PC gaming is making a big comeback with companies like Dell set to be a leader in the supply of big pure grunt gaming boxes.
The vast majority of games are still played on PCs rather than consoles; typically casual games played on cheap desktop machines or online games, such as World of Warcraft.
The industry is currently experiencing a renaissance in innovation as the trinity of new hardware, developer ambition and tools come together to improve experiences.
The introduction of chip technology with four cores, effectively quadrupling processing power, graphics cards using DirectX 10 tools and developers keen to push powerful machines to the limit, are resulting in games which set new graphical benchmarks.
In some cases these machines are desktop behemoths; near supercomputers in a box that are delivering game experiences beyond the wildest dreams of console owners.
The latest games, like Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3, are taking advantage of quad core processors, and twin graphics cards. These are the play things of hotrod PC gamers – the enthusiasts who see their machines as customisable dragsters delivering the pinnacle of performance.
“PC gamers see themselves as the elite gamers,” said Michael O’Dell, who runs the professional gaming group Team Dignitas and manages Birmingham Salvo, a team in the Championship Gaming Series.
“High end games PCs are important to the professional players and hard core because the extra processing power can make that millisecond of difference between success and failure, and whether you win prize money or not.”
For the hardcore the extra grunt of the most powerful desktops improve the FPS (frames per second) in FPS (First Person Shooter) games.
“My gamers are always moaning about their FPS (frames per second). They always want more and some of the newest games are very demanding on the hardware,” said Salvo.
For these gamers, whose reaction times put them in the superhuman category, more frames per second means a smoother experience.
So how much more powerful are these high-end PCs than the latest generation of consoles?
“It’s absolute nonsense to think that consoles are at the cutting edge,” said Roy Taylor, vice president of content relations at Nvidia, the world’s biggest manufacturer of graphics cards.
“As good as consoles are, they are so far behind the PC gaming experience that there is no comparison.
“In terms of raw processing power, the high-end PCs are at least three times more powerful.”
Nvidia provides the graphics grunt for the PlayStation 3, while rival ATI provides the imaging hardware for the Xbox 360.
Mr Taylor points out that the latest graphics cards can draw twice as many pixels, twice the screen resolution, as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
The latest games are employing DirectX 10 tools developed by Microsoft, which are used by developers to get the best out of the high-end and middle-range graphics cards.
Mr Taylor said the new tools and the new hardware had given developers a library of effects to play with.
Nvidia’s latest high-end graphics cards, the 8800 series, can easily produce graphical effects that tax the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, such as motion blur, depth of field and volumetric smoke.
Mr Taylor said: “Fog, smoke or mist in games until now have been flat and don’t respond to objects. Volumetric effects mean they are dynamic – a helicopter can now displace cloud or smoke, or a character can step through the fog realistically.”
But these sorts of effects come at a price.
A quadcore Intel machine with twin graphics cards and four gigabytes of ram – at the high end of the PC gaming experience – can cost more than $3,500, six times the price of an Xbox 360.
Nvidia’s flagship graphics card, the 8800 Ultra, costs more than $1,000 although a cut-down version, the 8800 GT, costs about the same price as a Nintendo Wii.