Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Tweak Guide
[Page 13] Neat Stuff & Conclusion
This section deals with a wide range of important performance and convenience tips and advice. Do not skip this section, as these tips are just as important as any .ini tweak.
Max Frames to Render Ahead
This tweak gained prominence as being the first major performance tip discovered and widely circulated for Oblivion. After much testing, and based on what I know, I can hopefully provide some genuine guidance on how this tweak works, and what setting to actually use. This is an important tweak if used correctly, you just need to be aware of what it does, as abusing it can also cause problems and reduce performance on many systems.
The setting in question is called 'Maximum Pre-Rendered Frames', and it is available in the Forceware Control Panel for Nvidia graphics cards, or by using RivaTuner to change the 'Prerender limit' setting which is the same thing. You can find out more about this setting as well as RivaTuner in the Nvidia Forceware Tweak Guide. For ATI users, you can adjust the 'Flip Queue' setting which is the equivalent setting to the one above by installing and using ATI Tray Tools. The same values apply to both brands of cards.
Basically, the Gamebryo engine (discussed further below) seems to have an issue which means it can saturate your CPU and/or Video RAM with pre-rendered frames (whole screens ready to be displayed). On most systems this results in very noticeable mouse and/or keyboard lag, even when your FPS is reasonably high enough not to usually suffer from this (e.g. 25-30FPS+). By reducing the maximum number of frames to render in advance, you reduce this bottlenecking effect and hence significantly reduce or remove the mouse lag.
However, here's the important part: this is not a tweak for improving FPS as such. The general recommendation to set 'Max Frames to Render Ahead' (or 'Flip Queue') from its default of 3 down to 0 will actually reduce performance on many systems, particularly Dual Core or HyperThreading CPUs. Secondly, even on single core systems, you may notice reduced performance in certain areas. So on balance I strongly recommend setting this value to 2 to start with, and if you still have mouse lag, dropping it down to 1. Remember, not all mouse lag is due to this setting: in areas where you have very low FPS (i.e. below 10-15FPS), you will get lagginess - this occurs in virtually any game where your FPS drops down to the low teens or single digits. You will have to consider changing other settings to increase overall FPS.
Oblivion Quick Startup
To get to the main Oblivion menu much more quickly, you should firstly stop using the Oblivion Launcher, which is launched when using the default Oblivion icon. Instead go to your \Program Files\Bethesda Softworks\Oblivion directory, right-click on the Oblivion.exe file and select Send to>Desktop to create a new desktop icon for Oblivion. Now delete your original Oblivion icon and use this one instead to launch the game - it will skip the launcher and immediately start loading Oblivion.
Next, you can remove all the Oblivion startup movies very easily, saving both time and RAM. See the SMainMenuMovieIntro and SIntroSequence variables in the Advanced Tweaking section. By blanking out the names of the movie files for these variables, Oblivion will skip all the intro movies and get straight to the main menu. In fact you can also remove the animated map in the background of the main menu as well if you want to save a bit more memory and make the mouse more responsive in the main menu, by editing the SMainMenuMovie variable.
Finally, some people claim that setting the iIntroSequencePriority and bPreloadIntroSequence variables to both =0 also removes the small loading pause prior to the main menu screen. It doesn't do anything on my system, but you can give it a try.
Anisotropic Filtering in Oblivion
Oblivion doesn't have any in-game or .ini options for enabling Anisotropic Filtering (AF). AF allows the textures in the game to look much more detailed as they fade into the distance, so if you're after an improvement in image quality with a minor drop in performance, you can enable Anisotropic Filtering in your graphics card control panel - see the bottom of this page for details, and my ATI Catalyst Tweak Guide or Nvidia Forceware Tweak Guide as relevant for full instructions of how to do this. Using a high level of Anisotropic Filtering can make Oblivion seem much crisper and clearer, and is often a better alternative than using any high resolution texture packs, as it does not result in as much stuttering or other issues.
