What Does A Well Optimized Game Actually Mean?
When you talk about optimization what we actually think is graphics. While that is a major portion of a well-optimized game that is not all there is to it. There are other elements in play here, like disabling controls and fixing bugs,setting game controls as well as figuring out the game flow. All this and much more accounts for what makes a well-optimized game.
Determining presets and system requirements
Presets are the first thing that gamers tinker with when entering a game. It should be noted that these presets are unlikely to be the same in different games as different game developers have different criteria and different standards for these presets. At Croteam the medium preset is targeted early in the game development and then, later on, close to the release date other presets are introduced. Developers try and balance graphics and performance at each level.
All options are categorized as either CPU-bound, GPU-bound, or memory capacity-bound. This approach makes it easier for gamers to tinker with their in-game setting according to their weaker CPU or GPU. Some elements of the game are CPU intensive while other are GPU intensive. This way you can turn settings off for your CPU if it is not up to the mark and still enjoy the game that is being played.
Judging a well-optimized game
Judging system requirements can also differ from developer to developer. Some developers consider the minimum requirement to be the minimum level of hardware needed to run the game. This might however not be an ideal experience. The recommended hardware, on the other hand, is that hardware needed to play the game as the developer seems fit at 1080p.
The degree of optimization can also differ from game to game and from scene to scene. A scene that is static does not seem to be a challenge as compared to a scene that has a dynamic object and changing environments. In this way, the level of optimization can be different for different titles and this is not the same across the board. Hence comparing two games and stating that one is better optimized as compared to another is not a fair claim.
Dying Light is a great option to mention here. The game includes dynamic characters as well as changing environments. There is a day cycle in the game. Considering all these elements you can say that Dying Light is a demanding title. When the game came out it had a huge range of settings for draw distance. This setting affects both CPU and GPU drastically.
There was a huge outcry that the game was terribly optimized and that it would not perform as expected at high settings. It was found later on that the draw distance slider at its lowest was already above console settings. It went higher than most PCs could handle. This was later reduced by 55%. Now if this was done earlier, at launch then this would be considered as a well-optimized game. But would it actually be the case? No. This is a great example of how challenging it can be to judge whether a game is well optimized or poorly optimized.
There are a number of challenges a developer has to face when optimizing games. Challenges can differ from one game to another. A challenge faces in a game might not be a challenge at all in another game. One of the challenges that a developer faces is making sure that the game works properly across multiple variations of hardware. Unlike consoles PCs configurations are infinite and developers need to make sure that the game works across the board.
Keeping this in mind there is no wonder that games seem to be better optimized for consoles. I say seem to be as this may not always be the case and some games might just not be great whether you play them on a PC or console.
Remember that having higher settings than what your system is capable of is not a bad thing. You may come back to a game after a few years and take advantage of the new hardware that you have available now. This is what happened to me with Skyrim and it was a great experience both the times that I played it.
Hope this makes it clear what to look for in a well-optimized game.