Sidenote (Sort Of): The System Requirements Of Shadowlands

Last week, Blizzard published the system requirements listed on the box for Shadowlands.

For long-time PC gamers, the system requirements labeling on a game is equally an opportunity to boast of how amazing your rig is and also a challenge for a low-spec gamer to meet a playable framerate with a less-than-minimum rig.

For World of Warcraft, however, the audience comprises a broad mix of people, many of whom are not tech enthusiasts and simply play the game on the hardware they have, whatever it may be. So, when Blizzard published the hardware requirements, the Wowhead comments on the topic exploded with a lot of concern over an inability to play the game. It is worth establishing, firstly, that the published requirements won’t inherently stop you from playing the game altogether. If the game sees an under-specification system, it will typically warn you, but it won’t stop you from logging in and playing. Such was my experience on my 2011 Macbook Air, which, well…runs the game, in a very generous description of the experience.

However, the main concerns were over one point – the minimum requirement for storage being listed was 100 GB of space on an SSD, without any mention of a platter-based mechanical hard drive. For a lot of players, apparently, this was a point of contention – the comments were full of people complaining about this requirement in particular, over the cost of the upgrade and how expensive it would be relative to the cost of the game. To be fair, I don’t know what the global pricing situation on SSDs looks like, but here in the US, we bought a replacement 250 GB SSD for my fiance’s PC two months ago at a Best Buy for $40 – less than the cost of the box for Shadowlands and less that 3 months of subscription time. Had we bought the SSD through an online retailer, we could have gotten it for as little as $25. An SSD has a lot of very positive effects on Windows performance in general when used as a boot drive, and for the game, it reduces load times to a minimum, even when using a cheaper SATA-interface SSD. 100GB of capacity is pretty large, but with SSD’s starting at 250 GB on the low end now, that is still less than half and could manage a Windows installation and a few other apps or games. Blizzard has since updated the requirements to note a hard drive would work, but may be slow.

A few months back, I made some recommendations for system upgrades one could make or consider going into Shadowlands, based on speculation I had about requirements and the upgrades we had seen on beta, like real-time raytracing. With the official requirements listed, I feel safe paraphrasing that post here: if you’re currently happy with how your system runs WoW in BfA, there is no need to upgrade for Shadowlands. While the official requirements show increased specifications for both minimum and recommended, the game itself has not drastically changed in such a level to warrant the changes noted (particularly Blizzard’s listing of a Geforce GTX 1080 as a recommended requirement, which overshoots what WoW can really use by a fair bit!) but there are some upgrade recommendations I would make and reaffirm now based on the published requirements.

SSD: If You Can, Definitely Get One

SSDs are established technology that has been in the market for over a decade now and is quickly becoming the de facto storage standard for PCs and other devices. It is far faster than a standard mechanical hard drive and enhances much of your experience using a computer. WoW has been a game that has needed an SSD for proper playability since around Legion, as the multitude of loading screens, large draw distances and increased number of assets needed to load could make playing WoW in modern content very iffy without one. In BfA, that has increased, with loading screens between the two islands making up the core zones of the expansion, another loading screen for Nazjatar, and then loading screens between the continents used for the 8.3 content.

Shadowlands isn’t actually as bad in this regard – while the zones of the expansion are not connected physically in any way, the game appears to store them as a single continent and while it uses a visual effect between zones that seems like it could be hiding loading, the minimap and in-game map show a clear and standard pacing for flight between zones that, if it is hiding loading, is doing so very well! However, the Maw seems to be behind its own loading screen, and initial loading of the game and dungeon/instanced content loading is so much faster on an SSD, going from upwards of 60 seconds to under 10, so even if Shadowlands has optimized storage performance better than Legion or BfA, an SSD still proves its worth quickly. Given their decreased cost these days, I would highly recommend getting one as soon as possible, and if they still are too expensive in your market, the end of the year is said to bring a price crash due to flash memory overproduction, so if you want a larger drive, it could be worth waiting a bit!

