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The Next-Generation MMO Machine

Gareth Harmer Posted:
Hardware Reviews 0

It’s been over three years since I last built a gaming PC. At the time, my Angry Caretaker devoured every MMO on the market, delivering outstanding performance in World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. I even splashed out for a new-fangled SSD, blessing my favourite games with ultra-fast load times.

Alas, those halcyon days are gone. 1080p has given way to 1440p, ultra-wide and even 4K, as gamers pursue even finer detail. Likewise, game engines have become more complex, offering richer and more immersive environments, populated by a greater cast of characters. With a crop of new MMOs around the corner, and even fresh online shooters like Destiny 2 arriving on PC, I’m left thinking if it’s time for an upgrade.

As a result, I’ve been collecting advice industry-wide, from game developers to hardware gurus, to help decide the best future for the ageing box under my desk. That said, the process doesn’t end here, and you’re welcome to chime in with your own thoughts, opinions and questions in the comments. One way or another, a mighty MMO monolith will rise from the cannibalised ashes of the old.

The CPU & Motherboard

Oh boy, this is a thorny one. I’ll get to the details in a minute but, if you’re looking to upgrade your CPU, the advice I’m getting is to kick back and wait for at least a couple of months. For gamers, the performance difference between Intel’s 4th generation Haswell and 7th generation Kaby Lake are marginal; bigger benefits are often available just by swapping out your graphics card.

Technology hasn’t stood still in the intervening years: new m.2 motherboard interfaces can take advantage of the blisteringly fast SSDs now on the market, high-speed DDR4 memory is now the de-facto standard, and USB-3 ports have become essential. But the step up from my old Z87 motherboard to the shiny new Z270 is mostly incremental, offering few perks outside faster boot and load times.

More recently, there’s been a growing difference with the way Intel and AMD tackle the desktop CPU market. In keeping with their previous ranges, Intel still offers a range of 2 and 4 core processors, instead focusing on squeezing out performance gains. By contrast, AMD’s Ryzen starts at 4 and caps out at 8 physical cores. I’ll explain what it means for gamers in a minute, but the two firms are essentially taking a gamble on how software needs will evolve: either fewer cores at a higher speed, or more cores for greater compute power.

Looking over at Team Red, AMD’s latest Ryzen chips are certainly contenders but Intel’s latest still have a slight performance lead when looking at single core performance, particularly at the top end. On the flipside, all those extra cores make a difference when livestreaming, reducing the need for a separate capture card to maintain framerates. Depending on what you plan to use the rig for, Ryzen could be a contender.

So why wait? Partly, it’s because of a whole heap of noise in the High-End Desktop (HEDT) market, an area that AMD previously avoided. Following on the mass-market Ryzen chips and enterprise-grade Epic line, Threadripper will sit in the middle ground, offering gamers and creatives some mouth-watering specs. Up to 16 cores and 32 threads will tear through video rendering, streaming and 3D modelling, with quad-channel memory for high speed access and 64 PCIe lanes to make 2- and 3-GPU system configurations a realistic prospect. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until August at the earliest for full benchmarks and reviews.

Intel isn’t ignoring a resurgent AMD but, from their response, it’s clear that Threadripper caught the firm on the back foot. First up is Core X, a HEDT mix of both Skylake-X and Kaby Lake-X series CPUs, arriving on a brand new X299 platform. The problem is that Intel’s offering is heavily fragmented, offering 4 cores at the low-end (and even competing with their own Core I5 and i7 chips), and fewer cores and PCIe lanes than AMD’s Threadripper at the top. Benchmarks are appearing now, and we should be able to buy them at the end of the month.

Realising that Core X doesn’t address the needs of mainstream gamers, Intel’s rumoured response has been to pull forward the launch of their 8th generation, named Coffee Lake, along with the new Z370 chipset. We don’t know much about features or pricing, but leaked details point to an August-September launch window, putting it 2 to 3 months away. Based on the firm’s previous pricing strategy, it’s a good idea to wait for the new chips, as we might get new tech for only a few more dollars, or older tech at a discount.

What does all this mean for gamers? Part of it feels like placing a bet on how game engines will evolve to take better advantage of multi-core environments beyond dual-core, and that largely depends on Unreal, Unity, Frostbite and so on. It’s been a holy grail of gaming for many years, but has always been stubbornly out of reach. Now that both Xbox Scorpio and PS4 Pro are running with 8-core CPUs, and with Coffee Lake’s desktop CPUs rumoured to start at 4-core, we might finally be seeing the development community motivated to make the change. Until that happens, single-core performance or Instructions Per Clock is likely to remain an overriding factor.