Oblivion Game Engine
Oblivion is based on the original engine used for Morrowind called NetImmerse. The new version of this engine is now called GameBryo. Having spent over a week exploring the engine's capabilities and quirks in great deal as part of experimenting with .ini options and in-game settings, I can honestly say that although it is by no means perfect, it is not a "faulty" engine at all. It is apparent that Bethesda Softworks have tried as hard as they could to optimize the game engine and the default parameters to balance loading times, in-game loading pauses, visual quality and complexity. This is not an easy juggling act, and explains for example why the distance textures appear so out of place and blurry and don't transition more smoothly. Or why objects often suddenly pop up instead of fading smoothly into view. These things were done to reduce the massive amount of texture data and hence even greater loading pauses and performance slowdowns on most systems - although I'm not suggesting that they couldn't possibly have been done better if there had been more time.
Check the Anandtech Oblivion Performance Article for more details of how the engine is working, and just how stressful it really is. Quite frankly, those of you expecting this game to run smoothly on systems which barely meet the CPU minimum requirement (2GHz Intel or 2GHz AMD equivalent), or have relatively poor shader support (e.g. the FX series) I would suggest that it is an unrealistic expectation. People tend not to realize that it is very difficult to program a game which scales downward and upward perfectly - and even if you could reduce visible objects, textures, AI and polygons to extremely low levels, you're essentially no longer playing Oblivion in many respects.
In areas where you are getting poor performance, use the twf console command (See the Console Commands section), and you'll see the massive amount of detail which is being calculated by your computer. And of course that doesn't even touch on the invisible load on the CPU to manage all the physics, weather, character and quest states for example. Oblivion is a genuinely next-generation game, and while not perfect, certainly beats FEAR, Call of Duty 2 or any other recent system-intensive game in terms of complexity of features, eye candy, usage of shaders (including HDR), AI and physics. Furthermore, unlike most single-player FPS's which load up artificially small self-contained areas, Oblivion has enormous outdoor areas with vast views of lots of varied vegetation and objects through which you can wander in any direction and which load up 'on the fly'. This is all very demanding.
All in all, while I'm sure that the game's performance - as well as quest glitches and the like - will receive some minor boosts through official patches, as well as graphics driver optimizations, for the most part the game engine feels quite robust to me, and having launched and relaunched the game literally hundreds of times and played with it in often unusual circumstances, not once did I get a crash (except when using an unstable .ini variable). It's not perfect, but it's not as flawed as people are commonly crying out about. I don't want to blame the user, but to minimize problems you need to optimize your system properly - try the instructions in my TweakGuides Tweaking Companion, and the instructions throughout this guide. Every time a new system-intensive game comes out (e.g. BF2, FEAR, COD2, UT2004, Far Cry, etc.), people will say the engine is buggy, rather than spending time finding the sources of problems on their own machines.
Update: For those who insist on saying that Oblivion cannot be run smoothly on a modest machine, please see this video I made in May 2006 using FRAPS on this old system put together in 2005. Clearly with appropriate tweaking and hardware - and using relatively old and inexpensive hardware - this game can run very smoothly at high settings and a reasonable resolution.
If you're after gameplay tips, as opposed to just performance tips, I recommend reading the game manual closely as it really does contain valuable information. However for additional gameplay advice, check this Oblivion Gameplay Guide as it seems to have some valuable tips. If you're really stuck trying to resolve a particular quest, try the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages.
Phew, the end of a rather long guide! This guide is the culmination of a lot of research and weary nights of testing. However I obviously can't take credit for discovering all the tweaks in this guide; most of the information herein is sourced from the existing material available on the Internet. This is a credit to the tweaking spirit of the gaming community - within a day of Oblivion being released, people had already discovered several major tweaks for the game. Within several days, a wide range of tweaks and mods were pouring out, and because I have been quite busy with my day job, it was all I could do to even keep track of all the new tweaks and tips. The bulk of them were discovered on places like the Oblivion Forums and the NVNews Oblivion Forums. Fortunately, our own TweakGuides Forums was up there riding the wave of useful tech tidbits.
In any case my main aim in writing this guide was to sort out the fact from fiction by testing out all the tweaks and tips, documenting all the in-game settings correctly, and drawing them all together into a single reference source which will remain up to date as we find out more about this amazing game. I must stress that unfortunately I can't provide any tech support/advice. If you want Oblivion to run at its best, all the information you need is already in this guide and in the associated guides mentioned in the Essential Optimization section, particularly the completely free TweakGuides Tweaking Companion downloadable PDF guide.
In any case, I hope you've found the guide useful, and until next time, take care!