Over the past few months, my brother built a custom trail bike that he weighed down to the gram (it's about 10.12kg compared to the 15kg bike I currently use). It cost him something in the atmosphere of $3,000, and when I chided him about spending so much for it, he explained that since he doesn't have as much skill as other competitive bikers, he tries to make up for it with a better tool. It makes sense. Obviously, a superior athlete with a mediocre bicycle could and does outperform him in competitions, but he beats bikers of identical skill and athleticism with his new, lightweight, high-end bike.
What does this have to do with the World of Warcraft, you ask? Well, my brother's reasoning applies to gaming, as well. While natural talent and skill for video games isn't something you can achieve or obtain overnight (if at all), it's easy enough to take steps to improve your metagame. Just as characters get an advantage through in-game gear, players can get an advantage using real life gear.
Obviously, the first piece of equipment you should look at would be your computer. Most players don't give it a second thought as most modern computers can run the game passably well, but the game's system requirements can be a bit misleading. You can go through the requirements and meet the minimums for either Windows or Mac platforms but it's guaranteed that your gaming experience will be subpar, even with all the video options at the lowest settings.
The good news is a lot of computers off the shelves these days not only meet the minimum requirements but fulfill the recommended specs, as well. The bad news is that World of Warcraft is an extremely demanding game that goes well beyond the recommended requirements if you want flawless gameplay. It should come as no surprise that so-called gaming PCs tout the best processors, oodles of memory, and the fastest graphics cards. If you can afford it, play on a machine that is several notches above the recommended requirements.
For Windows XP/ Vista Blizzard recommends:
Processor: Dual-core processor, such as the Intel Pentium D or AMD Athlon 64 X2
Memory: 1 GB RAM (2 GB for Vista users)
Video: 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
For Mac OS X, Blizzard recommends:
Processor: Intel 1.8GHz processor or better
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Video: 3D graphics processor with Vertex and Pixel Shader capability with 128 MB VRAM Such as an ATI Radeon X1600 or NVIDIA 7600 class card or better
Needless to say, in all cases, more is better -- faster processor, more RAM (2 GB is actually the bare minimum for a decent performance), and the best graphics cards money can buy. There's the catch, actually: specs like these in a computer cost a lot of money. Most people can't actually afford machines like these, such as the Alienware ALX X58 shown above which costs $3,499 at its default configuration. Unless you're a successful professional gamer or someone who poops gold bouillons, these computers are drool-worthy but ultimately impractical.
What's there for the pauper to do, then? Well, instead of an expensive computer, you can splurge on the peripherals which will cost significantly less. But before we talk about those, let's take a look at what regular gamers can do to improve their gameplay, particularly for PvP.
Gaming heats up computers. Computer manufacturers know this, which is why cooling systems are so important to gaming computers. If you use a Mac, you'll probably encounter more heat problems than the average WoW player. Keep your computer cool at all times. This can mean cooling units for laptops, additional fans for desktops, or something as crude as playing on top of an ice pack (which is what Matthew's wife does for her Mac). Point an electric fan at your computer. Point several. Turn on the air conditioning. Whatever you do, understand that World of Warcraft is a processor-intensive game that will heat up your machine, and a hot machine performs very badly.
Fortunately, Blizzard allows the game to be played at crude minimal settings that will significatly improve gameplay for lower-end computers. The goal is to raise your frame rate -- the faster your computer is able to render frames, the higher the frame rate. A lot of factors contribute to the rendering of frames, such as the amount of information your computer has to process. More players and more things going on means more information, consequently slowing down your computer's ability to translate information into frames. This is why crowded places often create lag... there's just so much information that it takes longer for your computer to render everything.
If you don't have a powerful machine, help it out by reducing the information it has to process. Under the Video > Resolution settings, make sure to set your Multisampling down to 1x. Multisampling is what smooths out the edges of objects in the game. Multisampling x1 will result in jagged edges and crisp gameplay and will instantly raise frame rate. Higher Multisample rates result in gorgeous, fluid frames but will be noticeably slower.
Two other relevant effects are Particle Density and Projected Textures. Both used to be components of the old Spell Detail setting prior to Patch 3.1, which introduced the new graphics settings. For PvP, it is somewhat important to see spell details in order to know what the enemy is casting, particularly if you're the kind of player who is familiar with spell graphics and animation. Setting Particle Density to high will demand computer resources, but it's another concession for better PvP. Check the Projected Textures box to show layered spell effects such as Consecration. This won't demand too much from your machine, and turning this option off will do you more harm than good, whether in PvP or PvE, where it will help you stay out of the proverbial fire.
Everything else is cosmetic, and setting most or all of them to low will result in significantly improved game play. Weather Intensity, in particular, is actually detrimental to PvP as it creates reduced visibility effects -- you will actually be at a disadvantage with Weather Intensity turned on against a player who has it turned off during, say, a sandstorm or foggy conditions. One setting you can leave on with little impact on your PvP would be the Death Effect. Since you won't need improved frame rates while you're dead, feel free to leave the option turned on.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at your input devices (i.e., your mouse) and how you can splurge on that instead of a ridiculously-priced computer as a consolation prize.