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A quick and basic Elder Scrolls: Skyrim “install and optimise” guide, for older PCs

A quick and basic Elder Scrolls: Skyrim “install and optimise” guide, for those with older gaming PCs.

22nd December 2011, updated with new mods April 2012.

This is my step-by-step “quickstart” Skyrim install and basic mod guide, for 32-bit Windows 7 gamers on older desktop PCs. It follows on from my previous similar guides for Morrowind and Oblivion.

The tutorial aims to get the PC player through as painlessly and as quickly as possible, and to get Skyrim‘s main glitches and problems addressed for those on an older desktop PC, and with a legacy Nvidia graphics card. I only have a Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT card, in a gracefully ageing 2008 PC that was able to play Risen and Witcher 2 quite happily at 1920 x 1200px.

My other aim here is to stick as close as possible to Bethesda’s original vision for the game — and not to introduce any cheats, horny boy mods for ‘hot’ female NPCs, singing bears, or make the game-world turn day-glo. There are also no plot spoilers in this tutorial. All screenshots are at playable FPS rates, from my system.

Please note that this is not a casual “cherry picking” list. This is a careful step-by-step tutorial. I assume you’ll be doing all of this, and in the order presented — since some steps are interdependent and have to be done in the right sequence.

1. On an older PC, it can first be useful to physically haul out the PC’s base unit, open up the case, and clean the dust out. Infrequent gamers enticed to try the game after reading the glowing reviews will be putting quite a bit of stress and heat into the system with Skyrim. You don’t want some vital bit of the motherboard melting down, when you’re half-way through playing the game.

Similarly, check how much free space you have on your main hard drive. If it’s rammed full to 99%, then uninstall some big software and/or transfer big folders (things like movie and audio files) to an external disk. Your system will thank you for it.

Time: 45 minutes if needed.

2. Download the latest ForceWare graphics drivers from NVIDIA. At 22nd Dec 2011 this is their drivers release number 290.53 beta, which came out today and are highly optimised for Skyrim

“New in 290.53. Optimizations for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Increases performance by up to 25% in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Note that if you use the drop-down menu selection process (see image above), Nvidia’s website bot will “play safe” and suggest older (pre-Skyrim!) drivers for the 9600GT. These are not what you want, so ignore the fancy menu and just click on the link to get the latest version of the Nvidia PC drivers. If you look in the support specs for 290.53, you’ll be reassured that the older GeForce 9600GT cards are clearly listed as supported. I run Skyrim fine with these latest drivers.

OK, now install these latest and tightly Skyrim-optimised graphics drivers. You probably want to choose the standard install option, during this process. Then reboot the PC as needed. Afterwards, check your graphics are operating as normal, and that your previous Nvidia Control Panel settings have been retained.

Time: 25 minutes.

3. Now unbox the game, and go “ooooh, ahhh!” and have a sniff at the lovely waxed canvas wall-map (although the map might be considered a spoiler by some). Install the game. This will require a Steam login, and a Steam version update will also start downloading in the background if needed. (Unfortunately the horrid Steam system gives you no choice about where to install the game.)

Start the Steam Library, and note that a game patch is downloading in the background…

Allow the game to be patched to the latest 1.3.1 version (as at 20th Dec 2011), since 1.3.1 removes the need for any 4Gb address mod.

By now there is probably a lurking dialogue box somewhere, saying a Steam client update has been downloaded and needs to be installed. Install it, reboot Steam. You probably also want to break free from Steam’s online mode (via Steam|Settings|Go Offline| then restart Steam).

It can’t hurt to also have disabled “Enable Steam Community In-Game”…

Do a full hard reboot of the PC, if needed. It’s probably wise to do this after any major game install.

Time: 40 minutes.

4. Start the game’s loader. Steam will probably try to update Direct X (sigh…). Now let the game’s loader detect your PC specs, and set its graphics settings accordingly. You’ll probably be lucky to get Medium settings (we’ll fix that problem in the next step). Exit.

Time: 5 minutes.

5. If you are running Skyrim with an old Nvidia GeForce 9 series (e.g.: specifically a 9600) card then I recommend that you optimise your FPS and smooth out stutters with this handy DLL tweak.

Note that is NOT intended to work with laptop PCs, and is mostly NOT suitable for later Nvidia series cards. It’s installed to the Skyrim folder, where the SkyrimLauncher is located. Usually it’s here:

 C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim

Note that after installing this DLL (just paste it in the folder) the game will detect you have a “NVIDIA Geforce 8800″ — but this is just a necessary workaround. Orcses did not steal your precious 9600 ;-)

Now restart the Skyrim loader, and it should detect your settings as if it were a ‘first-time launch’ again. My auto-detect settings went from Medium to High Quality, with this DLL tweak.

