Let’s Talk Frame Rate and Graphics
It might not exactly be an age-old argument, but it is one which is still hotly debated among PC and console gamers both. Is it is more important to have a 60fps frame rate and lower overall graphics, or a 30fps frame rate and higher overall graphics settings? Where you sit on this debate comes down to personal preference, and whether the specific type of game will gain anything from high frame rates. Despite this, gamers find themselves overwhelmingly in one camp, while major developers and publishers tend to find themselves more in the other. Why does this happen, and what might we expect in the future? Let’s talk.
30 FPS Advantages
The base understanding we need to have about frame rate is how closely it is tied to CPU. More modern systems tend to have rather powerful GPUs, whereas the CPUs, especially on consoles, tend to fall behind. As modern games tend to be incredibly complex (or bloated, depending on where you stand), they have a lot of moving parts. These moving parts require constant calculations to determine their position, their momentum, and all of the other game processes acting upon them at one time. Keeping track of 30 of these positions each second naturally costs less than keeping 60 of these positions per second, which makes 30 FPS a much less demanding choice when dealing with an intense load.
By keeping everything running at 30 FPS developers are much better able to keep a reasonable load on the system, which means a lot more potential space for added effects like better anti-aliasing, depth-of-field, or ambient occlusion. In something like a turn-based RPG or strategy game, where real-time action and responsiveness is not the primary concern, this can work just fine. It looks good, the feel of the game is only minimally affected by the frame rate, and the overall experience barely suffers. While we are firmly in the 60 FPS is better camp, there are games where we can tolerate it, and these are them.
Going for 60
The most common reason you see given for people preferring 60 FPS over 30 is quite simple – it just feels better. The reason for this is twofold, with the first reason being perfectly illustrated by the following YouTube video from user Wolfgang:
60 FPS, it should be said, just looks better, looks smoother. By updating the screen twice as often as the 30 FPS alternative, the overall effect is far less jerky and difficult on the eyes. Of course, this effect will improve if you go any higher than 60, but as most will be watching this from monitors or screens which can only manage 60Hz, those examples, at least for the majority of the non-super-hardcore audience, would be a wasted effort.
The other part of this equation relates to the idea of input lag. The easiest way to look at this is that since 60 FPS games are updated twice as often as 30 FPS games, it takes half the time for action to be registered. This is not always the case, with additional input lag, display lag, and game processing playing a part in modifying this lag, but in the most general of terms, this is how it plays out.
These combine to create a situation where 60 FPS not only looks better; it is more responsive, it plays better. Regarding actual studies, we have this one which found an increase in performance in a rapid selection with higher frame rates which, while far from extensive, is a good start. This is why games which rely on visual acuity and response time, like fighting and fast-paced shooters, aim for 60 FPS, and why games which offer slower experiences in these genres tend to be held in poor regard.
It should also be noted that this is actually a bit easier for fighting games than with many other genres, as the focus on only a few moving characters and smaller environments means that the overwhelming CPU burden which leads to other games being capped at 30 FPS is somewhat mitigated.
What Gamers Prefer
The results are in, and gamers prefer a higher frame-rate, in almost all circumstances. Unfortunately, we do have to rely on a butt-load of anecdotal evidence for this one, though there are a few less than perfect studies and surveys which also help support this idea. This blind (in the scientific sense) test performed by website Hardware showed that 86% of the too small sample size preferred 120Hz over 60Hz, with around the same percent able to determine which of the shown frame rates was which. This is especially important because the gap between 60 and 120 FPS is generally considered less perceptible than the gap between 30 and 60.
Otherwise, we tend to have to rely on the dozens or hundreds of online polls which have been taken on this topic over the years. This one from the Giant Bomb forums, mid-2016, for example, had almost 61% of 542 voters in support of 60 FPS over 30. Again, far from a perfect study, but one which does help to start painting a picture of what gamers really want.
What Developers Prefer
If you’re reading this and you have any idea about video games, then you already know this section is going. The majority of gaming developers and publishers, at least on a console, prefer going for 30 FPS over 60. Why?
As we mentioned, it’s easier to hit a 30 FPS target over 60, simply based on fewer actively moving parts. The obvious solution to this problem would be to take out some of the moving parts, but in some cases, this is not quite so simple. Let’s look at Uncharted four on the PS4 for example. Locked at 30 FPS, this game has enormous complexity in its arenas, and requires considerable CPU power in order to constantly stream in new areas, enemies, effects, and AI. Removing any of these components would ruin the effect which the game is going for – the best-looking game on consoles, so in their case, it’s a simple non-starter.
