In PC gaming, first person shooters get all of the attention.  The releases of Doom 3 and Half Life 2 were accompanied by a swarm of hardware upgrade guides all over the net, including those published on AnandTech.  If you were waiting for Doom 3 or Half Life 2 before upgrading your machine, you had every ounce of information at your disposal upon their release. 

The same type of attention is rarely cast on other genres of games in the PC world for a handful of reasons.  For starters, FPSes are the most likely to have built-in benchmarking tools, making our ability to present you with performance data infinitely easier.  There's also a good deal of emotional attachment to anything that comes out of id Software, Epic Games or Valve, given their history with PC games - in their own way, they are the developers who brought the PC its Super Mario Brothers or Legend of Zelda.  But reasoning aside, there's much more to PC gaming than just FPSes; the best, most recent, example of an extremely successful non-fps is none other than Blizzard's foray into the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing realm - World of Warcraft. 

MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, rely on hordes of subscribed users (hence the massively multiplayer aspect); otherwise, they lose a big chunk of their appeal. World of Warcraft has been particularly successful in this respect.  Earlier this month, Blizzard announced that WoW had reached over 1.5 million subscribers worldwide, with over 800,000 subscribers in North America alone.  At any given time, there are over 500,000 users logged into one of Blizzard's many WoW servers at a speed of adoption never before seen in the MMORPG market.  But as we saw with the introduction of Warcraft III, anything Warcraft from Blizzard is not only well done, but turns to gold upon release. 

Given the tremendous market penetration of WoW, we felt that it was time to take a look at its performance demands.  But unlike Doom 3 and Half Life 2, there is no static element of WoW gameplay - everything takes place in an ever-changing online world.  The result is that finding a repeatable benchmark to run is fairly difficult...but not impossible.  As a MMORPG, World of Warcraft doesn't depend on the razor-sharp reaction time of a fast-paced first person shooter; instead, you spend most of your time walking around performing quests and battling at a much slower pace, in a much larger, more interactive world.  As such, there are two scenarios when performance in WoW becomes an issue: when a lot of characters are present on the screen, and simply rotating the camera in the world.  The former is a virtually impossible scenario to use as a benchmark, as you can't reliably get a bunch of people to do the exact same thing at the exact same time in a repeatable fashion, but the same can't be said about scenario 2.  The world of Warcraft is truly enormous and in order to prevent overcrowding, there is a large number of servers for you to choose on which your character may play - each server has a complete copy of the Warcraft world.  Even on the highest populated servers (one of which we conducted our test), there are many areas where you can go that are devoid of any player controlled characters - making them ideal for benchmarking.  We chose one such spot in the Night Elf city of Darnassus. 

The other aspect of WoW that played into our favor was the fact that exiting and returning to the game using the same character always put you in the world at the exact same place.  Equipped with FRAPS, we were able to get an extremely repeatable average frame rate out of a sequence of five full camera rotations in our chosen spot in Darnassus.  The number of rotations ensured that minor variations such as a squirrel walking across the screen would have minimal impact on the benchmark, and the results backed that up.  We found a maximum of 3% variation between runs as long as there was no disk swapping that occurred during the benchmark (more on that later).  The only downside is that our benchmark is not externally reproducible, but similar techniques can be used to achieve a similar end result.  We did have one user search us out in the world and interrupt our benchmarking by asking us if we had any linen cloth, but after a quick "no", we were back to benchmarking without being disturbed. 

Graphically, WoW isn't another Doom 3 or Half Life 2; it's not pushing the limits of DirectX 9 nor is it going to knock your socks off visually.  For a MMORPG, it looks pretty good, similar to Warcraft III, but obviously much more detailed, since you are taking the perspective of a single character in the world of Warcraft, rather than controlling an army from up above. 

Blizzard states the minimum GPU requirement as a GeForce 2; while a GeForce 2 will run the game just fine at lower resolutions and detail settings, it will do so at the sacrifice of a good amount of image quality.  Below, we have a comparison between a playable WoW system on a GeForce4 MX (GeForce 2 class DirectX 7 hardware) and on a Radeon X800 (DX9 hardware). You'll see a DX7 screenshot, and mouse over to see the same scene running on DX9 hardware:

As you can see, the improvement from older hardware to newer DX9 cards is fairly significant.

The same isn't necessarily true for DirectX 8 hardware, as the GeForce4 looks just as good as the X800, just slower, in WoW. 

Below, you'll see a DX8 screenshot, and mouse over the image to see the DX9 version:

How much slower is a GeForce4 than a Radeon X800?  That comparison and many more is the subject of our first comparison...

The Test

Our hardware configurations are similar to what we've used in previous comparisons.

