The black rectangle carves powerfully through the air, slicing apart the very fabric of the sky while spewing out bright red squares with soul-crushing roars.
“It’s the legendary black elder dragon”, the adventurers in town whispered in a mixture of fear and awe, “one swipe of its claws can destroy cities, and a single bite from its jaws can crush mountains.”
I squinted at the floating quadrilateral disappearing in the distance, continuously spitting out little cubes. Is it just me or is this ‘legendary’ dragon a little underwhelming, I said to a friend.
He told me my graphic settings probably needed adjusting. I opened the menu and immediately noticed every option was set to ‘trash’. Shaking my head, I changed every setting to ‘ultra’ and clicked on the apply button. Almost immediately, my screen flashed and turned a very recognizable shade of blue. I know that color anywhere. The Blue Screen of Death. Hello darkness, my old friend.
Many gamer, like myself, are tempted to push our systems to their greatest potential by maxing every graphical setting when first starting a game — and I think it’s safe to say the heartbreak we feel when the FPS drops into the negatives is universal. We all want to play beautiful games, but we don’t have the money for a costly upgrade. So, what do we do? Mess with the settings.
But what we’re all wondering is: does every setting matter? If not, are there settings we can give up that will increase FPS yet keep the game playable? In fact, what do those settings even do? Is death truly the end? What is the Krabby Patty secret formula? This article will address some of these questions and perhaps even more.
Most common graphic settings
The following are graphic settings that almost all games will include in their options menu. Before you say anything, minesweeper, solitaire, and 3D space pinball are not among those games. I’ll try not to make this a list of definitions.
FPS. It can stand for at least 34 different things according to Wikipedia. But among those, what is the FPS that is talked so much about, almost religiously, in the gaming community? It isn’t the French Pastry School (a cooking school in Chicago). Nor is it the Funday PawPet Show (an online puppet show). Unbelievably, it’s not even Sn-glycerol-3-phosphate 2-alpha-galactosyltransferase (???). No, dear readers, what we’re obsessed with — to an unhealthy extent — is frames per second.
Frames per second is a unit of measurement that reflects the number of still frames that can be displayed on a screen every second. It is used as a basis for which we judge gaming systems and as a reason to inflate our fragile egos. It is a simple, straightforward measurement that compels us to spend thousand of dollars on overpriced mechanical parts.
FPS is the reason we’re switching between menu screens and constantly adjusting display settings trying to optimize. This single number governs which settings we use and to what degree — with each decreasing setting increment striking an invisible wound to our pride.
While it is not an actual setting, some games can allow you to set a fps cap.
What framerate is considered acceptable and what number of frames is desirable? I think it’s universally agreed upon that we want frames as high as possible, but there are risks that come along with that.
Vertical Sync and Refresh Rate
The refresh rate is the number of frames a display can show per second. A screen with the refresh rate of 60Hz can update 60 images per second. Similarly, a screen with a 144Hz refresh rate can update 144 images per second.
What does this all mean? It means that a monitor with a refresh rate of 60Hz can only display up to 60 FPS, and anything more than that won’t get shown. So, to answer the question above, a FPS matching the refresh rate of your monitor should be the baseline for what is acceptable.
So how does vertical sync tie into all this? V-Sync is a technology that forces the game’s frame rate to be locked at your display’s refresh rate. While having infinite frames each second might seem like a great idea, this may cause a phenomenon called screen tearing (right). V-Sync eliminates all traces of this in exchange for terrible input lag. Because of this, almost no one enables V-sync.
Nvidia and AMD have created their own pseudo-V-Sync technology, G-Sync and Freesync, respectively, for certain monitors. Instead of forcing the FPS to lock onto the monitor refresh rate, they make the monitor refresh rate adapt to the outputted FPS of the game.
Generally, because of reasons I don’t have space to explain, the higher the FPS, the better. The only other problem with high FPS that isn’t screen tearing is the potential for GPU overheating. Make sure you have a good cooling system and activate V-Sync only if you experience screen tearing.
