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The Choice in DirectX
For most of the history of MMORPGs there has been a tradeoff between great graphics and playability. MMORPGs are games meant to survive for years, and in order to gain and keep an audience the games are typically made to suit a broad range of hardware. The better the graphics, the more up to date the computer necessary to play without being inhibited by lag.
So when the new graphics standard of DirectX version 10 was announced, game companies were faced with the decision to support new graphics capabilities or to continue with the DirectX version 9 standard that was commonplace in the industry. The choice for many of the newer games was to offer the best of both worlds for players, leaving the choice of whether to go with DX9 or DX10 up to them.
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The DX10 Difference
There are some major differences between how DX9 and DX10 utilizes the graphics card to present the user with an image.
Prior to DX10, visuals were restricted because of limitations due to utilizing fixed function pipelines. The older cards possessed different processors for each major function. There was a processor for shaders, a different one for the geometry, and yet another one to deal with the pixels. So, if you were in an area with a lot of geometry, the geometry processor would max out and nothing else could be worked on by the graphics card until the geometry was completed, underutilizing the full power of the card.
In DX10, the processors are all string processors, with each able to perform any task. If a scene required a lot of geometry, the card assigned as many processors as were needed, while at the same time assigning other processors to handle shading or shadows, allowing the video card to use 100% of its processor power.
Another problem pre-DX10 was with compatibility. Cards claiming to be DX9 compatible weren’t always compatible with all DX9 functions, as the cards only needed to cover certain core DX9 functions with the rest as optional. With DX10 any card that is DX10 compatible from the budget releases to the $500+ models, is capable of performing all DX10 tasks.
The last major difference with DX10 is in how it handles memory. DX10 enables virtualized memory, borrowing memory from RAM when the card’s onboard memory is filled.
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DX10 and The Lord of the Rings Online
The Lord of the Rings Online was the first MMORPG to utilize DX10 technology. The effects on the game were visually amazing. With upgraded shaders for water, particle effects and lighting, and dynamic shadows, the DX10 version of the game increased the feeling of immersion. The world feels more realistic as seemingly random elements are placed into the nature of a scene.
A lot of the game takes place in an outdoors environment. With the DX10 version this environment appears more lifelike. There are fewer visual edges to shadows, and light flows through the environment far more naturally than with the DX9 version.
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DX10 and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was a game developed from the beginning to make use of the DX10 graphic specifications. Like The Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan offers two versions, a DX9 and a DX10 version.
The biggest difference between the two is the visuals. Textures are more realistic thanks to mapping improvements, shadows and lighting are both improved with shadows appearing softer with less definable edges and light passing naturally through an object-filled environment.
Water physics are improved with reflections appearing much more natural, and draw distance has been lengthened, ending the feeling of looking into an indefinable fog when objects are far away from the character's location.
The effect on the total environment is to give the very nature-centric world of Age of Conan a realistically natural look, with less of a drawn-in feeling about the environment.
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The High Cost of DX10
DX10 is noticeably better on a strictly visual basis. But there are several drawbacks for the DX10 user, especially those playing MMORPGs.
On a strictly technical basis, DX10 versions tend to have a much lower framerate than their DX9 counterparts, requiring system upgrades in order to net the same game performance with the improved graphics. Tests performed at HardOCP.com found an actual fall in framerates of 55% to 66%. And it’s that framerate hit that brings out the hidden cost of DX10 play.
DX 10 requires Microsoft Vista OS or Windows 7, even though Microsoft Windows XP remains the dominant platform with a market share of 63% in the 2nd quarter of 2009. DX10 also requires a DX10 enabled video card, and while most new video cards come with DX10 compatibility, it’s still a necessary upgrade for a genre of gaming known for its widespread compatibility.
For new system owners, the question of playing an MMORPG in DX10 is a simple one. Most new systems can handle the graphics hit with no problems. But for those looking at the upgrade path, it becomes a bit more difficult. Visually the differences are noticeable, but not to the extent where it feels like a whole new experience.
DX10 is mostly a way of giving gamers more of a good thing. The future of MMORPGs will be DX10 or even the very recently announced DX11, but for now the eye candy of DX10 may not yet be worth the several hundred dollars in upgrades most players must get in order to enjoy it.