Insomniac: 60FPS no more • Page 2

Is frame-rate really that important?

It's an ethos a developer of Insomniac's status isn't likely to disappoint on should it decide to move to 30FPS. However, there are a couple of massive alarm bells being rung in Acton's post that I need to take issue with. First of all is the concept that "a drop in frame-rate is interestingly seen by some players as a reward for creating or forcing a complex setup in which a lot of things must happen on the screen at once. As in, 'Damn! Did you see that? That was crazy!'"

There is some element of fun in stressing a game's engine to breaking point when gameplay isn't really an issue, so I can kind of see where Mike Acton is coming from, looking at it from a tech perspective, but let's hope that this "complex set-up" doesn't require much in the way of player response, because controller latency in these types of situation is definitely going to be compromised.

The second thing is the composition of Acton's very first sentence: that Insomniac is committed to "the best looking games you can buy on a console". What surprises me about the line is that graphics are simply part of an overall package, and gameplay should be king, and there are many situations in which 60FPS is crucial to the very core of the game.

While there are many, many strong arguments that the next Ratchet & Clank game would be better off targeting a solid 30FPS, there is also the sense that Insomniac's reasoning and approach to its research in Acton's blog post was a touch skewed. I'm curious if he considered whether the smoothness of the visuals is actually a core component of a game's visual appeal, as opposed to being some other kind of nebulous factor. All those graphics scores will presumably take into account the frame-rate, and marks will be lost if gameplay is slow, jerky or intrusive.

Acton also introduces some level of supposition to his argument based on his chats with gamers that backs up his thinking, but I suspect that actual focus testing would produce some interesting results. For example, Resident Evil 5 running on a good PC can look exactly the same as its console counterpart, but if you're running it at 60FPS, animations are smoother and more realistic, and gameplay is obviously more responsive. Put x amount of gamers in front of both versions, and I'm fairly sure that they would say that the PC version "looks better" and could well score higher. While it's true that many players may not be sensitive to frame-rate, it is also important to point out that gamers (and indeed many reviewers) don't have the vocabulary to articulate how important it is and how they relate to it.

However, the real elephant in the room is the concept of game marketing - the vast majority of which puts the emphasis firmly on image definition over the importance of a high frame-rate, and it's here that it is almost impossible to disagree with Insomniac's reasoning.

The first taste anyone has of any particular game comes from screenshots, and a screen generated in 33.33ms (i.e. a 30FPS game) can and usually will look better than one generated in 16.67ms (60FPS). And after the screenshots, the chances are that the marketing will move up to video - which the vast majority of the potential audience will see on the internet. Streaming assets online are invariably 30FPS, the same frame-rate that Insomniac will presumably be targeting with its next game.

In other words, the entire awareness of the game in the minds of the audience will be built up in an environment where no more is required than a target frame-rate of 30FPS. Indeed, all the advantages of rendering to the higher frame-rate will be completely worthless right up until the point where the playable demo hits, and gamers will be able to feel the difference.

"Basically nobody sees 60FPS until they start playing the game. And at that point the game has already been sold. Sad but true." That's our old friend Sebastian Aaltonen, of Trials HD fame, posting on the Beyond3D Forum. "A good example: We tried to get 60FPS videos of Trials HD around the net. But the support for 60FPS video is almost non-existent in all the popular video downloading sites. And even our Xbox dashboard video trailer was automatically compressed down to 30FPS to reduce its bandwidth."

However, Aaltonen sounds an optimistic note about the impact of 60FPS gameplay done right. "We have incredibly high demo-to-full-version conversion ratio. When people see the game at its full 60FPS glory, they will very likely buy the full version. Half a million unit sales for an Xbox Live Arcade game is pretty good sign of support towards 60FPS gaming."

More than that, a total of 52 million sales for the Gran Turismo franchise, solid in its support for 60FPS since it migrated to PS2, also suggests that - as a core part of the gameplay package - 60FPS can be of crucial importance. Not only that, but Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is also the highest-selling game of this generation, and it's hugely unlikely that the developer of either of these gaming behemoths will ever waver from their commitment to the highest possible frame-rates and the lowest controller latencies.

So, what's the solution here? Is there any kind of middle ground? Looking at the performance profile of Ratchet & Clank, couldn't Insomniac lock the game at 45FPS to maintain the solid frame-rate, while still offering a superior level of feedback to the average 30FPS title? The short answer is "no", mostly because of the refresh rate of our HDTVs being, for the most part, 60Hz.

Locking FPS at anything other than 30 or 60 introduces noticeable and off-putting judder. Some frames are on-screen for longer than others, upsetting visual coherency. It's the same reason why watching an NTSC DVD movie shows jerky panning shots - it's trying to squeeze 24 frames into a 60Hz refresh. Compare it with a PAL DVD (sped-up to run at 25FPS, blending nicely with the 50Hz update of the screen) and the judder magically disappears. The effect in a video game, featuring far more frequent and dynamic motion, is exponentially amplified and simply doesn't look that good.

So, why will Polyphony Digital and Infinity Ward doggedly stick to 60FPS, while Insomniac is ready to drop down to 30? The bottom line is that the mechanics of some games are so important that they override the marketing imperative, or else creative ways are found to accommodate the lust for ever more impressive screenshots. GT wouldn't be GT without its physics, and they rely on 60Hz feedback (and the same goes for Forza 3 and Trials HD). Call of Duty, like Burnout Paradise, is a game based on ultra-low latency response and split-second decisions, and again, without 60Hz, the core experience would be compromised.

In terms of the marketing angle covered earlier, Polyphony generally doesn't release actual screenshots of its games - certainly not of GT5 (see Digital Foundry's piece on the bullshot phenomenon) and in the case of Infinity Ward, its screenshot endeavours can be covered off very nicely by using the PC version running at 1080p. Forza 3 is a bullshot-free zone by reputation, but it's worth pointing out that the game's replay mode - running at 30FPS - effectively provides all the screenshot and video quality required for marketing purposes, without the pain of compromising the core appeal of actually playing the game.

With Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank, the platform-style gameplay simply doesn't require the level of response you get with a 60FPS frame-rate. And with all the respect in the world, as the performance graph shows, often you're not getting it anyway. 60FPS offers very little to the game's overall proposition to gamers, and Mike Acton is right: in terms of marketing value and potential sales, shifting the focus from frames to an overall improved image quality will probably yield dividends. It's why it's the right move for Insomniac and Ratchet & Clank, even if it's not difficult to disagree with many of the fundamental aspects of how the company seemingly came to its decision.

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