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Of course, the customization offered by PC games is of no use if you don’t know the gaming terminology and what the settings mean. This tutorial will bring you up to speed by explaining the five most common terms and their impact on your gaming experience.
Virtually all modern games use mipmapping. This is a technique where a texture that is far away from the player is rendered at a lower quality in order to improve performance.
There is a problem with mipmapping, though – often, the switch between the high-quality and low-quality texture is visible. Let’s say you’re looking down a hallway. The texture of the walls and floor near you will be rendered with a high resolution texture. But at some point further away from you, the game has to switch to a low quality texture. The transition is likely to be visible, and annoying.
Anisotropic Filtering (AF) tries to fix this problem by smoothing the transition between those textures. In a way, it’s anti-aliasing for textures. Many modern games have AF settings that range between 2x and 16x. Increasing this setting can improve the appearance of textures, but can also impact performance. If your video card is chugging, reducing this setting can be a big help.
A modern computer monitor creates an image via pixels. One of the limitations of pixels is the fact that a pixel can only be one color at any one time.
In 3D games that’s an issue because the edges of objects are rarely viewed in perfect lines, and two objects of drastically different colors and brightness are often paired together. Anti-Aliasing (or AA) finds a color and brightness that is an appropriate compromise and then places that along the edge. This softens the edge, resulting in a more realistic scene.
The algorithm used to determine to soften the edge is not free, however. It requires more graphical might, and can drag down a video card that is already struggling. Most games have a number of AA settings – usually 2x, 4x and 8x. Reducing AA will improve performance, but you’ll want to try and keep at least the minimal setting on, as turning AA off completely will result in much lower image quality (as you can see in the image above).
High Dynamic Range Lighting
The human eye is very good at seeing differences in contrast. Games, however, are not always able to keep up. It’s not unusual for game engines to give up when rendering extreme contrast, resulting in loss of detail.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting increases the level of brightness that can be rendered, making it possible for overpowering light sources to stand out. Enabling HDR often results in most intense visuals with dominant light sources that bleed into objects (an effect known as bloom).
Now a common feature, HDR lighting can have a large negative effect on performance, but also can make a big difference in how a game looks. Not everyone thinks HDR results in a more realistic image, and different game engines treat the feature in different ways. I suggest experimenting with this feature in every game to see if you like the results and can deal with the performance impact.
Contrary to the name, shaders are not merely a means of rendering shadows to a scene. They are, in fact, a fundamental part of how computer graphics are rendered. There are many different types of shaders, and they do many different things, but there is one particular term you should know – shader model.
The shader model is the shading language used to program shaders. Newer shader models come with more features, most of which are difficult to understand without a degree in computer programming. For gamers, shader model is important because it determines how well and if a game will run on your video card.
If you have an older video card, it will likely only support older shader models. However, some games use newer shader models and therefore won’t run on older video cards. In some cases, graphics features might be disabled if your card doesn’t support the appropriate shader model. If you have an older graphics card you should always check the system requirements of games before you buy them to avoid paying for a game you can’t actually play, or can only play at reduced graphics settings.
All objects in a game are made of polygons. Character models usually have a fixed polygon count, but the detail can be scaled down or up through the use of mathematical algorithms. This results in very high detail where required, and lower detail where not required. That’s tessellation in a nutshell.
Some game engines have been using tessellation for years, but the feature was given official support in DirectX 11, which means there is now a tessellation standard that can be used by all games. In the past, tessellation has focused on decreasing the detail of distant objects to improve performance. With DirectX 11, it’s now possible to dynamically increase the detail of objects, improving image quality. In the example above, notice the slightly more rounded chin and head that is visible when tessellation is on.
Not many games support DirectX 11 tessellation, but those that do can benefit from it greatly. However, this is a new feature, and not many video cards can cope with it. You’ll need a DirectX 11 graphics card and a fairly beefy one at that.
Hopefully this article has de-mystified these PC gaming terms. Not every PC gamer needs to know what these terms mean, but if you want to optimize your gaming experience, it’s important to know what the fancy graphics settings do. Feel free to ask any questions. I’ll do my best to answer them.