Time: 5 minutes.

6. Fix the game’s CPU usage. To use more of your CPU’s power, you can use this .exe launcher tweak:

Bring up Steam and click Library, scroll to Skyrim in the left-hand bar, and right click it. Then go to Properties.

In the General tab, click ‘Set Launch Options’, and in the text field type +fullproc  Click OK and close the dialogue box.

Here’s why you did that: “The +fullproc is like manually tabbing out of the game every time you run Skyrim, to increase its CPU priority to its highest, but this does it automatically every time you run the game. My CPU usage went from 30-40% peak, to 50% peak usage with this, this being its 100% utilising two full cores, of a quad-core CPU. The main point of this particular tweak is to flag the Skyrim process as a high priority task to keep your minimum, and average FPS up, to help reduce stuttering.”

Time: 1 minute.

7. Tweak the basic graphics settings.

a) Disable VSYNC

There is no VSYNC toggle in the game. But gamers with Nvidia cards can disable VSYNC in the Nvidia Control Panel (Start|Control Panel|Hardware and Sound|Nvivia Control Panel|Manage 3D Settings). This has the side-effect of lifting the 60FPS max. cap in Skyrim. Not that you’re likely to get above 60FPS on an older PC, but some people may want to do this.

b) Antialiasing:

You may also want to start with 4x anti-aliasing, rather than 8x. The authoritative Nvidia tweaking guide for Skyrim says…

“8x AA in particular has a very heavy performance impact, in return for what we’ve seen can be minimal image quality improvement.”

While you are in the Advanced section of the Skyrim launcher, look at the Distance Options. It can also be useful for older systems to turn “Distant Object Detail” to Medium and to tick “Object Detail Fade”. This has a minimal visual effect for a worthwhile performance gain.

c) Shadows:

Anything but Ultra or High on shadow settings looks rather terrible. Shadows are set in the Options of the Skyrim launcher itself…

However you may have to scale them back on an older PC, to get the FPS. I found that ramping the shadows back to Medium made the game smoothly playable at 1920 x 1200px at the general graphics setting of High. At that point in the install I was willing to make such a compromise to get the game running more smoothly at my native screen resolution. However, I was later able to set them to High, following taking some further steps (see the last part of Step 10 in this Guide).

I then blurred the shadows to hide some of the blockyness. I did this by adding the following setting to the SkyrimPrefs.ini (found under C:\documents\my games\skyrim) with Notepad:  iBlurDeferredShadowMask=7   While you’re in there, also enable shadows on trees since this has minimal impact for a big visual boost:   bTreesReceiveShadows=1

Now make SkyrimPrefs.ini a read-only file, or Skyrim will overwrite it on starting.

d) Anisotropic and Ambient Occlusion:

The official Nvidia Skyrim tweak guide (section “Mods & Graphics Driver Settings”) shows how to force better quality Anisotropic filtering, and to enable Ambient Occlusion, both done via the Nvidia Control Panel (Start|Control Panel|Hardware and Sound|Nvivia Control Panel|Manage 3D Settings). I enabled 16x Aniso and Ambient Occlusion (Performance) this way.

Time: 15 minutes.

8. Fix the loading screens, to remove what some people see as plot spoilers contained in the text of the game’s loadup screens and intro video.

First disable the intro video (no great loss, and there are apparently plot spoilers), by changing the name of BGS_Logo.bik to BGS_Logo.bik.bak — and then the Bethesda video won’t play during loading. This video file is found in:

 C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim\Data\Video

You can also install the Image Only Loading Screen mod, to delete the spoiler text on the loading screens while still retaining the pictures and rolling mist. To do this, drop this mod’s .swf file in:

 C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim\Data\Interface

At the same time as you are messing with the loading screens, you may want to add the No Loading Screen Spider mod. It changes the spider picture to a dog. Drop this mod in:

 C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim\Data\Meshes\loadscreenart (you may need to create these last two folders).

Time: 10 minutes.

9. Plug in your gaming headphones, and start the game. Play through the introduction, until you reach a point where you can save. Check everything looks OK and you are getting playable FPS even in a frantic action scene.

While you are in the game, if you do not intend to use a wired Xbox 360 pad then you should turn off Xbox 360 Controller Support. This is done in the in-game Options. The game ships with it set to “on” by default, and many people have reported they get significant increases in FPS (like +10FPS) by turning it off. Just another example of the horrid consoles spoiling our PC games, sadly.

However, I do find that the Xbox 360 Controller vastly improves the game’s camera look-around, and is pretty good for most everything except combat (at which it’s abysmally clunky, especially for archers) — so when I start into a significant fight I just pull out the USB of the Controller and the game automatically reverts to the mouse and keyboard . Unfortunately there’s not yet a mod which allows both the Controller and Keyboard/Mouse to be active simultaneously.

