Monday, 23 January 2012

5 of my favourite gaming apps

PC gaming is pretty much as male as hobbies get. As the most graphically advanced and customisable gaming platform, it combines three of the cornerstones of being a man:
  1. our primal craving to seek out and experience beautiful things
  2. our never-ending fascination with watching stuff blow up
  3. our compulsive desire to tinker. 
There's a special sort of satisfaction in playing a great game and knowing that the experience is even better than what came out of the box, because you took the time to customise fiddling with driver settings, .ini files, installing mods, and/or upgrading your system in some way. The following 5 tinkerable utilities all help you get the most out of your games.

1.    DXTORY 

What it does: lets you limit your FPS to whatever you want
Download it here

Dxtory is a fully-featured app that lets you take screenshots and videos of your games. It excels at this, offering more robust options than the popular Fraps. But what I love most about it is its FPS-limiter feature.

There's a myth circulating the internet that claims that humans can't see over 30 frames per second - one which has gained significant popularity among the gullible and the half-blind. But if you're neither of these, you've no doubt noticed with your own eyes that framerates in most games tend to fluctuate a lot, which can be very distracting (even if the overall frame rate is high and it's fluctuating between, say, 60 fps and 50fps).

Our eyes are designed to detect aberration. If you look at a 1920x1080 screen that is all white except for a single black pixel, you'll have no problem finding that one black pixel, even though it's outnumbered by the white pixels 2,073,599 to 1. Similarly, while your peripheral vision is useless at making out the fine detail in things, it remains excellent at detecting movement. Because noticing change is what our eyes are best at.

The downside of this is that our eyes are very good at noticing variations in the frames-per-second of games, which can impede immersion by making the experience feel glitchy and unrealistic. Some higher-end games combat this by introducing motion blur, but that only partially alleviates the problem. The only real solution is to try and force a constant framerate, which is where Dxtory comes in.

Among its many features, Dxtory lets you set a framerate cap for your games, on a per-profile basis. So you can set different framerate caps for different games, and dxtory will remember them and faithfully apply the right profile when you load them up. In other words, it's basically set-and-forget.

For example, I use a limit of 47 for Batman: Arkham City, which used to fluctuate between 45 and 60 fps. 47 is still pretty decent, and now that the fps barely ever fluctuates, the overall experience feels smoother than ever.

The full version of Dxtory is a little pricey, but the free version is perfectly useable if you're just using it for FPS-limiting or screenshots, with only some minor annoyances placed in your way (you need to wait 10 seconds to launch, and it loads up a webpage when you quit).

2.    EVGA Precision

What it does: overclocking for dummies
Download it here. (note: you don't need an EVGA brand graphics card for it to work) 

Graphics cards are built conservatively, and usually have significantly more grunt in them than what the factory settings expose. To really squeeze the maximum juice from your card, you have to enter the crazy world of water-cooling systems, voltage increases and painstaking stress-testing. But for the rest of us, a simple program like EVGA Precision can provide a modest framerate increase without much hassle or risk.

Now, when it comes to overclocking, I'm strictly a layman, so if you want to do anything more than the conservative tweak I recommend here, you'll want to find a proper overclocking guide somewhere else. If you go overboard or fiddle with things you're not meant to, you can easily damage your machine. A gentle overclock, however, is a pretty safe and worthwhile thing to do. Please note though that even the slightest overclock will proably void your warranty and could decrease the life of your graphics card. Proceed only if these things don't concern you.

There are plenty of overclocking programs out there, though I like EVGA Precision for its simplicity. Once you load it up, it will show you your graphic card's current settings. Unless you've overclocked before or you own a factory-overclocked graphics card, these will be the defaults (to confirm what the defaults of your cards are, check the official specifications of your card on the manufacturer's website).

As a rule of thumb, increasing the core clock (aka graphics clock) and shader clock (aka processor clock) by 10% is considered quite safe. For example, a GTX580's defaults are 772 MHz and 1544 MHz respectively, so increasing them to about 850 and 1700 should be fine. You can also slightly increase the memory clock, although this will likely have less of an impact on your gaming experience. Once you have changed your settings, check the "apply at windows startup" box and you're done.

If you notice your games crashing or any weird visual artifacts (unlikely but possible), then lessen or undo these changes. Also keep an eye on your GPU temperature by checking EVGA Precision while a high-end game is running, to make sure the temperature doesn't look in danger of exceeding the maximum stated by the manufacturer (in the case of a GTX580: 97 celsius). If all seems well, you can just let EVGA Precision run on windows startup and do its thing.

