basically any PC game you could want. It’s the storefront and launcher of choice for most users thanks to its frequent sales, easy-to-organize games library, and modding support. It even features voice-chat, but you’re probably still better off using something like Discord for that.
Moving over to GOG it’s a similar story, as there are plenty of games available and sales are a frequent occurrence. However, the most notable feature of the GOG storefront is the lack of any DRM. Unlike Steam, the downloaded versions of games on GOG have no reliance on the launcher itself and can be opened independently, regardless of your internet connection or if the launcher is even currently installed. Steam can give you trouble in both of those scenarios, so it’s definitely a positive over Steam.
The final main store is Epic, which is currently the newest storefront around and also the lightest on features as result. Really, all you can do on the Epic Games Store is to buy and play games, but that’s also the most important part. Epic has the smallest library of games available out of three, but there are a couple of reasons to use the launcher. Epic has numerous exclusives that you won’t find on other launchers and also reliably hands out at least one free game per week to all users. Even if you don’t buy all your games from Epic, it’s worth keeping the launcher installed for the latter in particular.
There are also some other launchers running around at the moment, such as Origin and Ubisoft Connect, which are owned by EA and Ubisoft respectively, and only sell games from those companies. There’s also the Xbox launcher which, along with launching games you’ve bought from the Microsoft store, is also where you’ll access the Xbox Game Pass library if you’re an active subscriber.
That’s all you really need to know as far as picking up new games goes. Most players default to just using Steam and having other launchers installed to supplement that library, but it really just depends on what you value and what games you’re looking to play.
So, we’ve gone through everything you would need for a standard gaming setup, but you may not have that right now if you’re reading this. Fortunately, there are plenty of games you can play even if you don’t have a “gaming” PC or laptop.
Most notably, most PCs can run games with a 2D art style, and there are some great titles of this creed. Platformers like Hollow Knight and Celeste, top-down games such as Don’t Starve and Enter the Gungeon, and strategy games like Into the Breach and Wargroove are all simple games that still deliver on some quality gameplay.
And some of the most popular games in the world right now have been optimized to run on lower-spec systems. Games like Minecraft, Valorant, League of Legends, Fortnite, and Roblox, despite their more complicated nature than the 2D games, can still run decently on weaker computers—as long as you’re okay with lower graphical settings and some frame rate stuttering.
The YouTuber LowSpecGamer is a great resource if you’ll be playing on, well, a low-spec PC. They cover a wide variety of games, and you see how well the games run on low-spec systems. If the game you’re interested in playing is at all popular, there’s a good chance it’s been covered by this channel.
There’s also the matter of game streaming to talk about. This is a great option if you don’t have a powerful PC, because your computer’s not actually doing any of the work, just your internet connection (so hopefully that’s decent). Google Stadia provides some excellent streaming performance even if it’s lacking some features, Xbox Game Pass streaming is currently only available on Android but is coming to Windows in 2021, and Geforce Now enables you to stream games you already own. Amazon Luna is also a promising up-and-comer, but it’s still in its very limited beta stages right now.
If you still want to play high-end PC games without a high-end PC, streaming is your best option at the moment—just keep in mind that each service charges a monthly fee, so there’s still a financial commitment here.
There’s a lot to look into if you’re interested in getting into PC gaming. But while it may look daunting now, it only becomes easier as you get more used to it. And if you’re at all interested in PC gaming, chances are the benefits are going to be worth the upfront investment of time and money.