With the next-generation of game consoles just around the corner, the line between PC and console gaming is becoming increasingly blurred. Consoles like the Xbox 360 are borrowing standard PC features like media playback and packaging them in an appealing box, at a lower price than an equivalent PC or Mac. The Xbox 360 is also standardizing features like online game purchasing and wireless controllers. It's easy to see a future where game developers stray away from the PC as a games platform and stick exclusively to consoles with their simple interfaces and standard features. However, there are still several areas in which the PC has the advantage over game consoles. Some things you can't do with a game console: create machinima exclusively on the console, download cheat codes, take and share screenshots and chat with large groups of people simultaneously.
The stereotype that PC gamers are "hardcore" in comparison to the typical "casual" console gamer is just that, a stereotype. There are plenty of Halo 2 players out there that spend 6 hours a day gaming, just as there are people that start up X-Plane (a relatively complex flight simulator) for a casual flight every now and again. In the end, everyone needs to settle down and realise that consoles and computers complement each other. This feature is all about software and resources that will help you improve your existing gaming experience on a console and/or your computer.
Azureus, BitComet and uTorrent are three of the most popular BitTorrent clients available. Whilst these applications can be used to distribute illegal or pornographic content, independent game developers are increasingly using BitTorrent to distribute games, demos and mods across the web. Because BT files are peer to peer, the more people that download a particular file, the faster that file downloads. Anything that reduces the time people have to wait for a new mod or demo is fine by us. Just make sure to avoid any dodgy content - there's a lot out there.
Whilst the Cheat Database isn't technically an application — and you'll definitely lose the repect of your hardcore gamer buddies for bookmarking this site — having a constantly updated library of videogame cheats is an essential resource for any PC gamer. Make sure that the next time you get a "muuuust blow up cars!" craving in GTA, you're only be a few keystrokes away from a fully equipped Apache helicopter!
In a similar vein to BitTorrent, Download Express (or Download Accelerator Plus on the Mac) is a simple, small and free download accelerator. Getting popular videogame files from the web (whether they're screenshots, trailers, mods or game demos) can sometimes be a tiresome experience, especially if they're popular and therefore slow. Whilst some webmasters hate download accelerators (and several download sites ban them), they're totally legal and can have a very positive impact on download speed.
DOSBox allows you to run older DOS games on your modern PC that may not run correctly (or at all) under Window's built in DOS emulation. The focus of DOSBox goes beyond mere emulation: the idea here is to get DOS games to run smoothly. That means that features such as network and printer support are on the backburner for now. This program allows people with Windows 2000/XP, Linux and FreeBSD to access a myriad of games from the pre-Windows era. So head up to the attic and rediscover your PC gaming past!
As the homepage for FRAPS states, there are three main things that this versatile application can do. To start with: it can display the framerate of pretty much every DirectX and OpenGL game out there. You can even setup custom benchmarks - just set a start and end point for recording the framerate. It'll output the data to a file on your desktop which you can then open up in Excel and convert into pie... charts. It also features an excellent screen capture feature that's light years ahead of Window's awful "print screen" function. It'll automatically create a jpeg on your desktop - that's named and timestamped. Finally, its best feature: realtime video capture! FRAPS is the application to use if you have machinima aspirations. Mac users should check out the similarly featured Snapz Pro X.
MAME, which stands for the "multiple arcade machine emulator", is the second emulator on the list. As you can probably guess it's used to emulate arcade games. In development since 1996, with over 100 people helping with the project, this is the emulator to use if you want to play long-lost arcade games. The combination of MAME with above average DIY skills has allowed people to create custom arcade cabinets: the ultimate toy for a bachelor pad.
mIRC and Xchat are are two of the best internet relay chat programs out there and are essential for arranging online games, getting in touch with friends and mocking other inferior gamers. There's a lot of geek culture surrounding IRC since it's been around pretty much since the first online multiplayer games. However once you've found a server and channel you like, there's no going back. If you're a Mac user that's having aqua withdrawl, check out the Apple styled Colloquy.
NetNewsWire and SharpReader are the best RSS readers on the Mac and PC platform respectively. RSS cuts out the middleman (or more specifically, the web browsing) that gets in the way between you and the latest news from the world of videogames. Both of the above readers have an easy to navigate user interface, but NetNewsWire edges ahead feature-wise with its support for tabbed browsing, smart feed lists and compatibility with Tiger's automater. Because RSS feeds automatically update whenever new content appears, you don't have to wait as long to read the latest from your favorite games weblog. RSS is an essential part of the gamer's daily diet.
