Why 2021 was the worst year for PC gaming

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When we naively predicted 2021, still in the heat of the impressive GeForce RTX 3080 and Radeon RX 6800 XT launches, this year seemed like the year of affordable PC gaming hardware. A golden year for bargain platforms, and one in the eye for the latest consoles. As it turns out, 2021 has been the worst year for PC gaming. Why? Because the core of the hobby, the mainstream and economy market, has been summarily executed.

PC gaming means different things to different people, and that alone explains what is so good about the hobby, and why no other platform can match it. On the one hand, you have the early adopters, admittedly sometimes elitist, who have money to spend; those who will buy a new component immediately upon launch, just so they can claim to have the latest and greatest equipment known to mankind.

And that’s awesome. The pure power that roars inside the highest performing gaming PC will always be unmatched by anything our console cousins ​​could dream of. And the scalability of PC games means headlines will be at their best on our platforms when pushed to their full potential.

But it’s precisely this scalability that adds to what makes PC gaming truly special to me. Because on the flip side you have the budget builders, the dedicated gamers who work hard to squeeze so much performance out of the most affordable parts on those same games.

When you’ve got a big wallet, it’s easy to pull off 4K gaming at silky-smooth frame rates, but when you’re working on a really tight budget, you have to spend hours hunting down parts, compromising on some and everything. finally to optimize the hell of your games and your system. It’s a challenge, but extremely rewarding, especially when you could often end up with a low-budget gaming PC that offers frame rates to make an Xbox One blush.

It’s been like that in the past, and as a rule of thumb I’d say that at the start of the second year of a new generation of consoles, you can expect to make a gaming PC for the same price, with performance. equal or better, compared to a current generation gamebox. Prices drop and new consumer and budget parts are released to make the job of PC building easier.

Not with this generation, not with the X series or the PS5. If you want $ 500 4K gaming, that’s always where the smart money goes.

Xbox x series

(Image credit: Avenir)

In this darkest possible timeline, there is no financial imperative to “waste” production capacity on cheaper products.

Since demand started to increase for components and PCs in general in 2020, this trend has continued this year and is expected to be the new normal throughout 2022, possibly also in 2023. Combined with a limited manufacturing capacity, a disruption in the supply chain, and the inexorable rise of cryptocurrency—again-, this means that key components, such as graphics cards, are out of stock as soon as they are released, and subsequently scarce like donkey eggs.

This then becomes fertile ground for ebay bots and resellers who apply hugely inflated price tags to our favorite components, which has made it a nightmare to try to upgrade or build a new PC in the middle of the two. last years.

This is all common knowledge, and you’re probably going through that pain yourself as a PC gamer right now. But a less mentioned side effect of the chip shortage, skyrocketing demand, and the brutally unrelenting pandemic, is the impact it has had on the choices manufacturers have made about what they produce and what it actually looks like. their product lines.

When everything you make sells the instant you ship it and you only have limited manufacturing capacity and a limited supply of chips, there is little incentive to create less expensive and traditionally in high volume. If you’re selling as many GPUs at $ 1,000 as your options at $ 400, why would you lower the potential performance stack any further?

Normally, we would have seen cards under $ 200 for budget gamers before, the ones that use the latest architecture, with a few nips and creases here and there, offering impressive value for money. But the math doesn’t add up anymore. The traditional understanding is that you earn a lot of GPUs at $ 200, with the aim of selling a whole bunch of them, because you will be selling fewer more expensive options. But in this darkest possible timeline, there is no financial imperative to “wasting” production capacity on cheaper products when you could make the same number of more expensive chips and still sell the same number, but with a much higher yield.

The fact that this is economically understandable does not make it any less sad or infuriating. Capitalism is a hard mistress.

And if you want some raw numbers to back it up: About a year after the GeForce RTX 2080 launched, Nvidia had released five GPUs under $ 300, each a step up from their relevant ancestors. You could even make six if you counted the price drop to $ 299 for the RTX 2060 in early 2020.