Even so, the bottom line for anyone looking to upgrade the core of their system must be to hold fire. Core X, Threadripper, and Coffee Lake all muddy the water, and could completely change the CPU landscape over the next few months. The best decision might be no decision, at least for now.

The Graphics Card

Three years ago, the NVidia GTX 780 was a champion of 1080p gaming, throwing out obscene framerates in World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and more. Pair it with a good quality gaming monitor and the experience was perfect. What took me by surprise was the sudden leap to even higher resolutions, with 1440p and even 4K panels becoming a regular sight on a gamer’s desk, and faster refresh rates beyond 60Hz. Dual-screen gaming is also becoming much more common, particularly amongst MMO/MOBA players and streamers, using the second panel for anything from guides and strategies to Twitch or Netflix.

This is the situation I’m now in, with a 27” 4K Dell IPS monitor standing next to a 1080p BenQ 24” screen. The venerable GTX 780 just doesn’t have enough punch to drive these, and framerates have been plummeting as new and more graphically complex videogames are released. While I’ve held off upgrading in the past, the new games just around the corner mean that it’s time to push the button and upgrade.

Luckily, the graphics card market is fairly stable at the moment. For 4K gaming, there’s only one king in town, and that’s the GTX 1080Ti. No other single GPU comes close to matching it for pure pixel pushing power at higher resolutions, and that’s what I’m after. Moving down the range, there are compelling options from both AMD and NVidia, with the GTX 1060/1070 and Radeon RX 570/RX 580 being capable mid-price options for 1080p and 1440p gamers.

Outside of these picks, AMDs long-rumoured Vega architecture for consumer cards is still slated to arrive sometime this year. But, without a fixed launch window, indicative benchmarks or pricing, there’s no real reason to hold back from swapping out that card and getting a tasty boost in graphical power.

Everything Else

Yes, the CPU and GPU are central to any new system build. However, once these two are decided, there’s a whole range of other choices to make. The SSD (both speed and capacity), hard drive, cooling system and power supply - all components which need to be weighed up against the budget. Even such basic considerations as the case you choose can have an impact on the size of the motherboard and cooling options available.

Depending on how close to the bleeding edge you like to dance, the micro-ATX form factor might be worth considering. These motherboards tend to be smaller than their full-size counterparts, allowing for a more compact case, while still providing enough room for most kit and comfortable construction. By contrast, mini-ITX can provide for some incredibly cute builds, but comes with some significant trade-offs. That, and they can be incredibly annoying to put together.

The huge leap in SSD speeds are another factor to consider, especially when coupled with a motherboard sporting the latest m.2 ‘Gen3 x4’ ports to support it. Even so, it’s not a reason to upgrade on its own, as it’ll make minimal difference during gameplay and mostly impact loading or boot times. Likewise, hard drives have got a little faster and a little cheaper, but it’s still the same magnetic media spinning around.

Other than that, a PSU is still a PSU, and a cooler is still a cooler – as long as you go with a reliable brand name and get the right rating (550w-650w tends to be the sweet-spot for most simple builds), you’ll be fine in both regards. Modular supplies are great if you want to avoid a nest of cables in the bottom of your rig, and closed loop coolers are becoming increasingly popular if you’ve got a case that can accommodate one. Again, though, these are considerations when building a new rig and not when upgrading – unless your setup is incredibly ancient.

In Conclusion

If we’re going to build the next-generation MMO machine, it makes sense for me to use next-generation technology where possible. Unfortunately, that mostly means sitting on my hands while the next generation actually arrives. Just like the next season of Stranger Things, there’s not much you can do except wait for launch to be announced and plan your weekends accordingly.

The beauty of the PC as a platform is that I can get started with a new graphics card, swapping out the vintage GTX 780 for a brand new 1080 Ti and unlocking those sweet, sweet 4K framerates. Beyond that, I can start laying the groundwork by browsing case designs, eyeing up a few motherboard manufacturers, and weighing up my storage options. I’ll also have to decide what to do with the old Angry Caretaker, though building a hackintosh and having a capture/stream rig are currently top favourites.

For now, though, I turn it over to you. What would you pick in these shoes, and how would you play it out? Would you wait for Threadripper or Coffee Lake, or would you splurge on Kaby Lake now? And what about Vega, AMD’s future graphics card architecture? Whatever your opinion, sound off in the comments.


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.