Thursday, November 20, 2008

Me and my shadows

Wrath of the Lich King is awful purty, but I'm hating the framerates I'm getting.
Riplash Ruins (with the ocean, drifting fog, northern lights, distant crumbling buildings) = 12 fps
Rivenwood, Howling Fjord ("Scare the guano out of them!" quest) = 9fps

SLI... doh!
Okay, I didn't check out the requirements for the expansion, I just figured my 'good when I built it' system would handle it since I hadn't heard any outcry that we'd all need to upgrade our graphics cards. Now that I've seen painful framerates, I guess I need to appease the hardware gods and buy that second video card my SLI-capable system has been waiting for. Before I clicked the 'buy' button, I figured I should check that WoW supports SLI (and that those folks are getting great video performance). But wait, most recent posts I find confirm the opposite: WoW ignores the second card in SLI (or Crossfire) setups. D'oh! There's an inkling rattling around in my head that dual vid card solutions are independent of the application, but the blue posts say 'that's not how we roll.' Glad I found that out before adding a merely decorative second graphics card.

If fulfilling SLI potential isn't going to be my route to smooth game play, what then do I need to buy? a better/newer/faster video card? Sure, I can turn down all the graphics in the game, but I -like- that it's pretty. I want to be able to experience the game in all its loveliness. Besides, with settings cranked down, you can nearly run into mobs as they appear from the clip plane. Other friends started asking for recommendations on what CPU upgrade they need to buy to improve their frame rates, or what new gaming set-up would handle the new graphics. I googled for reviews of WoW performance on burlier graphics cards, but found forums full of "I have the best rig out there and my fps still sucks!" That made me hold off. What else might be the issue?

Well, what's the system recommendations from blizz?
Recommended: Dual-core processor, such as the Intel Pentium D or AMD Athlon 64 X2
Blizzard recommends 1 GB of RAM for XP and 2 GB for Vista...

With a dual-core CPU and well over a gig of RAM (3gb, on XP), I'm sailing through those parts, so onward to graphics.

Video Card:
Minimum required is 3D graphics processor with Hardware Transform and Lighting with 32 MB VRAM, such as an ATI Radeon 7200 or NVIDIA GeForce 2 class card or better.
For smooth play, developers recommend: 3D graphics processor with Vertex and Pixel Shader capability with 128 MB VRAM, such as an ATI Radeon X1600 or NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GT class card or better.

GeForce 2? That's so old I have to check wikipedia to refresh my memory. Those came out in 2000 (eight years ago, the equivalent of eons of geologic time in the world of video processors).
GeForce 7600 GT -- Hey, that's exactly the card I have. If that's what the devs recommend for smooth play, what the heck?

Before I and my friends start draining our bank accounts for computer upgrades that may or may not make much difference, I decided to get sorta serious about tracking down fps numbers so that I could judge how well the 'performance improvement' tips & tricks work.

How I tested
One toon in Stormwind, one in Shattrath, one in Northrend (roving reporter)
  1. Staring straight up into the sky
  2. Indoors, inside an uncrowded building
  3. Outdoors, viewing a small crowd (~10 players, mailbox or flight points)
  4. Forest + sky (camera angled up, as if gazing at stars without craning neck)
  5. Forest/fog (camera angled down or straight, so not including much of the sky)
From my starting spot (a random mix of high/low/medium video settings, not much maxed out, 1280x1024, 24 bit color depth, 1x multisampling). The list is in order of decreasing performance. Indoors and sky got 60-70fps in most places except Dalaran - that place got 20-30. The small crowd shots dipped down to ~40. I expected the clouds and glimmering Northern Light-effect to be a significant hit, but that turned out not to be the case. The most painful view ended up just looking at/thru fog or trees.
Stormwind (Elwynn) = 32 fps
Shattrath (Terrokar) = 17 fps
Borean Tundra (Riplash Ruins) = 16 fps
Having found my worst case spots, I then cranked everything up to max detail (just to get a good masochistic view). Ouch. 6.5 fps. Mind you, this is on the video card recommended for smooth play.

So, onward with various adjustments that have been suggested to help.
  • Transparency Antialiasing was already off
  • Disabled Vertical Sync - didn't do much, 1.3 fps (might be because I'm still on a CRT)
  • "SET timingMethod" is no longer in the config file for 3.0, so wasn't able to test
  • updated video drivers - did that over the weekend, before starting these tests
Hmm, okay, thanks for the suggestions. (I haven't yet tried the "run a media player in the background" -- will try that in the future.) So I'm left with twiddling settings in the video interface.

My old nemesis, Terrain Distance, proved less formidable than I expected. I had a goofy experience when I went from 1gb to 3gb RAM: I'd had the terrain distance/clip plane turned way down to improve performance, so when I got more RAM, I figured I could crank up the distance -- and was flabbergasted that you could see islands off the coast of many continents. Changing the distance seeings in Riplash Ruins made some buildings disappear, but didn't have a huge impact on the fps. Moving each slider, checking the fps, logging in/out, rinse, repeat. Slight changes, but nothing earth-shattering... until I got to shadows. Going from 'medium' to 'low' (which is essentially 'off') made my fps shoot up, from ~15 to over 40. Re-checked that, set shadow detail to high: 10 fps; back to low: 46 fps. And this was with most settings higher than I normally have them -- the terrain, textures, effects, weather, etc. were all more lovely than I normally experience, and yet I was getting framerates better than I've seen in a long time. I did a little fine tuning, keeping lowered settings on things I couldn't tell a difference on: weather, down one notch, ditto ground clutter, terrain distance detail down two notches.

More running around, more testing. Shadows off means I (and other players) don't cast shadows, and it doesn't have a uniform effect on fps. Back in Valiance Keep, or on the grassy bluffs nearby, the shadow settings only had a ~5-10 fps difference (going from 35 to 41 isn't a huge boost). I'd seen what that one toggle could do in fog, but now to test it in the trees. Stars' Rest is full of lovely trees, a delicate haze hangs in the air, and those weird bits of light that float around night elves are everywhere. Previously, anything with trees was sending framerates into the teens, but I've got everything maxed (except shadows), and I'm getting 46fps. Woot! Test-time: set shadows to medium, 12 fps. Glutton for punishment: set shadows to high, 1.5 fps. Woah. Back to no shadows, fps zooms back to mid 40s. And double-checking the performance, how does this impact the numbers I was seeing outside Shattrath? 17 fps snaps to ~40 as well.

I like seeing my shadow when I ride along on my horse or bird, but honestly, I mostly only notice it then: when I'm in transit. If I have to give up that singular detail to regain painless framerates, well, okay. I've got more possibilities to try; last night I did everything with all my addons in place, so there might be room for improvements that could in turn let me switch shadows back on. But for the time being, this is my easy work-around.

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