This, in the end, is overwhelming the reason as to why the modern standard on consoles has become 30 FPS. The aim of many major developers, as it has been for a while now, is graphics first, gameplay second. Smooth, more responsive gameplay may be better for the gamer, but better screenshots sell more copies. You can’t tell frame rate in a screenshot, and many consumers are simply unaware of the difference between frame rates in any real terms, so the capitalist decision is an obvious one.
We hate this, naturally. This reasoning might work for the uninitiated, but for those of us with a real passion for gaming, this type of argument does nothing but rub us the wrong way. When Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio said the 30 FPS in their Assassins Creed games became their goal because it “feels more cinematic”, and that “It actually feels better for people when it’s at that 30fps” we rolled our eyes so hard that a significant proportion of gamers lost their eyesight, with hospital admissions for eye-strain jumping several thousand percents in the following weeks. After all, as Amancio said, “If the game looks gorgeous, who cares about the number?” Well, people who intend to play the games, and not just look at them, for a start.
If we had to choose an Assassins Creed game with less enormous crowds but higher frame rates we know what we would choose, but then Ubisoft isn’t exactly the protagonists in the story of major gaming.
Tech of Tomorrow takes a look at Assassin’s Creed Unity PC Performance
It’s also important to note that while overreaching and overpromising is a constant driver of the 30 FPS proliferation, laziness and incompetence on the part of developers also plays a huge part. This is especially the case for PC ports which are limited to 30 FPS, which commonly occurs because developers tie calculations to the frame rate, and are either too inept or simply do not care enough to modify these systems for higher performing hardware.
Tales of Zestiria on PC from Bandai Namco and tri-Crescendo is a prime example of this. These are games with a history of high-speed RPG combat, so naturally, there was a backlash when it was reported that this PC incarnation would be limited to 30 FPS. The reason, as given by the already poor regarded Bandai Namco, was that everything was tied to the frame-rate and that there was nothing they could do about this. Then, within a few weeks, we found out this was a complete load of crap. An enterprising individual on the Steam forums, without access to the source code, without being paid, managed to up the frame-rate to 60, with only the most minor of side-effects. Impossible for the company who made the game ostensibly, but not DrDaxxy.
Best of Both Worlds
Fortunately for us, we don’t live in a gaming world ruled by screenshots and corporate PR above all else. There are those companies, like Id, which understand that having a high frame-rate is integral to the types of games they make. 2016’s DOOM not only ran like a dream, but it is also one of the best looking games of this generation, and that’s the sort of stuff we love to see, and support.
DigitalFoundry examines Doom tech
It should also be noted that there is a recent trend, aided by the slightly different specs of different versions of the modern generation of consoles, of games allowing users to choose their specific display modes. While this is sometimes included poorly, like the choice between capped and good-looking or uncapped with wildly unstable frame rates in games like Final Fantasy 15, there are others which have really managed to impress us in their methods of adoption.
Nioh really stood out for us here, and not just in its fantastic Souls-inspired gameplay. You see, even for the base PS4 console, Nioh offers both an active mode and a movie mode. The movie mode goes for the ‘cinematic’ experience, with a capped 30 FPS frame-rate, higher resolution, and more effects. The action mode, on the other hand, comes with a near perfect 60 FPS gameplay experience, which it achieves by using tricks like dynamic resolution scaling, and decreased overall effects. The outcome of this is that inaction mode the game can look positively last-gen at times, as in outright fugly, and I love it for that. In this action mode, the game plays like a dream, and that Team Ninja dared to install such a system gives me no shortage of respect.
We can only hope that more developers and publishers have the care to apply similar systems in their upcoming games, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Games can take years to be released, after all, and people can’t hold their breath that long.
Where are we Headed?
A lot of this comes down to the direction of the next consoles. So far we know they are coming, but we don’t know exactly when, or what systems they will use as their bases. A much-improved GPU is a given, but really it is the CPU which will act as the deciding factor as to how easily these next generation of machines are able to hit the 60 FPS target.
Even then, though, even if the next generation of consoles has vastly superior CPUs, it’s not as if the problems which have infected this generation are going to magically disappear. Developers like Ubisoft simply can’t help themselves when it comes to graphical overpromising. There will be, in our estimation, the exact same outcome in a great many cases. Many developers will look towards using every single CPU cycle they can in order to make a game which looks as good as possible at 30 FPS, to sell those all-important screenshots, and the overall gameplay experience will suffer for that.
At least we can hope, with more CPU overhead than ever before, that some might follow the Nintendo example of clean design over the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink response we see today. It’s easy to be a pessimist in this industry when so many developers and publishers are so interested in taking the piss, so you’ll have to forgive our lack of faith.
By the way, going back to GoldenEye 64 is hard, especially in multiplayer.
Another great analysis by DigitalFoundry