I’ve written a ton of WoW posts and a growing number of technology posts in my Sidenote series, but never have I been able to mash-up the two into a post that works for both audiences, so this is exciting for me!
Shadowlands doesn’t seem to make as many large under-the-hood changes to the WoW engine as were made during Battle for Azeroth. I want to lead with that, because here’s the bottom line of this post – if you’re currently happy with how your PC handles BfA in patch 8.3, you’re likely to be just as happy with it in Shadowlands.
With that said, there are a surprisingly large number of tweaks under the hood and to settings to make things more intuitive and squeeze out a bit more performance. However, at this point, I’m largely speculating based on strings and options from the alpha test of Shadowlands, and so some of these things may not make it to release or be implemented in the way I think they will be.
First, let’s start with a refresher of the current system requirements of WoW as of Battle for Azeroth:
My expectation is that these won’t change much, if at all, short of maybe updating the recommended and minimum CPU name and model and graphics models. These won’t represent seismic shifts in system power – long gone are the days of +100% generational improvements in hardware, but it will simply be for branding – no one wants to be caught dead recommending an AMD FX CPU when Ryzen is out and kicking ass, as an example.
However, there are a few tweaks I would certainly recommend to this base spec, before we dive into Shadowlands stuff:
CPU: At this point, with the proper multi-threaded renderer support added in BfA during patch 8.2, the game runs very well on multi-core CPUs, as opposed to its awful past state of throttling one core really hard and making no use whatsoever of other CPU cores, even as multicore CPUs have been out for 15 years now. The recommendations in the top spec from Blizzard are quad cores (or quad module, for the FX series) but I would say get yourself at least a 6-core now if you’re buying new. The Core i5 lineup has 6 cores now from Intel, and at a similar pricepoint, the Ryzen 5 3600 is an absolute game-changer with 6 cores, 12 threads, and generally higher performance than the i5 lineup. On a budget but wanting to upgrade, the Ryzen 5 1600 AF model (it is a specific stepping of the CPU, search online for the AF stepping and you’ll find a lot of info about how to make sure you get one) is around $85 USD, and is in actuality a rebadged Ryzen 5 2600, meaning it has some modest performance gains that make it exceptionally appealing at the price point. If you’re gonna go for the best, get at least an 8 core/16 thread CPU. Clock speed matters for WoW too, and I’d get one that advertises at least a 4 GHz or higher boost frequency. WoW will let your CPU boost frequently since it is only lightly multithreaded even post-8.2, so a Ryzen 3xxx CPU with boosts in the 4.2-4.7 GHz range will do exceptionally well, as will the Intel Core i9 9900k (the best pure gaming CPU you can buy today due to it’s 5 GHz single-core turbo boost).
The CPU is your single largest predictor of WoW performance as the game is heavily CPU-dependent. Regardless of how baller of a system you build, if the foundation is a poorly-optimized CPU, the game will run like shit.
RAM: Without writing pages on this topic, which I could, the best general rule is this – get at least 16 GB of the fastest memory you can for your CPU, and make sure it is two sticks for dual-channel operation. Ryzen CPUs generally benefit more from faster memory, as the Infinity Fabric that connects the CPU core complexes is clocked to match the system memory. For Intel CPUs, it matters less, but it still matters. The sweet spot on modern DDR4 systems is 3200MHz speeds, as it is rapidly becoming the price floor for most enthusiast memory kits (there is slower memory for slightly cheaper, but the performance degradation per dollar saved is drastic), so my recommendation is to find a kit you like at 3200 MHz and get 2 8GB sticks to make 16 GB of dual channel memory. WoW on my system (with 32 GBs of 3200MHz DDR4) will eat up to 4.5 GB, which, if you have a Windows 10 machine with only 8 GB total, will start to run into slowdowns. Granted, the 4.5 GB scenario I mentioned is highly unusual, but it has been the upper bounds of memory usage I’ve personally seen and if you plan to raid with Discord, guides, or anything else open, you want to avoid the bottleneck of swap file usage.
GPU: We’ll visit this topic in a moment, because it has direct relevance to a Shadowlands change!
Storage: The recommendation of an SSD is still sound, probably more so, and that segues nicely into…
The Shadowlands Changes:
My inspiration for this post was very simple – two things I noticed about the alpha for Shadowlands that pushed me towards writing.
The first is a speculative observation: at present, the world maps for each zone are completely independent and separate from one another. In the past, a continent’s map would be a single whole file that could be presented as a massive image on your fansite of choice. However, Shadowlands has 6 separate zone maps, 1 for each main zone, one for the Maw, and one for Oribos. Knowing how the WoW engine would act on that tells me that there is likely to be a loading screen boundary per zone, rather than a continent for all of Shadowlands. Given that assumption, then, an SSD will be mandatory in my opinion if you want to play the game and not be incessantly annoyed with it. While hard drive testing I’ve seen for WoW suggests that the game may have a session cache of some sort it uses to cut loading times for already-accessed content, an SSD is still the single most impactful upgrade you can make to a system if you don’t currently have one.