I’m certain everybody knows what resolution is. You know, like the American Resolution or the Industrial Resolution?
Well, in case you don’t know, a resolution is a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favour of a new system. Pretty exciting stuff.
This is the proportional relationship between an image’s width and height. Most often, this is regarding the number of pixels. The 16:9 aspect ratio is the international standard for high definition television. It means for every 16 pixels across, the image is 9 pixels high. Most desktop monitors use this aspect ratio.
I have made a terrible mistake. I mistook revolution for resolution. How embarrassing. I can assure you there isn’t an option for that in the settings menu.
Resolution is the number of distinct pixels that, in our case, the monitor can display. Full High Definition has a 1920-pixel width by a 1080-pixel height, so the resolution is 1920 x 1080 (1080p). Basically, it’s the screen size you want to set your game at. A display resolution lower than your monitor’s native resolution might be stretched to compensate or have black bars on the sides. A higher resolution typically means sharper images.
Currently, the norm is to set your resolution to be either at 1080p or 1440p (2560 x 1440 pixels), but this isn’t always ideal. A higher resolution means more pixels, and more pixels means greater strain on your graphic card. It is possible to use 4K (3840 x 2160), but none of the current technology from the writing of this article can output a constant 60+ FPS at max settings in the latest games at this resolution. The GeForce GTX 1080 Ti can just barely reach 60 FPS in selected games (at max settings).
You want, at minimum, a stable 60 FPS and should select the resolution which can best achieve those frames. If you want a high resolution, you might need to lower some graphic settings. But if your game still runs slow despite the lowest possible settings, you should consider turning down the resolution.
As you know, electronic screens are made up of tiny square pixels. When displaying a vertical or horizontal line, the pixels line up and create a perfectly smooth image. But what if a diagonal or curved line is needed? The pixels line up corner to corner and this results in the ‘staircase effect’, or aliasing (left). These staircases are commonly known as ‘jaggies’. Aliasing occurs often because the output device doesn’t have enough resolution to display a smooth line.
Anti-aliasing is a technology that eliminates, or tries to eliminate aliasing in, in our case, games. There are many techniques for anti-aliasing. Each has their own unique implementation but they all generally fall into two major categories.
The first renders the scene at a higher resolution, then downsamples (downscales) to the display resolution, adding more pixels and effectively sharpening lines. This is incredibly resource heavy, and is very rarely implemented in games. This method is available in Shadow of Mordor.
The second method works by blurring the edges of jaggies after the rendering process. Then, by taking colour samples of the surrounding pixels, it blends away the jagged appearance (shown above). This technique requires a much lower performance cost and is the prominent anti-aliasing technique used in games.
You’ll almost always see a series of values included with anti-aliasing options: 2x, 4x, 8x, and so on. These numbers refer to the number of color samples being taken, and typically the higher the number, the more accurate (and more computationally expensive) the anti-aliasing will be.
If you want the ultimate gaming immersion, then anti-aliasing is essential. If you just want your game to work, then turning off anti-aliasing is equivalently essential. AA is one of the largest influencing factors to FPS. Use it as you will.
There exists an area completely devoid of light, filled instead with the enticing void of darkness. It follows wherever you go — never leaving; constantly reminding you of its existence. When you gaze into it, you feel that somehow, there’s something gazing back; silently observing every moment of your life, waiting for the chance to accomplish its purpose, whatever that may be. What exactly this entity is, we might just never know, until it’s too late.
Any other time, I would be referring to my soul, but on this fine day I’m simply talking about shadows.
Shadows give dimension and ultimately realism to objects. It should come with no surprise that 3D rendered games (which are most of them) will have the option to adjust the shadow quality. While the settings will vary from game to game, typically the higher the setting, the more realistic the shadows will be.
Let’s use an arbitrary tree as an example. At ‘very low’ settings, the game will use blobs of shade to represent the shadows of the mass of leaves. On ‘ultra’, the game will produce shadows for every individual leaf on the tree.