RAM: 16 GB Is Ideal

For just WoW, Blizzard recommends 8 GB of system RAM, and to be honest, this is fine. WoW usually peaks around 4 GB of memory usage on my system, which is fine. However, if your system has just 8 GB of RAM, you might find that WoW at full bore is limited, or your system might start to feel a bit sluggish. 16 GB of RAM is the current sweetspot for a gaming PC that I would recommend, and DDR4 prices have fallen to the point that 16 GB can be had for under $100, and it also is set to crash near the end of the year due to COVID-related overproduction. For modern systems, 3200 MHz DDR4 is a sweet spot on price and performance. If you have a hard drive or slower SSD, more system memory is ideal for WoW, as the game will buffer assets from places you’ve been, which will make returning to them (say, going from Boralus to Uldum for a N’zoth invasion and then hearthing back to Boralus) much faster than a full reload of the data. If you use any other apps with WoW, like Discord or a second monitor window with YouTube or Netflix stuff running, 8 GB of system RAM will quickly tap out. 16 GB is much harder to load up, and it has the benefit of being the new standard with the next gen consoles, which will afford you some future-proofing if you play anything besides WoW!

Graphics: No Upgrades Needed, Unless You Want Raytracing

Shadowlands makes a single large upgrade that is also a small upgrade – real-time raytracing. However, the raytracing in beta is just raytraced shadows. These are nice, don’t get me wrong – you get realistic soft shadows based on scene lighting instead of an approximation with sharp-edged shadows – but they aren’t a huge or even always noticeable shift in visual fidelity. If you don’t currently have an Nvidia Geforce RTX graphics card, you’re not really going to be able to run the game with the raytraced shadows anyways, and even then, until the Ampere cards start launching, supply of RTX cards is pretty constrained right now as-is. Given all of that, if you are happy with how the game looks on your current PC setup, there is no need to upgrade. If you really want raytraced shadows in WoW, or a general upgrade to your GPU, my recommendation is to wait until the end of the year – between the announced Ampere cards from Nvidia offering drastically better performance (based on Nvidia’s marketing slides) and the rumored performance of AMD’s RDNA2 Radeon cards scheduled to launch prior to the next-gen consoles (which also use RDNA2), buying a card now is a surefire ticket to disappointment. The only exception I would carve out is for midrange or lower cards – AMD is rumored to be pushing a competition in higher price brackets than they normally play at, and the announced Ampere cards are $500+, so if you tend to buy cards around $300 or less, we’re not likely to see those until early 2021 from Nvidia. AMD might have lower-end RDNA2 cards on offer to start, but they’ve also traditionally slow-rolled their lineups, starting at the top and moving down the stack as time goes on.

If you absolutely want a new graphics card now and want to pay around $300, the RTX 2060 from Nvidia and the Radeon RX 5600XT from AMD are both really solid parts that offer excellent performance, and the RTX 2060 allows for raytracing which would work for Shadowlands, albeit with the first-generation RTX hardware being substantially slower at it. If you really want raytracing badly, wait for the new cards and get one of those – when it comes out, an RTX 3060 should offer much better performance at a similar price, and the RDNA2 cards should also support DXR raytracing which will work with WoW. Here’s Blizzard’s official post about ray-tracing in Shadowlands, with some visual examples to help you decide!

CPU: Have a Quad-Core (Probably)? You’re Fine

CPU’s have been advancing rapidly in the last few years with heated competition from AMD pushing on industry juggernaut Intel to the point of embarrassment. Both manufacturers make excellent gaming CPUs, but let me keep this simple – if you have 4 cores in your CPU, you’re fine. With the optimizations made to WoW’s engine throughout Battle for Azeroth, the game will load-up a multi-core CPU past the first core, which makes a wide range of systems benefit, especially older dual and quad-core systems which were previously suffering due to having a slower main core. If you have a quad-core already, you’re fine for WoW. I will recommend that if your quad-core is an AMD FX CPU or an Intel CPU from before 2011, it is worth upgrading to a modern system, as 6-core CPUs are the low-end of the modern market and much faster thanks to architectural improvements, but a new CPU will almost always mean a new motherboard, new RAM, and that upgrade then spirals into a lot of added cost. Therefore, this: if you have a quad-core, it’s probably fine and shouldn’t be a detriment to WoW, as much as I want to say buy new cooler stuff!