While in the past, an SSD was a luxury and a tradeoff, costing far more per GB of storage and coming with far less raw capacity which required making tough decisions about what would be on the SSD, in 2020, 1 TB SSDs are getting closer to their platter brethren – a 1 TB Western Digital Blue, the standard storage drive recommendation of year’s past, is $44, while a 1 TB SSD is around $95. If you aren’t a digital packrat like me (a recent data cleanup found files that are 17 years old, somehow!), a 500 GB SSD can be had for near the same price, and while it is half the capacity, it has 5 times the performance and is more than enough to hold a standard Windows 10 install, drivers, and WoW.
So for storage, that is my recommendation for Shadowlands – if you don’t currently have one, get an SSD, because if the final game has the alpha-current 6 separate zones, the frequency of loading screens is going to be unbearable without an SSD and even the fastest hard drive will struggle to feed the game into memory fast enough. No need for a fancy SSD like an NVMe drive or the like, but if you’re building a new system altogether, NVMe no longer carries a massive price premium at consumer-level drives (up to 1 TB), so getting a 1 TB NVMe boot drive is something I would absolutely do in most systems (a friend’s $1,200 build I did last fall and built used one and had a few other places that corners could be cut for gaming at his chosen resolutions I would have followed before cutting down or out the NVMe drive!).
The second is much less speculative, although if it makes it to the live game is another thing altogether. Shadowlands alpha contains console strings for enabling DXR at 2 quality levels. DXR, for the unitiated, is DirectX Raytracing. While hardware real-time raytracing is most commonly known via Nvidia’s RTX series of graphics cards, DXR can be run without fully dedicated raytracing hardware, although at abysmal framerates on currently-available hardware.
This was also discussed in an interview at Blizzcon, and I dismissed it at the time – how would raytracing even work in WoW and what are the odds it would just make the game look bad? However, here’s a demo that I was linked to in a discussion about WoW and raytracing that changed my mind – using the current game and GShade, a post-processing image suite that can apply additional shaders and filters to the screenspace of applications to add effects like, well, raytracing. The difference is…well, amazing.
Keep in mind that GShade is only made to interpret data from the game based on what is on screen at that moment – it can’t raytrace at a global level from data about the map offscreen and it is only acting on what it can see at the camera angle it is being presented at. Wow! Visually, it is far more compatible with the game’s painterly art than I ever would have expected. It is worth noting that while this is not an official implementation and therefore not necessarily representative of what the game would look like with “offical” raytracing, it looks amazing and adds a depth and life to the game I really appreciate.
With that said, then, let’s talk graphics cards. This market is the one most likely to change (drastically, even) between now and the launch of Shadowlands, so we’re going to stick with current hardware and some clearly-noted speculation.
At present, the only cards with hardware dedicated to raytracing that work with DXR are Nvidia’s GeForce RTX lineup, from the RTX 2060 up to the Titan RTX. Generally, here are my performance brackets for the RTX lineup based on the reviews and content I’ve seen about the cards:
-1080p and medium-ish settings: RTX 2060
-1080p high settings: RTX 2060 Super
-1440p medium-ish settings: RTX 2070
-1440p high settings: RTX 2070 Super
-1440p ultra-settings: RTX 2080
-4k medium-ish settings or maxed-out 1440p: RTX 2080 Super
-4k high settings: RTX 2080 Ti
-still 4k high, but you have a burning hole in your wallet: Titan RTX
Now, this is just an extrapolation based on the implementation of raytracing in games like Battlefield V and Metro Exodus, both of which are visually more demanding than WoW. WoW will still, in all likelihood, over-rely on your CPU to do the work and thus will remain the most important component. However, if WoW retains the degree of GPU-usage it currently has, my brackets may largely be thrown out and simply resolution bound – any flavor of 2060 serving 1080p well, any 2070 working for 1440p, and any 2080 doing reasonably well at 4k, with the larger memory of the 2080Ti serving 4k the best, and the Titan RTX largely being a bit of a waste.
As for AMD? Their current Radeon RX5xxx lineup does not have hardware DXR support. It is expected in their next-generation GPU, as the consoles based on that architecture do have hardware raytracing, but for now, assuming you want to buy today and use real-time raytracing at playable framerates, AMD is off the table. I do want to say this – their current cards are quite good and if you don’t care about the raytracing, something like the RX5600XT are just as good or even better for 1080p gameplay than the RTX 2060 in that same pricing bracket, and the RX5700XT trades blows with the RTX 2070 and gets close to the 2070 Super, so they are worth considering!
Given all of that, I decided to make 3 builds assuming a few things:
-The system is geared exclusively to playing WoW
-The resolution you play at should be at max detail settings for that resolution and support raytracing
-The price should be reasonable for the level of detail
-I can’t tell your sense of style, so a basic case is on the list (not necessarily a recommendation!), and I’ve excluded peripherals/monitors as well
So, here are 3 PC Part Picker links for those, with prices at $899, $1,276, and $2,202 respectively!
Improvements with new hardware releases later this year may very well upend these recommendations, but that could also make them cheaper!