The Elder Scrolls Online interview: Upgrading graphics on PC and consoles

The Elder Scrolls Online is over seven years old and Lead Graphics Programmer Alex Tardif talks with Shacknews about keeping the MMORPG looking fresh.

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The Elder Scrolls Online has been going strong for more than seven years. With new consoles, as well as new PC hardware, hitting the market, a 2014 release certainly doesn't want to lag behind, in terms of visuals. Upgrading those visuals can be a long process, however. To learn how the team at Zenimax Online Studios has been looking to keep ESO graphically crisp, Video Editor Greg Burke recently chatted with Lead Graphics Programmer Alex Tardif.

Shacknews: Alex, can you talk about some of the challenges with implementing these graphics updates for consoles?

Alex Tardif, Lead Graphics Programmer: Dynamic resolution scaling has existed in ESO for a while. We supported it on the PS4 Pro, so the infrastructure was largely already there and simply needed porting to Xbox. The challenge mostly comes through tuning the parameters for dynamic resolution to hit the sweet spot between how aggressive the drops in resolution are, versus potentially missing frame drops from higher resolutions. It’s something I’m sure we’ll continue to evaluate over time.

Likewise, our PC multithreaded rendering path, which is a port of what we already do on consoles, has quietly existed for a long time, but there were a lot of open problems with it that we needed to account for before we could present it to players. On console, it’s a lot easier because we have fixed hardware and rendered content, but on PC we support a massive range of hardware and have thousands of add-ons to account for. This is why we’re releasing this initially as an opt-in beta setting, so that we can gather feedback, stats, and catch less obvious combinations of hardware and add-ons that might have issues with the new setting.

Shacknews: ESO is a pretty old game in terms of how long it’s been in development, how are you able to keep improving the visuals while still keeping everything in the same engine?

Tardif: We’re quietly revamping and replacing large portions of the engine’s inner workings all the time, and these improvements are what open up enough performance for us to squeeze in new features as we go. The challenge here is that there are only certain kinds of changes we can make to the visuals without needing the art team to go back and reauthor a bunch of content, and this plays a huge factor in what we decide to improve. For example, TAA, SSGI, LSAO, and new high-quality depth-of-field were all things that we introduced over the last year and required no artist intervention.

Shacknews: A lot of people think because the Xbox has two versions (X and S) that it makes things more difficult in terms of optimization, is that true?

Tardif: This is truer for newer games than for games like ESO. For us, it was just a question of how many of the new features we could enable on the Xbox Series S (S) vs the Xbox Series X (X) at our target resolutions and framerates. Apart from resolution (1440p vs 2160p), our Fidelity Mode on the S and X are luckily the exact same. In Performance Mode on the S specifically, we disable SSGI and turn down a couple other settings for the sake of maintaining a clean 60fps, but this feels like a fair trade for those favoring frame rate over image quality.

Shacknews: We’ve seen a lot of graphic trends over the last few decades, Real time reflections come to mind, remember when that was all the rage? Do you think Ray-Tracing is here to stay? Or is it just the new hot toy?

Tardif: Ray-tracing is absolutely here to stay, but maybe not for the reasons people think. Beyond the obvious visual quality improvements that can and have been made with ray tracing, it is also a great tool for solving problems in artist workflows. Take RTXGI for example, this offers the possibility of doing your global illumination in real-time. No more art team changing lights and having to wait on a light bake. It’s the same kind of thing with shadows, and any day not spent fighting with traditional shadow maps is a win in my book. As we’ve seen in games that have been released in the last couple years, these types of improvements are most beneficial when you can author a game with ray-tracing as a baseline rather than after release, and this is very much the way the wind is blowing.

Shacknews: As we’ve seen tech greatly improve each year (The RTX cards for example), does the fast pace of evolving tech help or hinder the work you do?

Tardif: It only helps. More power, more performance, and better tools to do our job. The only trouble is that you need to balance all the new technology possibilities against what you have time to explore during production. It’s more about picking the things that are most important for the game you work on, which can be tough, but it’s also part of the fun!


The Elder Scrolls Online is available now on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox consoles. It may have been a while since you last checked in with Bethesda's signature MMORPG. If that's the case, there's no better time to catch up, because it's free to play from now until August 30 as part of the QuakeCon 2021 Free Play Event.

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Greg is the head of Video Production for Shacknews. If you've ever enjoyed a video on Gamerhub.tv, it was most likely edited by him. Follow him on Twitter @GregBurke85

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