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Inside the Box

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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Inside the Box: The hardware that powers MMORPGs

It finally happened. After years of upgrading my computer piece by piece, adding a new PCI sound card here or trading up for some bigger sticks of RAM there, it eventually had to die. When you Frankenstein any machine like that for long enough, the law of averages (or thermodynamic entropy, depending on how you look at it) clearly predicts that eventually things will break down. Not that I mind, though; I had been secreting away a cache fund for a new computer for quite some time, and after convincing my wife of the necessity of the expenditure, I merrily went shopping.

As a young man, I would have spent much more time scrounging for the absolute best deals, individual components to suite the needs of the applications I use most often, and browsing technical forums for user feedback, but now I’m almost 30. Something most people realize when they reach this age is that their ratio of free time to cash flow tends to flip dramatically. Whereas the teenage Nathan had nothing to do all day but sparse cash to spend on recreation, adult Nathan with a full-time job has enough money for those things, but between that job, marriage, family, hockey, pets, navigating the legendary Atlanta area traffic, and other daily responsibilities, my free time might as well be on the endangered species list. So what I have to do is find the right computer that fits somewhere between my reasonable budget, is powerful enough to do what I need it to, but isn’t needlessly extravagant. I don’t want to drop several thousand dollars into something I’ll only be able to use for an hour or two every day.

I assume that situations like this happen all the time, especially for people who earn a living and spend the majority of their free time on a computer, but there are numerous other reasons someone would buy a new machine or spend almost as much money upgrading an existing computer. So what do you have “inside the box” right now? Here’s a quick rundown of what I ended up with:

In my last few jobs, I’ve been responsible for the technology purchases for small and medium-sized companies, and I’ve found that Dell makes a pretty good computer for a great price. Say what you want about second-rate parts, hurried assembly, or poor customer service concerning large corporations, but in the years I’ve bought from them, I’ve never had a problem with any Dell hardware, software, or service. The extra money I might spend on a Dell instead of assembling the computer myself is well worth the security of dealing with a large, stable company instead of a motley collection of shady internet operations, eBay shysters, and local hole-in-the-wall shops. So that’s where I began, www.dell.com.

Obviously, I was very interested in a machine that will run high-end graphical applications, but also have enough processing power to keep up with mathematically demanding programs. Basically, I wanted to run top-of-the-line MMORPGs without having to set all the video options to “pathetic” and the sight distance to “London fog.” The Dell hit near enough the mark with an Intel Pentium 4 3.0 GHz processor and 2 GM RAM, which suited my needs just fine, but one thing Dell has always been lacking is in the video card department. Basically, I went to their website and customized the cheapest Dell computer I could build with at least 3.0 GHz on the processor, 2 GB RAM, and a PCI Express x16 expansion slot. Everything else was pretty meaningless to me; I don’t write CDs, watch movies, record music, or do any complicated printing tasks, so I saved a bunch of money on all the ancillary things they tried to sell me. On the plus side, they upgraded me to a 19” flat screen monitor for free; can’t argue with that.

Assured that my new Dell has the x16 slot for a nice video card, I browsed my two favorite computer component websites: www.tigerdirect.com and www.newegg.com. They’re pretty comparable when it comes to prices, so I checked each of their special offers and found that NewEgg happened to have the best deal on a 512 MB Radeon video card. Maybe it was the deal, or maybe it was because NewEgg rented a double-decker bus last year, packed it with scantily clad women, and drove circles around the Los Angeles Convention Center during E3, shouting through megaphones and launching T-shirts into the crowd. Regardless, I order the card from NewEgg and then sit back to wait for my computer to arrive.

Giving full credit to modern day transportation and logistics, I have to marvel that both the computer and video card arrive simultaneously on the same UPS truck, one coming from California and the other from Tennessee. Within a couple hours, I have the new box setup, properly updated, and cranking away at my favorite MMORPGs with all of the settings maxed out. Needless to say, after less than $900 spent on a computer that runs everything I throw at it flawlessly, I’m a happy camper.

But this article is more than just the saga of Nathan’s new computer. A relevant topic is aroused when we consider MMORPGs in development, especially when we realize the progression of computer technology. It’s a common statement that, by the time your computer is less than a year old, it’s already surpassed by newer models. They used to say that your computer is out-of-date before the money you paid for it clears the bank. Now remember that it takes several years to produce a quality MMORPG. A constant struggle in game development is focused on attempting to predict the future, to design games that will work on today’s machines, but also be capable and competitive on tomorrow’s technology.

Then again, if you’re designing an MMORPG, there’s the careful balance between making your product accessible to people with sub-par computers, yet also being able to show off eye-catching graphics. This eternal struggle is best exemplified by the now legendary rivalry between World of Warcraft and EverQuest2. WoW went for highly stylized graphics that made the most of low polygon models and environments, while EQ2 shot for a more realistic, high resolution representation of their characters and world. I don’t think anyone would contest that EQ2 graphics look better in movies and screenshots, but both games did a fine job with immersive atmospheres.

Obviously, it’s not the main reason WoW did better than EQ2, but a definite factor of the widespread appeal of WoW has a lot to do with the added expense of computer hardware. The deciding factor for a noticeable chunk of the MMORPG demographic that chose between WoW and EQ2 was probably over which one required them to spend $200-$300 on a new video card to meet the minimum requirements. I know that if I had no existing opinion about WoW or EQ2, simply regarding them as the two “next big things,” but I knew that the latter required a significant hardware upgrade, I’d definitely choose the former.

This situation also brings up the age-old question: What is more important to you, as a gamer and customer, graphics or gameplay? According to most MMORPG companies, you’re all leaning towards the graphics side of that equation. If you want proof, just look at how far (sarcasm) MMORPGs have advanced in terms of gameplay over the last decade. Aside from a few notable examples, the only thing that’s really changed is the visuals; the overwhelming majority of what we have to choose from is still the typical fantasy class/level grind model. We’d be hypocrites to accuse them of lacking creativity, though; we’re the ones who keep buying this stuff. Every time you buy the same old thing, it’s a vote of “yes, I enjoy the same old thing; please keep making it.”

So basically, the subject of this week’s discussion is largely based on computer hardware, what you’ve got in your box, and how the MMORPG industry struggles to work with the constantly advancing field of technology. Are we as consumers, and thus them as developers, more concerned with visuals or fun gameplay? The WoW vs. EQ2 situation, at least in terms how advanced to make the graphics, is naturally going to arise many times in the future, so we might as well address it now. What are your thoughts?

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Nathan Knaack