AMD Athlon 64 Configuration

Socket-939 Athlon 64 CPUs
2 x 512MB OCZ PC3200 EL Dual Channel DIMMs 2-2-2-10
NVIDIA nForce4 Reference Motherboard and MSI K8N-Neo2 (nForce3) for AGP tests

Intel Pentium 4 Configuration

LGA-775 Intel Pentium 4 and Extreme Edition CPUs
2 x 512MB Crucial DDR-II 533 Dual Channel DIMMs 3-3-3-12
Intel 925XE Motherboard

AMD Athon XP Configuration

Athlon XP 3200+ Barton CPU
2 x 512MB OCZ PC3200 EL Dual Channel DIMMs 2-2-2-10
ASUS nForce2 Motherboard

ATI's Catalyst 5.3 and NVIDIA's ForceWare 71.84 Drivers were used.

World of Warcraft Video Options
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  • Mizuchi - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    I have a generic laptop that I bought from Hugebee Corp (forgot the name of their smaller retail online storefront) that seemed to be an ECS model with a P4 2.8 GHz w/HT, 1GB mem, 5400 RPM drive and 9600 Pro. I'll see how it runs at it's native res, 1280x800 (WSXGA I think), and see if it's smooth enough.


    As for settings with my 2500+ XP Barton, 512MB, 7200 RPM (8MB Cache), 9700 Pro system, I'm running 1280x1024 with LOD, Shaders enabled (sub options off), and everything else min or off. These settings seem to run the fastest. Getting ~60 FPS normally... I guess I am fretting too much over crowded areas and upon landing from flight.

    For reasons unknown, the game runs choppier at lower resolutions. I went as far as restart my system with the lower res saved for my next log on and it still seemed choppier, just to prove that something was wrong. My monitor drivers are installed and working and it runs at 60 Hz at all supported resos...
    Reply
  • BopTop - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    Finally some benchmarks on MMO's. I'll agree with the previous posters, although I don't play it, I would also like to see EQ2 broken down.

    As an aside, I've read there's also been an issue with Intel's speedstepping cpu's to cause players to alternatively speed up and slow down ingame. This has actually led to accusations of speed hacking and bannings. Would be interested to know if this is a legitamate bug or a cover-up excuse.
    Reply
  • Kouri - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    Great article, it's very difficult to bench WoW.
    Too bad you don't have any mobile GPU benchmarks. I've been trying to figure out how to get the best quality/performance ratio out of my Dell Inspiron 9100 (/w a Radeon Mobility 9700 128MB) for a while now. Just going outside and doing normal quests you can get away with a lot of the higher quality settings, but going into cities or encountering a large number of players will get you killed (I think having lower texture settings really helps here).
    Reply
  • ElFenix - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    thanks for throwing in an AXP! Reply
  • darfur - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    This is just to the person who asked why their AA doesn't work in game. You need to disable the full screen glow effect, then AA should work just fine. Reply
  • Aikouka - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    "Oh, one more question. Why don´t you write anythink about the command rate (1T or 2T) you used - it´s quite important! And if I remember correctly a tRas of 10 is not optimal for NF4 boards. I think its 7 or so. Possibly there are similar problems with the P4-setup."

    #25, I noticed on my Soltek SL-K8AN2E-GR motherboard with Mushkin PC3200 that the tRas makes about no difference whether it's set at 8, 9, 10 or 11. The difference in memory benchmarks was quite negligible. However, command rate (going from 2T to 1T made an obvious difference.)

    One thing I'd like to comment on ... for WoW, I upgraded from my old GeForce FX 5200 to a MSI GeForce 6600GT, and let's say that WoW acts WORSE on my 6600GT. I did raise the graphics settings, but even then, the card has no problem handling them. What it tends to do is this:

    www.aikouka.com/wow_crap.jpg

    The screen is flipped horizontally and then rotated 180 degrees, not to mention a ton of textures are missing. This is one of the "better looking" WoW screw-ups that I get on my new card, and what's even better is when I get the beautiful stop error x8E on nv4_disp.dll :P. It's quite annoying.
    Reply
  • Gholam - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    By the way, there's another repeatable scenario that you can benchmark on: flight. Take a bat/gryphon/whatever, preferrably along one of the longer paths, and measure the FPS as you go from point A to point B. Since the path is the same, results should be more or less comparable - players running by below fall into the margin of error :) Reply
  • Malladine - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    Ok, i take that back. It did slow down noticeably when large numbers of people were around, say 100+

    AH was usually ok, but tping into IF took 30 secs to become smooth, i assume due to loading all the gfx
    Reply
  • Malladine - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    Before quitting a month or so ago, I ran this game from release @ 1600x1200 with everything maxed out and it was always smooth.

    AMDXP300+
    1gb PC2700
    9800 non pro
    Reply
  • digit - Thursday, March 24, 2005 - link

    my bad, just checked, pci-x 16 slot, sorry Reply

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