Last year, when ATI and nVidia announced the X800 XT PE and 6800 Ultra chipsets, I had to ask myself who could possibly afford to buy a graphics card that cost around Â£400. If you were really a keen gamer, you could buy an Xbox, a PS2 and a GameCube and still have change from Â£400. Well, it looks like the Steam survey has answered that question to a certain degree, stating clearly that there arenâ€™t too many people spending money on a top of the range graphics solution, but if you ask any serious PC gamer, theyâ€™d all like one.
The problem thatâ€™s facing both technology journalists and technology manufacturers, is that the gaming man on the street doesnâ€™t want to hear about the mediocre results obtained from an affordable graphics card, he wants to hear about how the top of the range card performs so he can dream about it and aspire to owning one â€“ basically itâ€™s a halo effect.
Look at cars for example; you rarely see a car magazine with a bog standard family saloon on the cover. No, car magazine covers are usually awash with Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins, and if there is a car from a mainstream manufacturer on the cover, itâ€™s likely to be the top of the range, rally replica model, thatâ€™s had a huge turbo charged engine shoe horned under the bonnet. The point is that people want to aspire to better things, and manufacturers want to show that they can create products better than the competition, even if only a tiny percentage of potential buyers can afford those products.
So, while graphics card manufacturers are proving that their â€œhaloâ€ product is better than their competitors, and technology journalists are reporting on the phenomenal frame rates that can be achieved with said hardware, most PC users are making do with the best technology that they can afford.
This isnâ€™t something thatâ€™s lost on the game developers either. My wife works in the video game industry and I tagged along with her to a WRC Rally once - she was working on a Rally game at the time. While hanging about in the Rally service area, I got talking to one of the developers about the forthcoming game. He told me that their biggest problem at the time was that the minimum graphics card spec was a GeForce FX5200. I asked him why this was a problem since it was such a low end card, but he insisted that if they didnâ€™t get it to run on a GeForce4 minimum platform, they might as well write off the majority of potential customers.
So, I think itâ€™s time that I came down from my high horse and started to think about the real gamers out there, the ones who are making do with graphics cards that I wouldnâ€™t dream of having in my PC. Or to put it more accurately, I should think about the gamers that are using the same hardware that I would be using if I didnâ€™t have a constant stream of new kit passing through the lab.
Marie Antoinette is often credited (although thereâ€™s little proof) for replying â€œLet them eat cakeâ€ when she was told that the French peasants had no bread to eat. I think that at times Iâ€™ve shown a similar level of disregard for those PC gamers that have saved hard to buy the best graphics card they could afford, rather than the best card thatâ€™s out there â€“ I wonâ€™t be doing that anymore.
Note: Valve survey data as of Sunday 10th April 2005.