Skyrim Special Edition will be 64-bit, promising big things for modders

The souped-up Skyrim Special Edition for the PC and current-gen consoles announced by Bethesda during its E3 press conference will offer all sorts of visual improvements to the game, like volumetric lighting, dynamic depth of field, and improved water shaders. On Twitter today, Bethesda's Vice President of Marketing and PR Pete Hines expanded on that, saying the PC edition of the game will be 64-bit, and that saves “should” transfer from the original game to the new one. 

The ability to import saves is nice, especially for players like me, who never finished the original and might be tempted to come back for this new edition. But in the long run, being a 64-bit app will almost certainly have a much greater impact on the game's long-term future. I will cop to not being intimately familiar with the technical side of things, but simplistically, 32-bit applications can use a maximum of 4GB of RAM, a part of which is reserved for the OS, while 64-bit effectively does away with that restriction. (There is an upper limit, but it's so high as to be pretty much meaningless at this point in time and technology.) 

An old, but still relevant, post on the Nexus Forums explains the practical impact of that limit in somewhat greater detail. “Skyrim will crash at or around a reported 3.1 gigabytes of RAM usage, which is fairly widely known. Skyrim mirrors its active textures in memory, and since it is a 32-bit application with a 4GB memory limit, this constrains the total size of modded textures that are viably usable,” the post says. “The exact VRAM:RAM ratio is not known, but one metric reported was a texture pack taking up ~500MB VRAM would consume approximately 430MB physical RAM.” 

The authors of the post said that they hadn't been able to come up with any memory management solution that could “reliably mitigate” the problem, and worse, said “it is unlikely that any could be developed.” Even Bethesda described the 4GB ceiling as “a fundamental problem of 32-bit applications,” and said it had no plans to address the matter further.   

“We present this information with the hope that modders/mod authors will keep these limitations in mind when using/creating mods, especially texture-heavy ones. Those mods that take up less space will likely get more exposure, given that most modders will be using a heavily-modded game,” the post concludes. “Without Skyrim's source code it is almost certain that neither the 3.1 gigabyte stability issue nor the RAM mirroring issues will ever be fixed.” 

Or, obviously, if it's reborn as a 64-bit application. There may be some compatibility hinks along the way—Hines tweeted a few days ago that existing mods would “basically” be compatible with the updated game, which is not quite a rock-solid “yes”—but doing away with that memory restriction has the potential to open the door to all kinds of mods that were previously unattainable. So while the visual overhaul is impressive and the most obvious improvement to the game, over the long term the move to a 64-bit architecture will be at least as big a deal.

The Skyrim Special Edition comes out on October 28.