The Diagnostic Process

6 minute read

In this chapter you’ll learn about:

  • Being your project’s doctor
  • Smashing down nice theories
  • Hiding objects - the crucial step of performance analysis

Take a scientific approach

You and your team just gave the scene another test run. The frame rate was a random mess. An average frame time have rarely stayed below your desired limit of 16 ms for a competitive multiplayer game. You noticed, however, that fragments of the playthrough where you had travelled through a dark underground maze performed much better than well-lit palace rooms. The worst case was a spacious marble throne hall.

You have some clues but there’s too many factors that seem to matter for the final outcome. Or maybe you’re already past the chapter about measuring performance? Then you have some hard data to work with. What do you do?

I encourage you to behave like a scientist. They have a tool that may come in handy – the scientific method. It has much in common with an earlier, philosophical one, as made famous by Francis Bacon. From an article about the inductive reasoning:

Inference can be done in four stages:

Observation: collect facts, without bias.
Analysis: classify the facts, identifying patterns of regularity.
Inference: From the patterns, infer generalizations about the relations between the facts.
Confirmation: Testing the inference through further observation.

You observed that time per frame is better in an underground maze than it is in a palace hall. Knowing that, you can analyze the facts and look for patterns. Don’t care about the numbers - look for general trends instead. At this stage, put aside most optimization advice you’ve heared.

Infer theories from observations

The majority of low fps was noticed in palace scenes, while the highest ones were seen in the maze. There were exceptions, but not so much to break the pattern. The underground hallways rendered quicker than palace rooms. Was it because palace rooms had more lights visible at once than the maze? Or did they have more varied materials, compared to the bare dungeon walls? This is the inference stage, where you define (and write down) the potential rules that you discovered.

How does an inference process look like? First, I always check whether the frame rate is CPU- or GPU-bound in the scene I’m examining. Use the tips from Measuring Performance to check that. Then you can look for these aspects:


  • Moments or places that involve a lot of physics interactions
  • Blueprints that perform a lot of instructions every frame (aka every tick)
  • Animations, both skeletal and Blueprint-based
  • Places with a lot of objects and different materials visible at once (it leads to more draw calls)
  • Small static objects with Use as Occluder enabled (occlusion culling is meant to reduce the work for the GPU by testing visibility, but in this case the gain is smaller than the cost of testing)

Graphics card:

  • Places with big number of lights, especially intersecting each other
  • Lights and heavy objects that cast shadows
  • A lot of tiny objects that cast shadows
  • Quality settings (try Medium instead of Epic and see what happens)
  • Big number and complexity of materials visible at once
  • Big number and size of different textures visible at once
  • Emitters that spawn a lot of particles or use lighting/shadowing
  • Vistas with foliage

If you’re not sure how to test these aspects, don’t worry and just skip them. You’ll learn about everything from the lists above in the next chapters.

Confirm the predictions

After you wrote down the potential sources of trouble, it’s time to confirm or discard the predictions. To check the approximate cost of lighting in each place, you can visit each area with the Light Complexity view mode turned on. To check the number of instructions each material requires, you’ll use the Shader Complexity mode. Later in the book you’ll learn a wide spectrum of tools to make the observations precise – profiling with the GPU Visualizer being the most important one.

If any of these shows an excessive usage of lights or shader instructions, you confirmed your assumptions. Otherwise - back to start.

Experiment to test your assumptions

But we’re not just observers, right? We’re also mad scientists examining the project. So let’s add another, last step, frequently restricted on humans but so much welcome on game projects: an experiment. That’s the secret that separates true eggheads from white-coated impostors. We test our assumptions!

Hide objects

What’s the best process to confirm or discard a prediction? There’s a method that can’t be surpassed in simplicity. Basically, hide or disable the suspected cause of a problem.

Doing so will allow you to instantly check if your predictions were right. Display a numeric metric of choice, like stat UnitGraph (which shows miliseconds per frame changing in time). Make the desired change in the scene and observe its immediate effect on the framerate.

There are several ways of disabling objects or effects from rendering. The easiest way is to prevent objects from being displayed in game. Select one or multiple objects, then go to Properties → Rendering and check Actor Hidden in Game. You can do it also when playing the game in editor. Press [F8] to Eject from a running game, select objects in Outliner instead of the viewport and change the setting. Then return to the game by pressing F8 in the viewport again.

Please remember that sometimes disabling an object can lead to a drop in performance, instead of improvement. This is because some meshes act as occluders of objects behind them. When hiding a wall or a ceiling, you may reveal the whole part of the scene behind them.

You can also hide a whole category at once. Press [~] in the viewport when Playing in Editor and type show. This should propose a list of auto-completions, which you can browse with up and down arrows. Select a command and press [Enter]. Frequently used show commands include:

  • show DirectionalLights
  • show DirectLighting
  • show InstancedGrass, InstancedFoliage
  • show InstancedStaticMeshes,
  • show Landscape
  • show PostProcessing
  • show ScreenSpaceReflections
  • show StaticMeshes
  • show Translucency
  • show VolumetricLightmap (since UE 4.18)

Control feature quality

The Settings menu in viewport’s toolbar provides access to yet another tool: Engine Scalability Settings. Possible values range from Low to Cinematic. Some of the sliders (like Foliage) do not do anything until you had manually set up LOD (level of detail) in static meshes and emitters. Others, like Post Processing and Shadows, directly influence the quality of the features. These buttons aren’t very sophisticated, but they’re perfect for quick tests.

The quality of the shadows and post processes can also be quickly adjusted in-game via console commands:

  • sg.ShadowQuality X (where X is a number between 0 and 4)
  • sg.PostProcessQuality X (where X is a number between 0 and 4)

We can disable a feature completely by using a value of 0.

Next steps

Now you’re well equipped to locate general sources of trouble in your project. Further in the book you’ll learn to use profiling, view modes and other tools. You’ll be able to add them to analysis and confirmation parts of the process.

So what’s the next step? It’s learning what’s going on between the engine and the hardware. This is essential to understanding the precise info that profiling provides. I also urge you to play with your projects, as you’ll learn a lot from your own experiments!

Next chapter →