Some games have specific shadow quality settings instead of one general option. Grand Theft Auto 5, for example, has 5 graphic options just for shadows.
Assuming the developers were trying to accomplish some degree of realism, shadows will be quite literally everywhere light isn’t. As you can imagine, fully rending a map with ultra quality shadows is very taxing on your graphics card. You’ll need to know what your system can handle before cranking this setting to the fullest, otherwise, the game will suffer immense drops in FPS. Any settings having to do with shadows have significant impact on fps.
Nearly everything that you can touch in this world has a texture of some sort. A magnitude of properties determines the consistency of an object, be it material, design, or damage. Game engines attempt to recreate the feel/look of real objects by layering texture filters over digital surfaces.
Like shadows, texture settings will vary depending on the game. At its lowest, objects will appear dull, flat, and lacking sharpness. At the highest, objects will look… textured. Keep in mind that texture quality simply changes the ‘resolution’ of the textures, meaning it adds clarity, sharpness, and details, but (usually) doesn’t add more textures.
Texture quality affects performance quite significantly. After all, just about every element in a game will be affected by this setting. This, like shadows, holds great influence towards game FPS. The impact of each quality level depends on the game and your system. Adjust accordingly.
Effect quality determines how much detail/texture is present in particles. Changing the settings leads to differing results depending on the game.
In MOBAs, effect quality affects things like champion/hero abilities, minion auto-attacks, and turret shots. Skillshots, for example, will be sharper and more defined. Accessory particles might be added. This also holds for games like Overwatch. Hanzo’s dragons become much more dragon-ey and Reaper’s Death Blossom shoots off extra particles and is upgraded with an overall increase in death.
In Counter Strike: Global Offensive, the only noticeable different with effect quality adjustment is the sharpness of thrown molotovs. A higher effect quality allowed more clarity when looking through flames.
In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, quality of the dreaded (but underwhelming) red zone, grenade explosions, and other sorts of explosions seem to be the only changes.
The impact of effect quality varies on the game. For MOBAs and CS:GO, the cost is essentially negligible. In PUBG and Overwatch, turning this graphic option up will tank your frames. If the game is running slow, I recommend turning this option down to improve performance. In the introduction of this article, I described the fire of the legendary black dragon as red squares. Turning effect quality down to the lowest will not result in such drastic changes — at worst, the fire will look choppy and slightly pixelated.
The blurring of motion. I’d say this is pretty straightforward.
By blurring the background as you move/spin/aim, the game emphasizes a sense of movement. Many gamers, including yours truly, don’t like this blurry feeling. This is a matter of personal preference, as turning it on or off won’t affect game performance. In my experience, it does however, affect player performance. People easily affected by motion sickness or have a phobia of blurs should turn this option off.
As I mentioned before, almost every surface in a game is covered in textures. This is how realism is simulated. But textures without any sort of filtering results in a very ugly and rectangular game. Imagine the knockoff of a knockoff of Minecraft 1.0.
No, try again.
Let’s say you’re standing on an endless road made of cracked concrete. When you look down, the game renders detailed cracked concrete textures. But as you look into the distance, it wouldn’t make sense to use a high resolution texture for just a couple pixels of road. To improve performance, the game engine uses lower-resolution textures instead. Without any filtering, you’ll be able to (very obviously) see where one texture ends and another begins. Bilinear and trilinear filtering works to reduce the clarity of this line so the texture transition appears smooth (pictured right; left side).
The problem now is that while this border line is successfully smoothened out with bi- and tri- linear filtering, the textures themselves are lacking quality wise. This is where anisotropic filtering comes in. Using more advanced technology than bilinear or trilinear filtering, anisotropic filtering greatly reduces the blurriness and aliasing of distant objects, as well as preserving details when viewed at extreme angles. I don’t actually know how it does this, since it is super complicated. Bottom line is, anisotropic filtering makes faraway things look pretty-ish. If not prettier, at least clearer.