Outside of these recommendations, my original point from the earlier post remains – if you can play WoW today in BfA, you’re fine for Shadowlands and there’s not any real need to move to new hardware!

5 thoughts on “Sidenote (Sort Of): The System Requirements Of Shadowlands

  1. While I ‘get’ that getting an SSD at small sizes (250GB?) is somewhat in sight of economical, it dismisses out of hand the technical burden of getting it into the system. You don’t ‘just copy Windows’ to the new disk. You’re pretty much looking, without some very helpful software (more money), at a fresh Windows install. Assuming you have the installer, can find the key, and so forth.

    Further, the implied 250GB is unacceptably small. For purposes of becoming the main system drive, 500GB is marginally acceptable and I would actually push for 1TB. Now it’s suddenly not a trip to Beast Buy and the cost of a good meal. We’re talking substantial money.

    I also disagree with WoW requiring an SSD since Legion to “really work well.” While I HAVE been running mine off of a dedicated SSD for a while now, I recently switched it over to the spinner since my new system doesn’t have multiple SSDs and I don’t like keeping data-like assets on an SSD (I have trust issues). I have, since switching, not noticed any issues with using the spinner, not on Classic, BfA, or the PTR (SL).

    Don’t take this for me being down on SSDs. I really feel they’re great in the correct applications, but they’re inherently less reliable than a spinner so I don’t think anything important should be kept on them. In that regard, having an SSD for the OS, maybe another one for high-churn games (with the assumption that it is doomed, so make backups!), and a spinner for the important stuff.

    However, I recognize that not everyone has the technical acumen or the time or will to go through all that. They wanna buy something from Dell, plug it in, and go. And I don’t think it’s great that they be forced to concern themselves with matters they would just as soon not be concerned with.

    I find it funny that WoW is starting to require this kind of higher end tech. What’s the first thing you hear if you mention WoW in gaming circles? Usually “dated look and feel”. Are we really burning up such resources for such low end assets? I think there’s a rant hidden in there about the quality of the code that overburdens a moderately good system while shuffling around such assets, myself.

    Anyway, off the point a bit. My major point is that I don’t think “just get an SSD” is as trivial for the intended WoW audience as you may feel it is where you’re coming from. For people like us, that build our own systems, sure, no problem. But my mom, should she ever want to play WoW, would probably look at the requirements and walk away. Her Mac cannot be upgraded further, should she buy a new one? She only uses her PC for one program, why should she add hardware to it just for a game?

    WoW isn’t a l33t game, it’s pretty much bottom of the pile. I’d expect those requirements from a shooter, like OverWatch, sure. But WoW, with it’s low-energy subsystems, is starting to look a lot like Gallywix with it’s requirements. Disproportionate to what it is.

    I do feel it’s a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but when there’s nothing really to do anymore, the citizens do tend to latch onto anything gossipworthy. And the thing has already changed (they said, oh, misprint, we meant SSD OR spinner lol!) and there’s that disclaimer at the bottom (programmers always give you that, because testing is hard yo) that is basically a get out of jail free card.

    Your bottom line is my bottom line: if it works in BfA it’ll work in SL.

    (one disclaimer: if they drop support for your video card, they’re likely to lock you out. We lost our best pally because of that.)