You may also want to immediately drop the HUD opacity slider (found in-game, in Options) to about 40%, for greater immersiveness.

Time: 25 minutes.

10. OK. After several hours of work, we are about to get into the proper modding of the game. But first we need some vital tools:

a) Register with the Skyrim Nexus website to get the mods, if you are not already registered.

b) I strongly suggest that those unfamiliar with mods get and install the Nexus Mod manager, for generally hassle-free mod installs. Install, load it, and tell it to operate for Skyrim, and then choose where it should install the mods. On a 32-bit Windows 7 PC this should be…

 C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim\Data

You will then need to log into the Skyrim Nexus website via the Nexus Mod manager, with the same username and password you used to sign up for the website. Now you can download mods with the manager, direct from the site.

c) You will also want to get and install the Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE), which adds the scripting abilities needed for various mods.

Here’s the vital bit from the SKSE documentation, on how to install SKSE: “Copy the SKSE’s .dll and .exe files to your Skyrim directory. This is usually in your Program Files folder C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim\ If you see files named TESV and SkyrimLauncher, this is the correct folder. Do not copy these files to the Data folder, as with a normal mod.” Ignore the “src” folder.

You then launch the game via running: skse_loader.exe. You may want to give skse_loader.exe Windows 7 Administrator rights, and also place a shortcut to it on your Desktop named something useful like “Load Skyrim with Script Extender”.

If you want to keep your PC’s desktop looking pretty then you can also replace the ugly SKSE icon with this handy Skyrim icon in Windows .ico form. Drop it in C:\Windows\Icons and then load it onto your shortcut, via the usual method of changing a shortcut’s icon.

Keep in mind that each new official patch also requires an update of SKSE, and you may be unable to launch via the SKSE if you allow auto-patch in Steam. At the time of writing (22nd Dec 2011) SKSE is at version 1.4.2 and IS compatible with the latest official 1.3.1 patch for Skyrim and WILL load the patched Skyrim.

Also working with the SKSE 1.4.2, and which you may want to try on an older PC, is the SKSE 40% CPU boost plugin for Skyrim

“This patch will improve your frame rate by up to 40% in all CPU-dependent situations [in Skyrim], i.e. especially in cities. It works mostly by rewriting some x87 FPU code and inlining a whole ton of useless getter functions along the critical paths because the developers at Bethesda, for some reason, compiled the game without using any of the optimization flags for release builds.”

This 40% CPU boost plugin is a simple DLL that you just drop into:  C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim\Data\SKSE\Plugins  It enabled me to switch Shadows back to “High” and remain playable. But for FPS consistency, especially during dragon attacks, I turned it back to “Medium”.

Time: 30 minutes.

11. Right, let’s fix the horrid console-boyz inventory UI in Skyrim:

Get the SkyUI (this needs Skyrim Script Extender installed and loaded) which is the best PC UI makeover yet released. I had to install this by hand, since the Nexus Mod manager refused to do it.

THEN add the mod Main Font Replacement by Valistar. This deservedly throws the big moderist Futura font through an Oblivion gate. There are several options, but in my opinion Morpheus is a much more suitable and smaller font.

The Mopheus Main Font Replacement mod does unfortunately drop a fontconfig.txt file that overwrites that of SkyUI. So… to get SkyUI to accept and use the Morpheus font, simply go to C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim\Data\Interface and open the file fontconfig.txt with Notepad. Add the lines…

 fontlib “Interface\fonts_en2.swf”

 map “$ListFont” = “Morpheus” Normal

…so that the top part of your fontconfig.txt file looks like this…

Save and exit. SkyUI’s inventory will now use the Morpheus font, whereas otherwise it would have been haywire because of the fontconfig.txt over-writing conflict. Sorted.

Time: 15 minutes.

12: Now install the most vital (in my opinion) mods. None of these conflict.

* NPC VISUAL QUALITY FIXES:

No More Blocky Faces 1.4 THEN Detailed Faces v2 (you may want the Lite version, to improve FPS performance) and THEN High Quality Eyes v1.2. All of these are by Xenius, and are thus compatible with each other. You may also want Xenius’s Better Beast Races v2 (again, probably the Lite version).

* SKY AND WEATHER FIXES:

Enhanced Night Sky (medium)

Immersive Skyrim Thunder v4

Real Snow Flakes. Has a soft alpha channel, so it’s nice mix of soft/puffy and crystalline structure.

New! April 2012 Birds and Flocks – adds more birds to the skies.

