There are no bones about building a computer for game development. Many indie developers don’t plan on building a computer the first time they start making games. Many use the system they already have, whether it is a outdated low tier Macintosh laptop or a state of the art gaming desktop computer.
Planning to build a computer for game development today is fairly simple. There aren’t many things to consider either. Firstly, price is the main priority when you consider building a computer from scratch, and secondly, what kind of games you are planning to make may play a part in the decision process for parts. In many cases developers just use their gaming or home computer to make games, and this can range from full 3D games in Unity/Unreal engines and sometimes mobile games or 2D games in tools like Gamemaker Studio & RPGMaker.
With games that are of a simple visual nature, all a developer would need is just anything they decide that they can get within their personal budget. As long as you have a computer that meets your engine specification requirements you should be all good to go. However, if you are making a more advanced game—and normally this refers to the visual side of things—some management and thought needs to take place as to what you want to buy for your rig.
For those who are new to building their own computer, rest assured that it is now 2017 and building a computer is something even children can do with minimal parental assistance. With the aid of product manuals and YouTube instructional videos, developers who haven’t done this before have nothing to worry about. As to the computer parts you will need, there are some categories and brand you need to be familiar with.
Core of the Computer
Now starting off with the most important system component, the processor/CPU. A CPU is the heart of the system but it will also dictate some decision making along with the build process. Now there are two major sides to choose from, Intel or AMD—it is likely you already know these two. Aside from these companies, you also need to know what the processor’s socket size is. For this I will cover the more recent types of CPU models.
So to put it simply, choosing Intel, you have the option of the LGA 1151 socket or the LGA 2066 socket. The LGA 1151 is the more common socket due to its pricing where as the LGA 2066 is more of a PC enthusiast option. Being an enthusiast type of CPU, it has more features for those who would want to overclock their processor or options for cooling. Even LGA 1151 processors can be overclocked so I would never really specifically recommend an Intel LGA 2066 CPU.
With AMD, you have the AM4 socket which supports the AMD APUs (Accelerated Processing Unit: these are designed to run without dedicated graphics cards but high/fast system memory). There is the TR4 socket, which support the new Ryzen CPUs, and the AM3+/FM2+ sockets, which support the FX series of CPUs. The cheapest option being an APU should be avoided if you plan to develop 3D games, as you will need a GPU for this. Many of the other options are suitable however for any kind of game development. Due to the price of the TR4 socket, Ryzen CPUs this will be more suited to someone willing to spend extra.
Considerations as a Developer
Now choosing a processor for gamedev will come down to what engine and the level of game you are creating. For 2D games and games that won’t require high loads of processing power, anything above 3.2 or 3.5 gigahertz is the sure bet, and I would recommend at least 4 physical cores and 8 processor threads as a bare minimum. Physical cores refer to the processor cores themselves and the processor thread count relates to hyperthreading. Most processors support hyperthreading and this is used to accelerate processing of tasks.
If, however, you plan to push visuals in the game you are making, the engine you might be using may need a faster processor to aid live rendering or pre-bake 3D assets for your game. This will depend on what type of game you are making as a developer. You’ll need to up the ante so to speak and buy a processor that can handle itself in high performance situations. Now this is where you want something with a minimum of 6 physical cores/8 threads minimum, but personally I would aim higher in this case as processors do have a good lifetime and spending a bit more for a high performance build might be a smarter long term decision.
Once you know which processor you want now it is time to select the motherboard to match. Now I will use the “Intel Core i7 7700K” as an example. The socket size for this CPU is LGA 1151, so when selecting a motherboard you must find one that supports this exact specification. The next thing to choose from is the sizing of the motherboard.
There are two main sizes. One is an ATX motherboard, this is the standard size option and if you have no size requirements then it would be fine to get this. The next option is the Micro ITX size of motherboard, this is a more minimalist approach and is there for those who have size in mind. This means you may get less ports on the motherboard however this can fit within a smaller computer case. This all comes down to consumer choice and what you want
Considerations as a Developer
The considerations to make for the motherboard come down solely to support and compatibility. This means you need to decide on how many hard drives you need support for, how much system memory/RAM you want in your computer and also any other parts you may need. These will consist of a dedicated graphics card, sound card and other things like wifi adapters or storage readers if need be. As a developer, you will be considering how you organize your data and this might also entail the setup of a RAID storage configuration. Most use a RAID configuration to prevent from data corruption, while others may use it to increase hard drive performance.
