7 Common Video Game Graphics Settings Explained

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For most, graphics settings seem pretty clear-cut. Lower-end PCs play low settings, while high-end PCs play at Ultra 4k settings. The higher the settings, the better. Yet, it takes a bit more effort to create a stunning in-game display than turning a dial. Realistic graphics require a plethora of variables. That’s why game developers, software distributors and GPU manufacturers work together to provide the best graphics possible.

If you don’t know what all these settings are about, we can explain. These are some of the most common graphics settings, how they work, and what effect they might have on your system.

Resolution

Resolution is the amount of pixels present in an image, which dictates the overall quality of your image. All monitors come with default resolution settings, such as 1080 x 720 or 1440 x 900. The first number indicates the width of the screen in pixels, and the second indicates the height. You may see other numbers beside your resolution settings. These are your monitor’s refresh rates, which reflect the FPS your monitor can display. You can check your monitor’s refresh rate here.

refresh rate

High resolution images fit more pixels into the image than lower resolution images. Although in-game resolution seems unchangeable, rendering games at a higher resolution than native, or default, resolution is possible. In fact, many video games use this method to achieve better graphics. The image below shows the difference between playing Animal Crossing: Wild World in the regular 256 x 192 resolution, and playing the same game using 1024 x 768 resolution down-sampled to the original 256 x 192 screen.

animal crossing render

The bump in image quality is more noticeable when dealing with higher resolutions. A resolution bump will stress your GPU more, but will create a much more detailed image in-game. This is because there is more graphical information per frame, creating a better quality image. Below are two images, zoomed in 200x. One image was taken at 1440 x 900 resolution, roughly 720p; and the other was taken at 1920 x 1200 and full 1080p.

resolution jump

Note the added detail to the hair and lines around the eyes. This is one of the largest quality shifts you can make, so make sure you have a GPU that can handle high resolutions before cranking it up.

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Texture Quality

Texture quality enhances the quality of the in-game environment by rendering better textures. Textures are skins that lay over the three-dimensional environment. The use of textures surrounding in-game shapes are most prominent in games like Minecraft. Texture quality can be changed to enhance the quality of your graphics. This is rather intensive, as a texture quality change often changes all the textures in-game. The results are sharper and less-blurry images.

texture quality

All quality settings work in a similar fashion. The particular enhancements made through quality bumps are difficult to pinpoint, since they vary from game to game. Still, higher-quality settings will create subtler details to your in-game environment. Bumps in texture, or shader, quality are taxing to your GPU. If this is a problem, medium settings are often recommended to balance an immersive landscape with a playable one.

Anti-Aliasing

Before explaining anti-aliasing, it’s helpful to understand what aliasing is in the first place. Aliasing occurs when low-resolution images produce pixelated, rather than smooth, lines and curves. Anti-aliasing injects blocks of the same or similar color around the lines of an image, creating a smoother effect.

There are two types of anti-aliasing generally used in games.

  • Spatial Anti-Aliasing — Renders graphics at a higher resolution, then down-samples the image to your current resolution. A similar technique occurs when down-sampling games. Where down-sampling renders the whole frame at a higher resolution than displayed, anti-aliasing only effects the lines around objects. The list includes MSAA (Multisample Anti-Aliasing) and SSAA (Super Sample Anti-Aliasing, also known as FSAA or Full Screen Anti-Aliasing).
  • Post-Processing Anti-Aliasing — Smooths pixel edges after frames are rendered. This includes all pixels present in-game, including shaders. The list includes Nvidia’s FXAA (Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing), TXAA (Temporal Anti-Aliasing), SMAA, and AMD’s MLAA (Morphological Anti-Aliasing).

Most games will not allow you to decide which type of anti-aliasing you use. That decision is based on your GPU’s drivers. However, you can change the quality of anti-aliasing you want.

anti aliasing overwatch

Most AA methods will not tax the GPU much, so don’t be afraid to crank up your AA settings. The effect high-quality AA has on images is immediately noticeable, and a great enhancement to the gaming experience. This is especially true with in-game foliage and grass.

