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Building the Perfect PC for Today's MMOs

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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To the MMO player, a PC is much more than a glorified games console or business workhorse. It’s a window onto scores of virtual worlds, a device that transforms us from mundane mortals into legendary heroes, and a communications interface that bring friends that are continents away into the room beside us.

It’s why some obsess over them, tweaking and customizing them to extract as much performance as possible. To others though, it’s a mystical black or beige box that performs brilliantly when new but decays over time, coughing and spluttering through a lag-fest of later games, before dying embarrassingly just as you’re about to attack that raid boss with the loot you’ve been lusting after for months.

This year is likely to be particularly stressful for ageing PCs; Elder Scrolls Online, WildStar and EverQuest Next Landmark have all come out with minimum specifications. Both WildStar and EQNL also come with 64-bit clients that offer improved performance – as long as your version of Windows supports it (and EQNL insisting on it). But, if you’re still in the dark or confused about what to do, then read on as I break it down in our 2014 Upgrade Guide.

Holding Steady

For those averse to spending money, this is probably going to be your default position. Luckily, almost any PC bought in the last three years is likely to be up to standard. But before you start making any plans, the first thing to do is take stock of what you have. Gathering a full set of system information should be your first priority, as this helps to highlight any potential issues. It’ll also identify which version of Windows you’re using, and if it’s time to shell out for an upgrade.

With your system specs in hand, its time to see how the rig measures up. This is where you’re going to face the most difficult choice – hold steady and possibly sacrifice graphical fidelity or frame rate, pay for some vital upgrades but keep the costs down, or hit up the credit card for a brand new rig. At the very least you should be equipped with 8GB RAM and a Core i5 Sandybridge processor or equivalent, and an NVidia GTX460 Ti or similar graphics card. Anything lower and you might be looking at an upgrade.

If you’re desperate to eek out as much performance as possible from what you have, it’s a good idea to look at what’s running on your system and cleaning out anything you don’t need. Utilities for games you hardly play or chat programs for guilds you left two expansions ago are prime targets here, especially if they start up as soon as Windows loads and sit in the corner munching processor cycles. Uninstall or disable anything that’s obvious and, if something looks non-essential, disable that too. Reboot and make sure everything’s OK, then run your favorite game and see if performance has imporved.

If all this sounds like gobbledygook to you, it’s time to bite the bullet and phone a friend. Be up-front and ask them if they’ll help out. Don’t expect this for free either – PC maintenance is an annoying task that we all have to learn sooner or later – so offers of beer, spirits, chocolate etc. will help to smooth the way. And don’t be that guy who asks someone around to watch the big game then throws a laptop at him or her to fix. Geeks have memories.

Upgrade Time

If your current games are all smooth as silk then you probably don’t need to buy anything new. But if games are starting to look like cheap flipbooks on your screen, it’s time to consider buying that upgrade.  But before you do, it’s worth making sure that you’re spending it on hardware that will actually improve your experience.

Firstly, it’s worth making sure that your broadband isn’t dragging you down – there’s nothing worse than spending thousands of dollars on a top-end rig, only for you to connect to the internet with yoghurt pots and coat-hanger wire. It’s not the size of the pipe that counts (measured in mbps), but the round-trip or ping times between you and the game servers, and the stability of that connection. If you’re constantly complaining of lag and your guildmates think you’re crazy, get it checked out.

On the other hand, you might be suffering from a different type of stuttering performance.  Your PC might be fine while out in the fields questing away. But head back to the city or other heavily populated city and it slows to a crawl, with the hard disk activity light blinking like mad. What’s happening is that the PC is trying to draw all of those other characters, but it has to make room for them in memory, which means shoving something else to the hard drive temporarily. The easiest fix for this is to upgrade your RAM, which is easy on a desktop and slightly tougher on a laptop. Your instruction manuals should tell you what memory sticks are compatible, or sites like Crucial.com will perform a system check and tell you what’ll fit.  Aim for a minimum of 8GB in total.

If your MMO of choice is still presenting you with frame rate problems, it’s time to upgrade elsewhere. A new graphics card is the easiest option, as you can simply remove the old one and slot in a new one.  It’s not always the best option though, as it depends on the CPU and the complexity of the game you’re playing. There’s no point having the power of something like an NVidia Titan if the processor will struggle to feed it with enough polygons.

Handily enough, games like Star Wars: The Old Republic now contain a useful tweak to the standard framerate counter in order to show if the game is being limited by the graphics card or CPU. This, however, is purely a guide to help point you in the right direction. Generally speaking though, MMOs tend to tax the CPU much more heavily than the graphics card. If you do decide that replacing your graphics card is the way forward, be sure to read reviews on relative performance, as a few extra dollars can give a significant boost. You may also need to replace the power supply if your current one doesn’t have enough oomph – cheap desktops usually have generic 300w to 400w units, whereas you’ll ideally want a 500w to 700w box from a reputable brand name.

If you’re a Mac or laptop user, your options are unfortunately much more limited. Older macs could be upgraded, and some bulkier laptops have a slot for adding more RAM. Most of the time though, these are sold as sleek, highly desirable machines that are impossible to open up without causing some horrific warranty-voiding damage. It’s why most desk-bound gamers stick to a Windows box.

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.