Today's Hard|Forum Post
Today's Hard|Forum Post

Tweaking Skyrim Image Quality

Before the proverbial ink was dry on our Skyrim performance and image quality review, we were already busy planning to investigate INI configuration settings and see what we could come up with to improve Skyrim's graphics. We've found some changes that make the game look and feel a little more alive, and we're here to show you what we've come up with.

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Grass Draw Distance

The INI line for increasing grass draw distance is found in SkryimPrefs.ini. It is "fGrassStartFadeDistance=7000.0000". In fiddling with that number, we found that increasing that number had the effect of increasing the distance in which grass would stop being rendered. We started with 60000.0000 (Sixty-Thousand) as the value and were startled to see how much further grass was drawn in the distance. Increasing from there saw no visible benefit, nor did it further impact performance. Working down from 60000, we landed on 14000.0000 (Fourteen-Thousand) as the sweet spot. Above 14000 and we didn't see a benefit. Below 14000 and we started seeing less grass shown. A quick performance check revealed a negligible framerate hit.

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The average performance decrease was 0.7 frames per second. That is a hit of only about 1.37%.

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Standing atop the western watchtower outside of Whiterun, we had a great view of the surrounding countryside. On the left hand side of the screenshot comparison above, we can see that the grass stops at a line about in the middle of the image. On the right side, we've doubled the fGrassStartFadeDistance value from 7000 to 14000, and there is a lot more grass visible. It isn't perfect, as the grass still stops before the visible land does, but it is an improvement nonetheless.

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A more common sight is that which we see while we're riding around Skyrim on our horse. The overall effect is less dramatic than what we saw above, but the difference is still persistently visible. In the comparison above, we see that increasing the grass fade distance draws grass all the way out to the rocks in front of the small farmhouse. Without increasing that range, the grass stops about halfway there.


Object Draw Distance

Object draw distance, we feel, is as big a deal out in the wild as shadows are in the close-in spaces. In the Skyrim.ini file, there is not a line labeled uGridsToLoad. If it was there, its default value would be 5. We learned about this command while searching around for INI commands for related games, specifically Fallout 3. We learned that the uGridsToLoad command in Fallout 3's INI file caused the game to load details in more surrounding area, making the wasteland look slightly less wasted. We gave it a shot in Skyrim and were surprised to see what we saw. We first started with a value of 13. It looked amazing, but was unfortunately not stable. Some troubleshooting led us to a maximum stable value of 7.

There are two other INI commands related to this one, but tweaking their values seemed to have no impact on what we were seeing. The first is uExterior Cell Buffer and the second is iPreloadSizeLimit. The uExterior Cell Buffer command was already there and set to 36. We increased that to a number of different values and observed no change. The iPreloadSizeLimit command was not there. According to Koroush Ghazi's Fallout 3 Tweak Guide, the iPreloadSizeLimit command is used to reserve memory for preloaded cells, or interior/exterior areas. He recommends a maximum value of "262144000" (around 250MB).

Our attempt to make higher uGridsToLoad values more stable had us modifying both of those commands. Sadly, no value in place for either command made Skyrim stable with a uGridsToLoad value higher than 7. So we set it to 7 and started testing.

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Increasing that setting from 5 to 7 lowered our average framerate by 4.4 FPS, or about 8.64%. That's the biggest hit we've seen so far, but it's still not very high. So how does it look?

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With uGridsToLoad set to 5, the game stops rendering rocks, characters, monsters, beasts, and high-detail trees at a modest distance. It is close enough that when travelling normally through the game, it is easy to see objects and details pop into place. When we increased that to 7, that distance is increased by an appreciable amount. It still doesn't go all the way into the furthest visible distance, but it looks better and it's stable.

The last image above shows what it looks like when uGridsToLoad was set to 13. It's not stable, but it is damn impressive. The river, rocks, beasts, trees, and all manner of other things are visible all the way up to the mountains blocking the horizon. Unfortunately, the game crashed after about 2 minutes of playing every time we had this option set this high.

One interesting thing to note is that increasing the grass draw distance again after increasing overall object draw distance did not give us any more grass.