Thursday, January 23, 2014

Graphics settings in PC games

Most PC games usually have a ton of graphical settings that you can fine-tune for your particular PC setup. This in itself is excellent. (After all, there are like a million different PC hardware configurations out there and it's next to impossible to come up with graphical presets that would be optimal for all of them, so allowing the user to fine-tune is a nice feature.)

The major problem I have with most such games is that they make it inconvenient, if not outright difficult, to manually fine-tune the graphical settings in such a manner that you get the maximum quality/speed ratio. By far the most typical, and most annoying, process for doing it is the following:
  1. From the game, go to the options menu (often traversing through several sub-menus.)
  2. Adjust graphical settings blindly (ie. without knowing how they will impact the visual quality and speed of the game.)
  3. Apply the changes and return to the game.
  4. If the game feels laggy, or if it looks like the quality could still be bumped up further, jump to step 1.
That process is repeated until you are satisfied. This is an annoying, time-consuming process, which is aggravated by the fact that the only feedback you get from changing settings is a rather subjective impression of how much lag the game has. Also, often this is done in a part of the game that might not be the heaviest to render, which means that you might end up setting the quality too high and experience low frame rates later in the game.

I have only played two games where this process has been made much easier and convenient: Bioshock Infinite, and the 2013 Tomb Raider.

Bioshock Infinite shows a relatively heavy-to-render animated scene on the background of its main menu and, extremely unusually, whenever you change any graphics quality setting, the rendering is immediately adjusted to reflect the change, on the fly. This gives you an immediate visual feedback on how the change affects the quality of the game. You don't have to jump back-and-forth between the menu and the game.

On the downside, it does not tell you in any way how efficient the rendering is. The only, rather indirect, feedback you get is how laggy the mouse movement becomes. This is quite a poor way of seeing how heavy the rendering is.

Tomb Raider (2013) does not do exactly that, but it has something even better: A "benchmark" button in the graphics settings menu. What this allows is that when you tweak the graphical settings, you can run the benchmark to see how it affects both the visual quality and the speed of the game. The benchmark makes a fly-through of a quite heavy-to-render section of the game and shows a real-time frames-per-second number on screen. This gives you very concrete information on how the settings affect the rendering speed and visual quality, making it a lot easier to optimize them.

A combination of these two features would be the absolute best. (The simple addition of an FPS number to the Bioshock graphics settings menu would probably be enough, although a fly-through style benchmark could also be good.)

Why don't all PC games do this?

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