In-Game Graphics Settings Explained

Wed, Feb 25, 2015

Computers, Games

In-Game Graphics Settings Explained

Posted 02/23/2015 at 1:53pm | by Ben Kim

A guide to interpreting game settings

PC gamers have been fiddling with graphics settings since the dawn of time, but it takes a special kind of know-how to understand what each of those settings actually does. It doesn’t help that there aren’t any standard naming conventions, which means that options like “model” and “object” quality are usually one and the same. To help clarify, we’ve rooted out what all of the most common graphics settings actually do.

Keep in mind that the names of settings can vary between games, so use your best judgment before making too many changes. For those who aren’t interested in fiddling around with sliders, you should stick to utilities like Nvidia’s GeForce Experience, which optimize the gameplay experience for you.

Anti-Aliasing

Anti-aliasing

Nvidia’s demonstration of anti-aliasing.

Anti-aliasing, or “AA,” is a setting that most gamers are probably familiar with. Although there are different forms of anti-aliasing, they all attempt to smooth over the jagged edges of objects—or “jaggies” as they’re affectionately called. These visual artifacts are a consequence of the very nature of presenting an image on a screen. Individual pixels are assigned colors, and these combinations of colors—rendered as individual objects—have jagged edges. Anti-aliasing creates what our eyes perceive as a smooth line in their place.

Gif

It’s hard to see in this smaller resolution, but the edges of the car and the gun have noticeably jagged edges if you use CTRL + middle mouse scroll up to zoom in after clicking the image to enlargen.

The concept itself is easy to understand, but appreciating the different forms of anti-aliasing is a bit more complicated. Nvidia breaks it down into two major types: supersampling and multisampling. The simplest method, supersampling (FSAA), involves rendering the scene at oversized dimensions. With a native resolution of 1920×1080, four samples would mean that the GPU renders the scene at 3840×2160 before bringing it back down to its original size. Multisampling (MSAA) is a bit different in that it samples groups of adjacent pixels together instead of individually. This saves precious processing power, but sacrifices minor details in exchange for better performance.

This is a resource-intensive setting that is most important at lower resolutions. As the number of pixels—and with it, the resolution—increases, the jagged edges of objects become less obvious. In fact, applying excessive anti-aliasing to higher resolutions can have a catastrophic effect on performance because of the multiplicative nature of anti-aliasing—rendering a 3840×2160 scene is hard enough without supersampling it to 7680×4320 or higher.

Anisotropic Filtering

Gif

Notice the lack of track marks on the ground to the right in the image with bilinear anistropic filtering. 

Anisotropic filtering is anti-aliasing’s little brother. While AA smooths out jagged edges, anisotropic filtering adds detail to what would otherwise be blurry, faraway objects. To save resources, distant objects are rendered with lower-resolution textures; these less-detailed surfaces can eventually become blurry when viewed at an angle.

Texture filtering solves this problem by raising the level of detail in faraway textures to an adequate level. Basic, isotropic filtering uses a square pattern that isn’t appropriate for fixed perspectives. Anisotropic filtering steps in to use rectangular or trapezoidal patterns to improve textures.

Just like anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering can be resource-intensive, so this is a setting you’ll want to pay particular attention to. Raising the setting from values like 1x or 2x increases the detail in distant textures and thus uses more processing power.

Texture Quality

Arma3 Textures

The change in this picture is pretty drastic with thicker grass and a vastly improved facade on the building.

Texture quality is a hugely important setting because almost all of the objects and models visible in game are textured. Think of it as a sort of virtual wallpaper that gives otherwise featureless objects a more familiar face—grass, snow, walls, etc. Lower-resolution textures look blurry and lack detail. Increasing the texture quality will drastically improve the look of any game. Unlike model quality, raising texture quality relies more on VRAM than it does on your GPU’s processing power.

Lighting Quality

Battlefield 4

The difference between the ultra and low lighting is pretty drastic, with ultra effects being smoother and more realistic.

Adjusting the lighting quality setting affects the number of light sources and their effects on the environment. It’s an incredibly complicated topic. Fortunately, raising or lowering lighting quality usually has a fairly obvious effect on the game. Low settings usually reduce light to basic points and can cause weird reflections (see the Battlefield 4 screenshot above). Unfortunately, raising lighting quality has a drastic effect on performance because of the complex calculations that take place behind the scene to realistically light the scene.

Shadow Quality

Watch Dogs

The shadows in this scene aren’t particularly complex, but the shift from low to ultra adds more detailed shadows to objects in the distance.

This setting is fairly self-explanatory. Adjust it to control the quality of rendered shadows. Going from on to off has an obvious effect although not all games support completely disabling shadows. Moving between levels of shadow has a more subtle effect, with shadows disappearing from smaller objects in the distance. The edges of shadows become smoother and less pronounced as you approach “High” or “Ultra” levels. Increased shadow quality also means that the shadows will better resemble the detailed shape of the object casting the shadow. These effects are fairly expensive (taxing) because of the inherent relationship between light and shadows—the placement and size of each shadow has to be calculated.

Vertical Synchronization (VSync)

Vsync is a holdover from the era of CRT monitors, but it’s still sometimes necessary for LCD monitors. To put it simply, vsync synchronizes your monitor and your graphics card to eliminate tearing effects. Without it, your video card is free to render frames as soon as it’s able, which means that it might very well be presenting a scene that hasn’t yet been fully updated on your screen. This tearing—imagine a photo literally torn in half and reattached slightly askew—usually happens when your frame rate far exceeds the refresh rate of your monitor. Unless you’ve got a particularly capable monitor, your refresh rate is probably capped at 60Hz, which means that you’d ideally want a constant 60 frames per second.

Unfortunately, vsync isn’t without its downsides. Particularly astute gamers might notice a bit of added latency while moving the mouse cursor or entering keyboard commands. There’s also the performance cost associated with synchronization, which means that if you’re barely averaging 60 frames a second, you’ll probably be just fine keeping vsync off.

Learn More

We’ll be adding more explanations to this guide over time. In the meantime, there are a wealth of resources available for people interested in diving deeper into the world of computer graphics. Head on over to Tweakguides.com (especially their Gamer’s Graphics & Display Settings Guide) or check out the folks over at r/buildapc who have created a pretty comprehensive game settings guide.

Which settings do you usually turn on and off? Tell us in the comments!

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