Your system might be set up to run your favorite games, but that doesn't mean everything will run smoothly when you start adding mods. Here's what you need to know about how mods affect performance, and the essential hardware you need for a premium modding experience.
What You Need to Run PC Game Mods
One of the many perks of PC gaming is the ability to add mods — user-created add-ons and revisions that modify the content of a game.
Since the ‘80s, people have been using PC game mods to customize the look, feel, and functionality of their favorite games. Game modders have transformed bad games into good games, transformed good games into weird games, and revitalized outdated games for new audiences. The creativity of modders is limitless, and it has resulted in some truly strange and beautiful creations. While console players have seen glimpses of modding in the past, mods will always be most at home on PC.
If you've never considered modding a game, it's easy enough to get started. Mod hubs and official forums have huge collections of user-generated content. They often offer easy-to-use installers and step-by-step guides on the best way to get started, so even if you’re intimidated at first, you might be surprised at just how easy it is. It varies from game to game, but with an online search, you’ll find instructions on how to start installing mods for your favorite titles.
If you’re new to the modding scene, there are a few potential risks worth noting. As with any third-party content, make sure to download from reputable sources, and always be wary of malware or viruses. Also, for online games, you should make sure that a mod won't violate the terms of service.
Before jumping into the world of modding, you’ll want to make sure you have the right hardware for your gaming pc. Modding can be an inexact science, and many mods aren’t perfectly optimized. While simpler re-skins and graphical changes might run fine on your current setup, more ambitious mods could demand processing power far beyond what was required to run the original game. For more info, check out our guides on how the CPU affects gaming performance and the importance of a balanced build.
Why Hardware Is Important
So why is it that mods sometimes require more powerful hardware than the base game? There are a few reasons.
When developers create a game, they do their best to make sure it can run on a wide variety of systems. It’s impossible to predict everyone’s configuration, but a great deal of attention is paid to optimizing the game so more people can enjoy it regardless of their hardware.
Most people who create mods, on the other hand, don’t have the resources to implement the same rigorous optimization. This can often result in mods that are poorly optimized, meaning they are far more hardware-intensive than the original game. Even well optimized mods often operate beyond the scope of the original game, and that can result in unforeseen performance complications the developer may not have accounted for.
Minecraft* is a great example of this.
With its blocky polygons and flat textures, Minecraft* might not seem like a resource-intensive game — until you start stacking on the mods. In Minecraft*, there’s a mod for just about everything, from item storage systems, to adding on mini-maps, to changing the layout of the procedurally generated game world.
Minecraft*’s worlds can be very large, and are built from individual blocks that your processor has to render individually. Minecraft* was also programmed with Java*,1 and makes use of extensive voxel data,2 both of which can be CPU (Central Processing Unit) intensive.
Adding mods, like more complex lighting and high-resolution texture packs, can dramatically increase the workload on your hardware. Even a relatively simple-looking game like Minecraft* can become quite demanding when you start customizing it with mods.
Choosing a CPU
Mods can enact large-scale changes that affect fundamental elements of a game, including the addition of new objects, non-playable characters, and revamped physics. For instance, the Skyrim* Immersive Creatures mod brings a host of new enemy types with unique artificial intelligence to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim*.
Additions like these, especially when used in tandem with other resource-intensive mods, can place strain on a system’s CPU,3 resulting in potential performance issues, such as inconsistent frame rates. A CPU with a high clock speed and multiple cores can help with these issues.
Some mods give those willing to roll up their sleeves the ability to tune performance to their heart’s content. The “Skyrim* Configurator” mod for instance, allows players to enable parallel processing in Skyrim*, even though the game is nearly a decade old. With this powerful configuration tool, players can take Skyrim*-related tasks and reassign them across their CPU’s multiple cores and threads. These can be tasks that are native to the game, as well as tasks originating from other mods. By dividing up these tasks, Skyrim* can take advantage of the advancements in processor technology that have come about since its release in 2011.
Why an SSD?
Along with your CPU, upgrading to a solid-state drive (SSD) can greatly improve the modding experience. As with games, mods access data from storage. This can result in slow load times, and a whole host of other issues if your storage drive is slow.
Because SSDs allow faster access to data when compared to a traditional hard disk drive (HDD), you’ll find just about every program that operates from an SSD will load faster, including games with mods. If you’re still using an HDD to store your games or your mods, upgrading to an SSD can have a huge positive impact on performance.
If you’re looking to speed up access time on an HDD, Intel® Optane™ memory is also a solution worth exploring. Intel® Optane™ memory prioritizes data you use frequently, dramatically enhancing access speeds on slower storage media. By using Intel® Optane™ memory to accelerate an HDD, you open the doors to accelerated speeds.
The Right GPU
A sufficiently powerful GPU can be helpful when you start modifying the way games look with mods. For example, older games be modded to take advantage of modern GPUs. Extensive graphical overhaul mods can update lighting, textures, and a host of other visual improvements that may extend the life of a game dramatically.
A GPU with 2GB of vRAM would have been enough in 2013, but more recent games and mods require more powerful video cards. More vRAM is necessary4 to render the increased complexity and size of textures and 3D objects in modern, visually ambitious games. Without a powerful dedicated GPU to do that heavy lifting, your frame rate can suffer as the rest of your system is forced to compensate.
Once players experience the freedom of being able to play the game however they want, they might find it hard to stop at one mod. While each modification made to Minecraft* is relatively small, at least individually, they add up very quickly. The Biggest Modpack*, for example, is a collection of dozens of different mods. Running all of these mods at once is going to be resource-intensive.
When playing a game, RAM is where data5 sets like variables (such as health and ammo counts)6 and visual assets are temporarily stored for quick retrieval.7 One possible result of installing too many mods is running into RAM limitations, and that can cause performance issues like lower frame rates8 as the rest of your system is forced to compensate.9
The minimum system requirements for “vanilla” Minecraft* (that is, completely unmodded) is 4GB of RAM, but players who use mods routinely allocate 6GB or more to keep the game running properly. If you’re planning on heavily modding Minecraft, 8GB of RAM is a good place to start, with more being better. This 8GB of RAM minimum is an excellent baseline for any modern gaming experience.
Upgrading Hardware for a Better Experience with Mods
PC game modding is a fantastic way to personalize your play experience, and to truly make the game your own. If you are invested in customizing your software, it makes sense to ensure your hardware is up to the task as well. Mods can push your system beyond the developers’ recommended specs, so make sure you aim higher if you intend to implement mods.