If you look at the settings, you might notice numbers in the anisotropic filtering dropdown. Typically, the options are 2x, 4x, 8x, and 16x. According to Nvidia, these sample rates refer to the steepness of the angle the filtering will be applied to.
As opposed to settings like anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering does not take up a large amount of resources. Clean textures at a low FPS cost makes anisotropic filtering a good method for enhancing your game environment. If you can, use the 16x option and scale down if necessary.
This is a perfect time for a physics lesson. To begin with, the natural state of the universe is complete darkness. This includes Earth of course — we’re not THAT special. The only reason we can see anything at all is thanks to the magical powers of light. Our lord and saviour light can only travel in straight lines but is capable of reflecting off essentially any surface. It, however, loses energy with each subsequent bounce. This is how shadows are created — weaker and/or little light rays illuminating a surface produces darker shadows and vice versa.
Ambient occlusion is a shading and rending technique that attempts to recreate real life lighting by taking in account the bounceable surfaces relative to each other and the strength of the light source. It darkens corners and crevices where light shouldn’t be hitting and lighten surfaces based on the amount of light it gets. Ultimately, this leads to detailed shadows and a much more realistic environment.
The problem is, calculating literally every object in a game environment and rendering shadows in real-time is inconceivably stressful on your GPU. Maybe our future robot overlords will have the technology to do so, because we currently do not. As a result, implementations of this technique can currently only be found in animated movies, where it takes hours or even days to render one frame with ambient occlusion.
Instead of true ambient occlusion, game engines use scaled down versions that calculates pixel depth rather than scene geometry. While relatively resource efficient, it is only an approximation and has its share of issues. Screen space ambient occlusion (SSAO), which was first used in Crysis (2007), is the most popular approximation.
If you own a powerful GPU that you believe can handle the strain of ambient occlusion (or I should say, the ambient occlusion approximations), then feel free to use the setting. It greatly adds to the realism of the game and improves the overall experience, at the cost of oh-so-many frames. If your graphic card isn’t very high-end, turning on ambient occlusion will most likely result in a familiar but unwanted blue screen. Hello darkness, my old friend.
Polygons are what makes up all 3D objects in the virtual world. Usually triangular in shape, they merge together to form a general structure for that particular object. Tessellation essentially multiplies the number of polygons and adds a larger workable surface for structure manipulation.
Tessellation adds more textures. Specifically, it adds surface area for textures to be layered on. This is different from configuring texture quality as explained somewhere above. While its intention is for objects to become greater detailed and realistic, sometimes the opposite happens and objects are terribly misshapen. It depends on the implementation and degree of optimization for tessellation in games.
Tessellation is very taxing on your graphics. If enabled, it (usually) adds greater depth and redefines the in-game landscapes. It, however, will drop a lot more than a couple frames. Typically, the vanilla textures of modern games are already quite good, removing the necessity for tessellation.
We’ve reached the end of this article. As of this moment, I have covered the most common graphical settings found in most games. These aren’t all the settings of course, as many games have options specific to unique elements available only to them; but I’m sure you can figure out what they do yourself.
As with many things concerning technology, the decisions are ultimately up to you. It is generally accepted that 60 frames per second is the bare minimum for games to achieve that buttery/silky/baby-butt smoothness, but if you like playing at frames below that, who am I to say you’re wrong? Configure your settings as you wish.
To summarize, shadow and texture quality and anti-aliasing have the greatest affect on your FPS. While computationally cheaper than anti-aliasing, ambient occlusion approximations still take up large amounts of resources. Anisotropic filtering should be turned on if possible while tessellation should be used only if you want more detail and your graphics can handle it.
Death is the ultimate end; at least until you respawn in 30 seconds.
If you like learning about information you already know or simply like learning, watch this video about everything I just went over.
Read my article on picking the perfect computer case and you might just discover the Krabby Patty secret formula. No guarantees though. It might be too scared to show itself.