ATIccelerator on the Mac) is
the ultimate utility for tweaking and/or monitoring your GeForce or Radeon graphics card. Need a little framerate boost
in F.E.A.R? Fire up RivaTuner and overclock your graphics card a touch. Then load up the temperature
monitor to make sure you're not damaging your card. Alternatively you could underclock your card to save battery power
in your laptop. Some people have even had some luck with unlocking extra card pipelines in
"special edition" graphics cards
example). WARNING: You may want to skip this utility if you don't know your VRAM from your
Roger Wilco, Teamspeak and Ventrilo are three popular VoIP applications that are optimised for online gaming. If you haven't got yourself a mic and headset yet, you're missing out on an important element of online gaming. Combined with a comfortable and good quality headset, these programs will help massively with team based online games. Battlefield 2 and World of Warcraft players should not be without a VoIP application! Mac users can use iChat or Skype, or check out the OS X Ventrilo client or TeamSpeex, a 3rd party OS X Teamspeak client.
ScummVM may not have the most appealing name on the planet (it ranks up there with GIMP for stupid geeky program names), but that's not the point. Any program that allows you to play games like Broken Sword and Day of the Tentacle on, well, pretty much every platform is an essential part of every gamer's software collection. The flexibility of the program is astounding: it's even been ported to the DS and the PSP. And yes, you can use the DS' stylus as a pseudo-mouse! If portable Monkey Island isn't enough of an excuse to pick up either a DS or a PSP, I don't know what is.
Steam is an online game distribution utility created and run by Valve, the creators of a little game (that you may/may not have heard of) called Half-Life. Valve is one of the few commercial games developers that publishes its games online. If you bought Half-Life 2, you'll know that Steam is required to play the game. Whilst this caused a few problems in the early days of the service they're more or less ironed out now. Whether or not you feel uneasy about being forced to play your games via another program, Steam offers a convenient location to test and buy a wide selection of games. It offers a flat rate pricing structure worldwide - everyone pays the same price for games (give or take regional taxes). It's also very satisfying to be able to choose, buy and play games nearly instantly. There's also the fact that, as we mentioned earlier, Half-Life 2 requires Steam. That alone pretty much makes Steam an essential PC gaming utility.
Xbox Live Dashboard Widget and XBList are essential for any gamers that were lucky enough to pick up an Xbox 360 after the launch. If you were number 51 out of 50, then you'll still want to check up on Vlad, Joystiq's editor. Someone's gotta remind him not to spend his entire life pursuing a higher high score in Geometry Wars!
Xfire is one of the better programs dedicated to organising online PC games. It's got stat tracking, VoIP and IM chat functionality built-in and supports pretty much every game out there. You can also download and manage PC game demos from within the application. However, the software's best and core feature is to simplify your PC gaming experience online. When a mate gets bored and fires up Counterstrike, you can join him or her simply by double clicking. So stop fiddling around with IP addresses and get gaming!
XLink Kai is a piece of software that allows you to play games over the internet using the system-link functions of PS2, Gamecube, Xbox, PSP and Xbox 360 titles. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the service is free, there are some downsides. Firstly, you're likely to encounter more lag than other server based solutions. This is because the system link games are designed for network speed data rates. Secondly, since there's little or no moderation, you will encounter a lot of asshats if you want to play with the masses. Thirdly and finally, configuring your PC/Mac to work with your console is not easy. This is partly due to the extra hassle with the computer sharing the internet connection to your console. However it's mainly due to the developers being part time - they have less time to focus on the user experience. However, if you've got tech savvy friends living across the globe (or even, down the street) XLink will allow you to hook up and game together - for free.
One (intended) omission to this list is a broadband tweaker. Whilst they may help with speeding up file downloads, they're ineffective when it comes to multiplayer gaming. There's no way to decrease pings and reduce packet loss by software alone. If your online gaming is suffering because of high pings and packet loss, you should look into getting a better internet service provider! If you're experiencing slow download speeds and you'd like to find out what the problem is, check out DSL Reports for a test of your connection.
There's something for everyone on this list: whether you're looking to create some machinima, or would like to organise clan matches more effectively, the programs on this list can cater to many a gamer's needs. If you feel that there are any essential applications missing from the list, feel free to leave a comment below.