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anti aliasing

4K resolution does not require anti-aliasing, as the pixels are so small that any aliasing effect is negligible. Lower resolutions, however, do benefit greatly from anti-aliasing.

VSync

VSync (Vertical Synchronization) synchronizes the FPS output of your game with the refresh rate of your monitor in order to prevent screen tearing. A refresh rate is how many frames your monitor can output per second. If your PC has a refresh rate of 60 Hz — meaning it reads at 60 FPS — but your games are running at 90 or 100 FPS, movement can lead to screen tearing.

screen tearing

Although screen-tearing isn’t obvious in-game, slowed down playback of your recorded games may show screen-tearing. VSync virtually removes all screen-tearing from your gameplay. The downside is that when FPS falls below your refresh rate, 60Hz for example, games begin to stutter.

To deal with this issue, GPU manufacturers have created separate modules for monitors which sync refresh rates dynamically with frame rates. These alternative syncing options, such as NVIDIA’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync, remove any stuttering associated with VSync.

These alternative syncing methods do require a compatible monitor and GPU, which limits the exposure of this innovative technology. In most cases, you’re better off turning VSync off and enjoying higher frame rates.

Tessellation

In-game textures are comprised of quads — polygonal shapes made of triangles — which form over the shape of objects. Tessellation allows graphics cards to repeat quads multiple times over any given surface. The repeated patterning allows for texture displacement, which creates bumps in landscape.

Tesselation is very taxing on your GPU. Enabling tessellation in games, however, does redefine the look and feel of in-game landscapes.

tessellation

Ambient Occlusion

Ambient Occlusion creates realistic shadow transitions between different physical objects. Ambient occlusion in-game, although noticeable, will not dictate the shadow quality of the game. This is why ambient occlusion is often a separate option from shadow quality.

Instead, ambient occlusion will lighten or darken shadows in relation to other objects. In the case of the example below, ambient occlusion darkened the shadow underneath the table to create a more realistic lighting effect in the room.

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ambient occlusion

Ambient occlusion does not tax your GPU much. The effect is likewise largely unnoticeable.

Anisotropic Filtering

Anisotropic filtering reduces the amount of texture blurring at far distances. Anisotropic filtering effects are best seen at oblique angles, or angles that would indicate far distances, than directly in front of your character. Before anisotropic filtering, bi or tri-linear filtering was used. This type of filtering slowly degrades texture quality over distances.

Anisotropic filtering, on the other hand, replicates similar texture quality at close and far distances alike. The effect creates sharper textures at distances.

anisotropic filtering

It may appear as though anisotropic filtering lowers shading effects at far off distances. That is due to reduced blurring, which reduces dark spots created with smoke and texture effects.

One-Click Graphics Settings

Graphics settings can be difficult to manage. The best possible image your PC can handle requires the best possible settings. With all of the video settings available, how can one possible test all graphic settings available? Fortunately, GPU manufacturers have provided solutions to your problems.

AMD gaming evolved

AMD’s Gaming Evolved is able to optimize all video settings for best performance, quality, or a safe balance between the two. The software can perform video optimization for every game on your PC, Steam or stand-alone. Have an NVIDIA GPU? NVIDIA’s GeForce Experience provides the same function, among many others.

A Million Little Pixels

Gamers marvel at the next-level graphics and gameplay in present and future games. That’s why game developers and graphics card manufacturers alike work very hard to continually enhance graphics options for users. New advances in game graphics and hardware capabilities are made daily to ensure a better, and realer, gaming experience. Hopefully, we’ve provided some insight into how multiple variables work together to create better overall graphics. If you want even more information, watch Rob’s video on PC graphics.

Is there an in-game video setting you’d like to learn more about? Let us know in the comments below!

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