* AUDIO EXPANSIONS:

Ambient Seagulls. Adds gull sounds at the shoreline. Ok, not that vital — but what’s the seaside without seabirds?

New! April 2012 Sounds of Skyrim – The Wilds and Sounds of Skyrim – The Dungeons.

* WORLD TEXTURE AND MESH FIXES:

You can get these from Skyrim Nexus as you notice various muddy textures, and then add them one-by-one to judge the effect on your FPS. Adding a dozen or so all at once is probably not a good idea, and it’s then impossible to tell which might be bogging down your FPS. Some use very large texture sizes, and are thus meant for gamers playing with recent $3,000 gaming PCs.

That said, two texture mods to consider immediately are the low-res version of Vurt’s Skyrim Flora Overhaul + the compatible Lush Grass 1.3 mod, which adds more grass. These can be used together, and should have negligible performance loss for a big visual improvement to the countryside, thus…

New! April 2012 Water And Terrain Enhancement Redux – medium res version.

New! April 2012 Static Mesh Improvement Mod – SMIM with the more lightweight options.

New! April 2012 Install at your own risk, on an older PC! Low-res 1024px version of the huge and excellent “Skyrim Realistic Overhaul” pack. This is a mega texture mod that could be considered for those who perhaps have a slightly more modern graphics card than the old Nvidia 9 series, and a tightly optimised gaming PC.

* COMBAT GRAPHICS FIXES:

Deadly Spell Impacts (Medium Res) v1.4.3. Fire, lightning, and frost spell impacts now have their own unique textures.

* TELL “CHATTY” NPCs TO BE QUIETER:

Less Talkative NPCs (No Combat Changes version). Reduces the annoying idle chatter, and the repeating ‘social’ conversations NPCs force on you and have between themselves.

* MONSTER FIXES:

Arachnophobia mod removes all the spiders from the game, and spawns other monsters instead based on the context. It leaves dead spiders around, though, to account for the webs.

* REMOVE KILL MOVES:

No Kill Moves. Unlike ‘Enable Kill Moves Only For Player’, this does not require Script Dragon.

* WAYFINDING FIXES:

If you don’t want to be “led by the hand” then you can remove compass indicators and quest markers, via various mods. Hardcore Compass Mod is one such that just affects the HUD compass (there are multiple variants of this, so it’s probably easier to install it by hand).

New! April 2012 A Quality World Map – With Roads

13. ADDITIONAL INI FIXES:

To get a natural drop on arrows, edit the skyrim.ini under c:\documents\my games\skyrim with Notepad, and tweak the following settings…

 [Combat]
 f1PArrowTiltUpAngle=0.7
 f3PArrowTiltUpAngle=0.7

Arrows will then start in the middle of the crosshairs, and drop down with gravity.

To compensate for this added difficulty, you can increase the range at which you can hit targets with arrows — by adding…

 [Actor]
 fVisibleNavmeshMoveDist=14000.0000

And this skyrim.ini INI tweak, for less flickering dynamic shadows, made the shadow-updating rate very satisfactory to me…

 [Display]
 fSunShadowUpdateTime=0.250
 fSunUpdateThreshold=1.500

I also turned off the radial blur effect during combat (I don’t like it, it’s a personal preference), by adding…

 [Imagespace]
 bDoRadialBlur=0

Screenshot photographers may also enjoy the Skyrim Photography Toolkit. However, if all you want is to change the weather to get a good screenshot, then you can bring down the in-game Console by typing a  ~  then type  FW code  where code is replaced by one of these weather code IDs. Be warned that any use of the console is considered ‘cheating’ by the Steam service.

That’s it. You’re done!

My FPS with all the above done, with blurred Shadows at “Medium”, is between 18 and 28 FPS in the outdoors at 1920px x 1200px full-screen. It’s not the best FPS, but it’s playable and not bad for an old PC with all the changes listed above. If you still have difficulties with FPS, consider reducing your anti-aliasing.

6 comments on “A quick and basic Elder Scrolls: Skyrim “install and optimise” guide, for older PCs

  1. [...] may also be interested in my guide to re-installing Oblivion and my new guide to installing Skyrim on older PCs. Share this:FacebookStumbleUponEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post.   Comments [...]

  2. [...] A quick and basic Elder Scrolls: Skyrim “install and optimise” guide, for older PCs &laq… [...]

  3. Very nice guide, thought you’d like to see some support :3

  4. Great guide. Wish more people used this kind of format. Good writing too. Maybe a part 2? Would love more from you!

  5. Awesome guide! Understandable and enough info for an immersive experience with Skyrim on an older PC. I’m thrilled to start playing. Thanks!

  6. Just rebuilt my system and will give this a try. Some good advice on mods, even for non-old machines.

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