"Max settings"

As a consequence of PC gaming becoming more and more mainstream, we've seen an influx of people who expect, and sometimes demand, that PC games are capped arbitrarily to their individual particular hardware configuration.

"I paid £400 for my GPU, I should be able to max this game at (resolution)(framerate)!"

A frustratingly common sentiment, especially on games not yet released. I'll break down what is wrong with this:

You don't necessarily know what "max settings" entails

Primarily speaking of pre-release games:

How can you declare that your GPU should be capable of something you don't know the cost of? Developers can, and should be allowed to, include settings that your GPU is not capable of. It doesn't matter if your GPU is the fastest on the market, it doesn't even matter if you have two, three or four of the fastest GPUs on the market.

A game developer should be allowed to include ultra advanced, ridiculous, enthusiast settings that people may not even be able to use at a reasonable framerate today. They may be there purely as something that people start using when they're playing your game 5 or 10 years from now.

Now, those particular scenarios have been uncommon in PC games (especially in regards to multi-GPU scenarios), but I was using an extreme example to try and get a point across.

The point is it is entirely possible, and it has occured many times, that a developer has included a setting that is expensive, it is an ultra enthusiast setting that they expect maybe 1% of people can use. If your GPU isn't capable of running it, it isn't necessarily "bad optimisation", you're not entitled to have a PC game to have its settings capped in such a way that is capable of running it with all the settings at max value.

Settings in PC games are not standardised

Whilst the naming for graphical settings has sort of arrived at some sort of informal standard, it’s important to remember that they are just names. Low, Medium, High and Ultra mean different things in different games, some games are more scalable than others, some games are legitimately more demanding even at the low end than others and equally so, some aren’t as demanding at the high end.

It is common to see people make judgements on pre-release games like “I hope I can run this max/ultra settings on my [PC specs]!”. This of course makes no sense because:

  1. We don’t know what settings are included and how scalable they are.
  2. We don’t know how demanding each of those settings are. Remember, demanding does not necessarily mean unoptimised.

The names given to scalable settings are there as a relative point for the other settings in the game. They’re not there as a performance metric to be applied across games. Just because you have a high end GPU, it doesn’t mean you should be able to run a particular game at “ultra” or “max”, that’s not an assumption you can or should make.

Expectations

Far too often do we see games being described as “unoptimised” because the default position when starting a new game is to crank all the settings up to their max value and then make a judgement on if the performance is at a level you think it should be rather than what the actual computational cost of the effect/technique is.

This is wrong and potentially harmful. I know, despite reassurances that PC gaming isn’t as daunting and technically involving as it once was, with lots of streamlining and convenience features being developed for PC (and even making their way to consoles!), it’s easy to forget sometimes that there are still significant parts of PC gaming that throw some technical jargon at you that, without an understanding of computer graphics, you probably won’t understand.

Whilst you don’t necessarily need to even bother yourself worrying about what these settings mean with most games offering optimised defaults, and both AMD and NVIDIA offering systems to apply optimised settings for your games, you are still expected to learn somethings to get on well with PC gaming.

However, there are a lot of people that do get involved in PC gaming because of the allure of a better graphical experience - so they want to be involved in messing with the settings. The problems begin when people believe settings on a PC game shouldn’t exceed the high end hardware they have - this belief makes people crank the settings all the way to the maximum.

This attitude to PC game settings is harmful because it discourages developers from including ultra enthusiast settings because their games are called "unoptimised" because people don’t understand the capability of their hardware, they receive support requests, they get bad PR and generally a game that is wrongly criticised.

Lowering settings is okay

One of the great things about PC gaming as an enthusiast is that you get to choose your experience. You can tailor the experience based off what you resources you have and what you personally prioritise.

Want to hit that 60fps or above? Turn down settings until you achieve it. Not too fussed about those higher frame rates and prefer to have a clean image? Dial up the anti-aliasing, maybe start downsampling if you have the headroom.

I’m sure everyone has priorities they could list in terms of what graphical effects and characteristics they prefer, so start using them. Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t notice or care so much about the more advanced ambient occlusion techniques, turn it down! Super extra amazing soft shadows? Turn them down unless it is something you personally feel is adding a lot to the image.

There are lots of expensive rendering techniques that for many don’t add a noticeable amount to the image. They should absolutely be included regardless because some people will want them and some people will turn off other features in favour of them.

Conclusion

It's simple: stop chasing "max settings", lowering your settings is okay. In many cases, enthusiast settings often aren’t the most optimal use of resources - but they’re the best option around in terms of offering a higher quality image - they’re there if you have the headroom. They aren’t included as something you must use in order to have a good experience.

As new rendering techniques are developed and included in games, the “max settings” ceiling raises. Your hardware won’t last as long (in terms of what you’ll get out of it performance wise) if you are adamant on chasing this idea of “maxing” all your games and If you have the money to do that and are willing to spend it, again, that’s great. But many people don’t and it is often these people that complain the loudest, it's these people that scream "unoptimised" when because they don't understand what they're asking of their GPU.

Those are the people that this is primarily aimed at.