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    1. I would agree that a 250 GB SSD is not, on its own, the best option, but I do think that it is better than a platter drive for WoW. Individual experiences are anecdotes and not data, but I’ve seen a fair number of benchmarks and comparative testing of HDD vs. SSD for the game and it cuts initial and subsequent loading screens by a fairly drastic amount. Then again, my personal experience is that I’ve had WoW on an SSD since Cataclysm, so it has been a really, really long time since I’ve personally run it off of anything else. If I was personally building or buying for myself or someone who asked, I’d definitely go with a 1 TB SSD at a minimum – it’s what I run, after all!

      The reliability point is noted alongside the caveat that I’ve had the same number of each type of drive fail – 1 of each. SSDs get a higher percentage of that failure rate because I’ve owned fewer, but in total I’ve had about 10 SSDs and all but one have held up very well. I tend to buy Samsung ones now because they warranty them through a larger TBW metric than most manufacturers. The point about backups is well-made, though! Generally, I feel pretty safe with my data on an SSD and backed up regularly to an external drive with less frequent cloud backups.

      The point on upgrading is a good one – it definitely isn’t quite that simple, although I think an SSD upgrade is easier than most. I debated doing an instructional piece on that, but I felt like it stepped a little further afield of the topic than I wanted to go. Could always throw something like that together or just link one in the future, though!

      On the requirements point, I definitely agree. It is sort of en vogue to be mad at New Blizzard these days, but they really do not engineer this game particularly well, it seems. The fact it took them nearly 15 years after multi-core CPUs went mainstream to even optimize the game to use more than one core effectively is silly, and even with those changes, the game is still far more CPU-bound than GPU bound. Likewise, the requirements listed are astronomically silly for what the game offers – at the top end, recommending a GTX 1080 is a huge leap given that Shadowlands doesn’t seem to really have new visual tech short of raytracing, which the GTX 1080 doesn’t have proper hardware support for anyways!

      Lastly, I’d be curious as to what happened with that paladin you mentioned. In BfA, they did do some API tweaking which led to some lost support, but I haven’t heard of someone being completely obsoleted just for a video card. In BfA it could have been a DirectX support issue, or a Mac without Metal issue.

      Either way, I was sort of interested in the topic given how many people at Wowhead seemed to believe that not having an SSD was going to lock them out of the game, and it was a point of curiosity for me!

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      1. Again, I do not deny that faster drives are faster, that’s pretty much the definition of an SSD. But. If you spec for speed on your spinner, it’s not a huge difference IMO. If we were talking 10 years ago well sure, I’d be very excited about an SSD, but modern systems are very good at masking the differences if you’re not sure how to look.

        Agree on the size, 1TB is the minimum I would suggest. I actually got a 2TB for my new system as I’m hoping to get 5 years out of this one like I did the last. I like the Samsungs as well, though in this case I went with an Intel “for reasons”.

        The big problem with moving from a spinner to an SSD is all the boot disk rubbish at the low levels. Win does what it can to smooth that over, but in the end it can be quite incomprehensible. Even I, a seasoned system builder, get in trouble from time to time. Made the decision to buy a NAS real easy. There *are* tools out there to assist, but, unless you’re good with the gubbins, free ones aren’t that helpful. I’ve used commercial software, and, for this limited use case, works quite well.

        Makes me miss my Amiga though. 😛

        But usually $expensive which is where I take issue with minimizing the technical burden of the upgrade. Buying parts is easy. Making it all work is not, necessarily. Your family and mine are obviously in a different boat than more casual users. (Funny story: my wife occasionally tries to save us a buck or three by buying a commercial build (Dell, HP, etc). Almost always I end up providing a home built replacement. So, yes, I have a pretty good idea of what the average consumer has access to, and it ain’t pretty).

        Reliability numbers for SSDs for me are less anecdotal and more forward-looking. SSDs have a limited lifespan compared to spinners by nature, having a limited number of writes per cell. The firmware on the devices can only do so much magic before it dies. Of all our HDs, we’ve had only one to fail, and that was a WD from an external drive (see the BackBlaze report on drive reliability regarding the drives they harvested during the drive shortage for some insight, I can provide links if you want). I’ve had as many SSDs fail, but, as I am an early adopter, I’m not counting it as a strike, though it is one reason why I limit who I buy from now. I won’t say who it was but it rhymes with Oh See Zee.

