Technology

Next-gen consoles: why we’ll still be playing games at 30fps

There was one key takeaway from the recent PlayStation 5 games reveal, beyond how good the key titles looked – and that’s the fact that the 30fps console video game is clearly not a thing of the past. In actual fact, the evidence suggests that the 30fps performance target underpins the majority of Sony’s impressive first-party offerings including Horizon Forbidden West, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It’s seemingly a key point of difference between PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X – while stressing that developers can use the console’s power as they wish, Microsoft has often talked about 60fps as a design target for next-gen, even mooting the idea of 120fps gaming in some scenarios for the new wave of HDMI 2.1 displays.

The arrival of a new console generation always brings with it expectations of 60fps gaming but it’s my contention that any move away from the console standard 30 frames per second has to come from the developer, because while the next-gen consoles from both Sony and Microsoft are highly powerful – the extra horsepower can only go so far. In creating Xbox Series X, the Microsoft hardware team aimed for a minimum of 2x the compute power of Xbox One X. They got that (and more) but the basic maths is pretty straightforward – if you deliver twice the power of existing console hardware, doubling frame-rate effectively sucks up most of that extra throughput, meaning that there’s little left over to push graphical fidelity in other areas.

Sony kicked off its PS5 reveal with a short teaser for Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales – and the evidence suggests that developer Insomniac is sticking with the 30fps performance of the original game, even though the horsepower exists to double frame-rate to 60fps. Ever since the reveal, I’ve been thinking a lot about what one of my favourite games of this console generation would look like running at 60fps, so when my PC was otherwise idle, I set it up to process two hours of Spider-Man PS4 Pro 4K capture, using pixel-motion analysis to deliver a frame-rate upscale from 30fps to 60fps. The results of my efforts can be seen below, but suffice to say, the cumulative 48 hours of render time probably won’t be doing my electricity bill any favours – and my power supply swiftly started to give up the ghost afterwards.

Seeing the game play out at 60fps is an absolute treat, and perhaps gives us some idea of the path not taken by the developer. After replaying the game and revisiting the Miles Morales PS5 trailer, it’s pretty clear that Insomniac decided to take its Spider-Man engine in a very different direction as opposed to simply doubling up on frame-rate. It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from what is a very short snippet of action but over and above the effects work on display – the likes of which you don’t see in Spider-Man PS4 – there is the sense that the studio is taking existing technologies and amping them up, while at the same time adding new features. It’s an approach that likely wouldn’t be possible if the studio were looking to double frame-rate at the same time – certainly not without a ground-up revamp of the technology.

The small snippet we get of ground-level web-swinging does suggest that New York City is a significantly denser place to be than it was on PlayStation 4. Vehicle count looks higher while the amount of NPCs frequenting the streets also looks more robust than the existing game – and in both cases, the draw distance looks a lot, lot better than anything we’ve seen in the existing Spider-Man PS4 game. The trailer also shows that we’re in the depths of winter, with snow and ice a key component of the visual make-up. It’s transformative compared to the New York we saw in the first game where the closest we got to adverse weather was a pretty basic rain effect.

Insomniac has also stated in a tweet that ray tracing features found in PlayStation 5 may be used in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, specifying that puddles will have RT reflections. The firm has certainly shown a lot of interest in the technology based on what we saw in the trailer and gameplay footage for Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. With that said, so little has been shown of the new game and while puddles do feature fleetingly in the teaser, they don’t seem to look ray traced. Regardless, deploying RT would fit in with a strategy of using next-gen GPU power to increase fidelity as opposed to increasing frame-rate – exactly what we’re seeing from Horizon Forbidden West and Ratchet and Clank.

Of course, this may not be the complete story: Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls Remake follows in the footsteps of Shadow of the Colossus by offering both fidelity and performance modes. Based on our previous look at available press assets, Bluepoint may well be targeting native 4K for its 30fps mode, with 1440p resolution resolved in performance mode. Codemasters has also suggested that we may see something similar with Dirt 5 – the aim being for its performance mode to hit a staggering 120 frames per second. I’d expect to see quality/high frame-rate modes to be quite prevalent in the upcoming cross-gen transition period. While game engines still need to support the low-power AMD Jaguar CPU architecture on current-gen machines, doubling frame-rate on PS5 and Series X is an easy win. Will we see those modes on Miles Morales? I’d like to hope so but I suspect that if this was the case, Sony would have communicated it already – just as it did with Demon’s Souls.

While the PS5 reveal may have dashed the hopes of gamers looking for an across-the-board 60fps mandate, I don’t feel that this is the end of the story, and forcing studios to adopt 60fps for all projects would be a fundamentally bad idea. The fact we’re seeing 30fps titles doesn’t negate the fact that the Zen 2 architecture is a game-changer and if a developer wants to target 60fps for their projects, it’s hard to believe that the CPU will be a limiting factor in the way it is on current-gen systems.

Secondly, even with the inherent CPU bottlenecks we saw on current-gen hardware, the fact is that we did see generally superior performance across the board compared to the PS3/Xbox 360 era. Not only that, but key game franchises like Battlefield and Halo transitioned from 30fps to 60fps while the arrival of engines like id Tech 6/7 and Capcom’s RE engine were specifically built with 60fps in mind. Codemasters transitioned across to 60fps and The Coalition even managed to deliver Gears 5 at full frame-rate on Xbox One X. Established 60fps franchises like Gran Turismo delivered a generational leap in fidelity while improving performance over last-gen counterparts, while the debut of the IW8 engine powering Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2019 delivers another technological showpiece.

It may take time for developers to find their feet with the new systems – and there may be some disappointments along the way – but the fact is that both Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are more finely balanced between CPU and GPU than their predecessors, while developers have more options and fewer constraints from a hardware perspective. PC will likely remain the format of choice for high frame-rate gaming, but what Sony’s PS5 showcase strongly suggests is that 30fps remains an enabler for some tremendous visual experiences – and we can’t wait to see more.