Fast RAM and a large amount of it is essential for developers. Many applications that developers will use, whether it is a software development kit, art software, or 3D rendering software, are all extremely reliant on system memory. There are two types of RAM to choose from, though what you choose will depend on the type of Motherboard and CPU that you use, most recent models will require DDR4 memory; if your CPU/Motherboard are 2-3 or more years older than DDR3 will likely be the type of RAM you will need. The type of RAM needed will be specified by the motherboard you have. Memory comes in various configurations. There is a 2-stick configuration, and a 4-stick configuration. The speed of the RAM is also something to consider, if you plan to use an APU, stick to the fastest ram you can get. Otherwise get what you feel is best for you. Each setup can come in different RAM timings. However this is an extra step for those willing to look for the optimum setup. If you are looking at only amount and speed, then it is safest to purchase within your budget.
Considerations as a Developer
If you are developing mobile applications, 8 GB would be a bare minimum and any speed above 1.6Mhz will be best suited for that kind of work. If, however, you are working on games for console and PC, go with a minimum of 16GB and above 2Ghz, it may be expensive in some countries but it is important for many of the applications you will be using as a developer.
Choosing a graphics card is going to be a troubling experience for most, mainly because of price. Similar to that of the CPU, there are two major brands to select: Nvidia and AMD. On top of that however, many different companies build their own specification of card with various features that range from basic configurations and enthusiast options.
Considerations as a Developer
What has become increasingly important over the last few years for anyone either working with or playing (mainly 3D) games is VRAM, or can be classified as GDDR5 RAM which is the memory the graphics card uses. This ram is extremely fast and allows for most of what renders on screen to happen, without this component we wouldn’t have the kind of visuals we see in movies or games today. For any developer doing Mobile development, stick to either 4GB of VRAM or a mid- to high-tier APU. If you are working with console and PC games do not get less than 6GB of VRAM on your graphics card. It may sound like a lot, but given the changing climate it is essential.
On top of this, it is important to remember your computer as a developer cannot really be used as a guide for consumers performance when they are on PC, so furthermore it is important to also remember to not forget about testing your game for a spectrum of different hardware configurations.
As for types of graphics cards, most will fit in any motherboard as most will have the PCI slot support. However, check the length of your desired graphics card and make sure it can fit in your desired computer case.
Powering It All, and Other Bits and Pieces
A power supply will be needed to power everything. To understand what kind of wattage you need refer to the parts you will need to run, usually the graphics card will require 600W or 800W and that will be the biggest pull of power in your rig. For example I have a i7 4770K CPU + Nvidia GTX 970 @ 600W required and I run an Corsair 800W power supply. Many would even say I could run my system on a 600W power supply, my recommendation is go above your usage just in case. The type of power supply you need will have to be an 80 Plus Platinum Certified PSU, this makes sure that your power output is efficient and all your parts get what they need in power. Not having enough power reach one of your parts will lead to startup issues, I have had an issue like this before and it cost $200 to fix, so from personal experience, I recommend playing it safe here.
For hard drives and storage space, try to aim for your Windows Installation being a solid stat edrive or NVMe M.2 drive for lightning fast boot ups. Everything else can be run on 7200rpm mechanical hard drives. This will ensure that your OS runs quick and with SATA 6 in most new hard drives you will have good speeds on your mechanical drives. I prefer mechanical for storage, however getting SSD drives are fine too, albeit a bit pricy. An external drive for running frequent backups is a good purchase as well.
Deciding on a keyboard and mouse is a very personal decision to make. However, one thing I must emphasize is that choosing a mechanical keyboard will improve your typing speed but also remove any delay and allow for “n key rollover.” In other words, you will be able to press every key at once and have it register the input. Mechanical keyboards also have less resistance to press each key and these types of keyboard can last considerably longer than ‘rubber membrane/dome’ type keyboards. Rubber Membrane / Silicone type keyboards are usually under $50 in most cases.
Selecting a monitor comes down to personal choice, either you can select a standard 16:9 monitor which is the most common or choose a 21:9 monitor for more screen real estate. There are a few screen types like IPS, LED, OLED and sometimes if it is old enough LCD. You can even consider running a 21:9 monitor vertical as a second monitor. You’d be surprised how convenient that configuration can be.
The amount of money you are willing to spend will determine what you will be adding to your build. PC hardware today is fairly durable; hardware faults are rare no matter if you buy expensive or low end CPUs, graphics cards, RAM and motherboards—plus they all have pretty decent lifetimes. As a developer this is a comforting fact as many would not want hardware failure to happen. Getting into habits like cleaning your computer for dust and learning cable management would be essential to improving your hardware life even further.
Here’s a Cable Management Guide that will help you with putting everything into your PC case.
With the internet, trawling through the various parts to choose from can be a hassle. With many generous PC users online we have services/communities like PC Part Picker to help people see what builds go together and how much (roughly) they cost.
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