A conservative overclock of 10% will likely give you an increase of 3-5 frames per second in most games. If this doesn't sound like much, it's because it isn't. But hey, it's essentially 'free', and takes 2 minutes to set up. The next time you're juggling a game's graphics settings to try and find the best balance between good visuals and a playable framerate, this bonus 3-5 fps will be very welcome.

3.    xmouse

What it does: makes your extra mouse buttons work in all games
Download it here

Xmouse is a little program that runs in the background that you can use to map different keys or functions to different mouse buttons. Useful if you have extra buttons on your mouse that a game doesn't recognise.

It supports multiple profiles, so you can use different configurations for different games. Though personally, I just globally map my two extra mouse buttons to the F and V keys. Then, whenever I first load up a game, I just go to the control settings and make sure that F and V are mapped to something that I want quick access to (eg. melee attack, throw grenade, use binoculars, etc).

Xmouse is useful beyond gaming too. For example, I've set it up to make tilting my scrollwheel left and right activate "back" and "forward" in my web browsers and windows explorer, which speeds up my navigation speed significantly.

4.    Steam Mover

What it does: Lets you split your Steam games library across different drives
Download it here

Between auto-patching, crazy sales, and creating a thriving environment for indie developers, Steam has created a better world for PC gamers. Though it has several drawbacks too, one of which is that all your Steam games need to be on the same hard drive. Most of the time that's ok, but it can be annoying if your main hard drive is filling up while another just sits there with plenty of unused space on it. Or if you've bought a super-fast SSD, and wouldn't mind shifting a couple of games onto it - such as ones that have long load times, stuttering issues and/or cause you to die and reload a lot.

The only way I know of to split up your Steam games across more than one hard drives is to 'trick' Steam by moving your game folder from, say, drive C to drive D, but creating a 'link' between the two locations so that Steam thinks the game is still on drive C. This is fairly straightforward and can be done with some simple cmd.exe commands. But easier still is to simply use Steam Mover, which automates the process and lets you move games back and forth with a single click.

update: I've recently found a similar utility called dirlink that lets you make these symbolic links for any folders you desire, not just Steam games. This is useful for Origin games, for example. Or just about anything else.

5.    SMAA Injector

What it does: adds anti-aliasing to games that don't normally support it
Download it here

This wondrous little thing lets you pretty much say goodbye to that annoying pixel-creep forever. It can add anti-aliasing to games even when trying to force AA via your graphics card drivers doesn't do anything. It doesn't smooth all edges perfectly, but it gets most of them, and comes at a surprisingly low performance cost. It even lets you toggle the effect on and off in real-time to see the difference.

Once you download the files, installation is easy, but be aware of a few things:
  • You'll need to copy either the DX9 files or the DX10 files into the game folder; if you don't know whether your game is DX9 or DX10, just try each and see what works (try DX9 first; it's more common)
  • If you experience an overly bright screen when using this in a Steam game, open up injector.ini in notepad, and set "weird_steam_hack" to 1. 
  • injector.ini also lets you select which key you want to use for toggling the effect on and off, though the author hasn't explained which keycodes correspond to which keys. This page should help you.
update: Since I wrote this, Nvidia have added an FXAA feature that can be switched on for practically any game via the nvidia control panel. If you're an Nvidia user, I recommend using that instead.


Stanley Lynch said...

These probably would have come in handy 5 years ago, but I don't think they'll help with Bejewelled... I just need to speed up my brain.

Are there any recent games (for PC) that incorporate fantasy and sci-fi elements within the one package?

Volnaiksra said...

hehe - Yeah, I think Bejewelled already looks as good as it's going to get.

The Warhammer 40000k series of games very much combine fantasy and sci-fi: they're set in the future and have Orcs, feudalism and jetpacks. You can't get much more scifi+fantasy than that! There is a 3rd-person action game called Warhammer 40000k: Space Marine, as well as strategy games such as Warhammer 40000k: Dawn of War II.

Though I'd particularly recommend the Mass Effect series, which is my favourite game series of all time. Though it's basically pure sci-fi, it incorporates a lot of fantasy-like elements. The combat relies heavily on advanced "biotic" skills, which is really just 'spells' with a different name. And observers have noted that many of the alien races closely resemble archetypal fantasy races, such as the graceful, mystical and long-lived Asari (elves), the pragmatic and technologically gifted Salarians (dwarves), or the brutish and bloodthirsty Krogan (orcs). Mass Effect is a trilogy, the final instalment of which comes out in a few weeks.

Volnaiksra said...

Actually, they're called Warhammer 40000, not Warhammer 40000k (drop the k)