        The main reason, I think, that I rarely see a failure is that I buy for robustness over speed and I outgrow it before it dies 🙂

        I believe our Pally ended up leaving the game in Legion, sorry if I implied it was BfA. I even offered to send him a spare Radeon, had two that were perfectly good (just not as good as the one I was using). He declined. I think Pallys come in two flavors: stubborn monoliths that once settled into a course, won’t budge, and the guy that made the How to Paladin videos. That might also have been the divide between 32 bit and 64, which is a lot less overcomable. I’m a little fuzzy on that part.

        If it gets slow, a tutorial on the transfer to SSD thing would be pretty cool.

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      2. Yeah, I think moving an existing system to an SSD is a real challenge, if you want to just drop it in and run and not do a fresh reinstall. I suppose someone could just drop in an SSD for WoW and run with that, but that feels weird too – definitely not an ideal situation, although easier to do than moving a whole Windows installation over without using any third-party tools!

        Funny you mention Backblaze, because I always read their quarterly reports, especially since I used to buy a lot of Seagate drives for bulk storage (which worked fine for me, but yikes!)

        I do think a part of my favorable SSD experience vis a vis failures is down to more rapid replacements, though. I had my first one (a 60 GB Intel!) for barely two years before moving to a new one with a new system, and then I replaced that SSD with two to split Windows from WoW/FFXIV and kept those for around 5 years, with only one failing this year in my fiancees PC (which, coincidentally to your comment, was an OCZ drive!). Also, funny enough, OCZ has been shuffled enough to hide now (I want to say they were bought by Toshiba and then after a few years of using the OCZ brand on their stuff, they spun off the SSD unit as Kioxia, if I have that right).

        It’s a good point on the differences in readership – even as I’ve written more techie stuff here, the audience that finds their way to it is definitely different from my core readership, which is fine. I know a couple of the WoW players in my readership have bought new PCs altogether in prep for Shadowlands, which is a good low-hassle way to get some of those upgrades.

        I had totally forgotten about the 64-bit force, which is a good catch. I was curious just because it’d be nice to flag in a post if others come to the post with a question. Paladins do definitely have a type, though!

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  2. Yeah, I apologize that I can’t remember the particulars of our Pally bow-out. Our guild hasn’t been that active since before Legion which makes it hard to nail things down in my elderly memory cells. I’m prolly the most active member but our GM keeps logging in enough to retain her crown 🙂

    In fact the best option is to add a new SSD and point WoW / Steam / GoG at that drive instead of trying to manage the intricacies of moving system over. Sure, you lose a few umphs due to system libs loading off a spinner, but the stuff that slow WoW down specifically are largely localized so I do feel that’s the best approach. Now., whether it’s economically feasible to purchase an SSD for gaming is a difficult equation. Myself, I think it is. *Especially* if it’s separate from the system disk. But, also, especially for modern gaming platforms (i.e. NOT WOW)

    “Yikes” – I get it. Which is why I went NAS, with major options for RAID. Cheap + RAID = win. It does imply a certain level of commitment (i.e I always have a replacement drive ready for the NAS) but to BackBlaze’s point, they lost fewer drives than data (i.e. a few vs zero). They are masters of risk mitigation. Iron Wolf drives are cheap and capacious. Having one or 2 in hot swap is not a problem.

    OCZ (I guess we’ll say the name) actually did me very well, sending TWO replacements for my one RMA. While I eventually moved off of those drives with the speed of a thousand Tracers, I appreciate that they tried. Nevertheless … ya know.

    The key is to keep system and data separate. I can totally wipe this system and be ready to log in for work within two days. The key is that system (OS, etc) is kept on the SSD (fast ish loading) while data (non executable, etc) is always on the spinner. I have 0% downtime due to this arrangement. I don’t believe it will work for everyone. (for reasons)

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