On the AMD side, in part because of a lower flagship price, it had released seven of its own GPUs under $ 300 the year after the Radeon RX 5700 XT released, if you count the various OEM versions. of its first generation RDNA cards. , It is.

And where is the number about a year after the launch of the GeForce RTX 3080 and Radeon RX 6800 XT? To a big zero. Nada. Nothing. There is no GPU under $ 300 in this generation.

Graphics card inserted or removed from a cryptocurrency mining setup

(Image credit: Getty, da-kuk)

And there is no alternative either. The boom-bust-boom cycle of crypto mining has literally resulted in any The GPU is being scavenged by enterprising ethereum researchers, which means that the last resort for budget gamers, ebay, is also a wasteland when it comes to affordable next-gen graphics cards.

This makes it almost impossible to build a budget gaming rig that’s really worth the money. Is there hope on the horizon? Well yes. Although let me leave a “potentially” silence hanging in the air …

There is potential for a rebirth of low-budget gaming in 2022

New Nvidia and AMD GPUs may launch in the coming year with lower prices and real availability, and Intel will finally join the race with its own line of discrete GPUs. This will give us three chances to have affordable and competitive graphics cards, and with the prices of SSDs coming down, DDR4 is currently affordable and Intel’s budget processors are of exceptional value, there is great potential for a rebirth of low-budget games in 2022.

With CES in January, traditionally where AMD likes to talk about mobile chips and new APUs, there are rumors of a Rembrandt APU design with RDNA 2 GPU cores. This could provide low-cost configurations that don’t You don’t need a discrete graphics card to be able to deliver 1080p gaming performance, offering another affordable avenue in the hobby.

We also have the Steam Deck in the works for a February release, with console-level pricing, and the potential for portable and docked PC games from a SteamOS-based system.

While these plans may save our low budget PC gaming woes, there still exists the very real specter of a supply shortage. The Steam Deck has already been delayed from a December through February launch, with Valve citing “global supply chain issues” as the reason. The initial stock has also been used up already, so if you haven’t purchased a ticket for Deck launch day funtimes yet, you’re not going to be buying yourself the Steamy handheld anytime soon.

TSMC

(Image credit: Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.)

And whether it’s GPUs or APUs, AMD is still totally dependent on TSMC for its manufacture (just like Valve through using an AMD APU in the Deck itself), which means that it is fighting with almost every other company on the planet for the Taiwanese foundry’s chip manufacturing capability. That means a limited supply, which means figuring out how to deal with those cheaper components alongside its high-end GPUs and CPUs, as well as whatever chips AMD must have made to supply both Sony and Microsoft for the PS5 and Xbox Series X / S consoles.

Despite its own manufacturing capabilities, Intel also uses contract manufacturing services from TSMC for its upcoming line of Xe-based Alchemist graphics cards.

It’s an act of multi-vendor juggling that could result in the Blue and Red teams delivering theoretically fantastic low-budget graphics cards and APUs, but without volume being anything important.

Then there’s Nvidia, which is beholden not to TSMC, but to Samsung’s manufacturing efforts. Until now, that has meant anecdotally that you were more likely to find a new GeForce GPU in the wild than an AMD, and the same could be true for budget cards. While supply is still tight, it will continue to be difficult to find one at MSRP throughout 2022.

So there is little hope of a return to the low-budget gaming PC market with the potential for key components with reasonable price tags in the future. And that’s vital because it’s not just about the ultra-passionate world of monster platforming, PC gaming is inclusive. It’s about giving everyone with a PC the chance to get involved in the hobby, whether they want to play Warzone or Wildermyth, whether they can afford to spend $ 1,000 on a map. graph every 12 months or they have to wonder if they can lose $ 50 on a new gaming headset.

I certainly took a lot more pleasure in carefully calculating and building an economical platform that exceeds its weight class, than putting together a few high powered parts and calling it a day. And I am desperate for a return to the time when it will be possible again.


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