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Why the return of 30fps console games is inevitable

More ambitious games push hardware further - and something has to give.

Last week saw the release of two new games that do not support 60 frames per second gaming on PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series consoles, Gotham Knights and A Plague Tale: Requiem. Many would argue that one of the greatest wins from the new wave of consoles has been that the majority of titles support 60fps - or even 120fps - representing a game-changing improvement over the last-gen standard 30fps. The question is why this brace of titles do not support this option and whether it signifies the beginning of the end of 60fps as a standard for console gaming.

It's a tricky question to answer, but ultimately, I feel it is inevitable that the proliferation of 60fps support will slack off significantly - not least because so many titles are looking to tap into the full array of features offered by Epic's Unreal Engine 5, which sets the stage for a new 3D rendering paradigm. We've already had our first taste of the kind of fidelity UE5 offers thanks to last year's phenomenal demo - The Matrix Awakens - based on an early rendition of the engine's features. Lumen, tapping into hardware-accelerated ray tracing features, delivers an astonishingly realistic lighting solution, while Nanite offers a level of geometric detail in excess of traditional rendering.

It's quite unlike anything we've seen before, but the point is that the demo runs at an inconsistent 30fps during gameplay, while cutscenes are actually operating at a literally cinematic 24fps. Both CPU and GPU are put through the wringer here, so simply scaling down resolution to improve frame-rate will not help much.

The latest DF Direct Weekly tackles the whole Gotham Knights/Plague Tale 30fps situation.

At this point, it's worth stressing that this demo is running on an older version of UE5 and our understanding is that the latest rendition is more performant - and it can only get better. It's also our contention that developers such as The Coalition, custodians of the Gears of War franchise, would be loath to return to 30fps. Other caveats? While so many triple-A game makers may be turning to UE5, there is no obligation to use all of its cutting-edge rendering features in combination - the standard renderer will always be there, as evidenced by Fortnite, which also runs on Unreal Engine 5. However, as the generation continues, if a game is to support 60fps, it needs to be baked into the design and accounted for in a way that doesn't necessarily apply to the games we've played on PS5 and Xbox Series to date.

Why we've seen a proliferation of 60fps and 120fps game modes over the last couple of years is largely down to a cross-generation console development period of unprecedented length. A combination of a vast installed base of last-gen machines, along with their architectural similarities to the new wave of machines has given developers and publishers the means to create games for console old and new in tandem, as opposed to farming out sub-par ports for older machines - as has happened in prior console transitional periods. The need to support platforms with CPUs as weak as the AMD Jaguar means that the processing power is instantly there to at least double performance on the latest console hardware. The graphics side of the equation is more scalable still.

The arrival of A Plague Tale: Requiem and Gotham Knights running at 30fps occurs in parallel with those titles not receiving last-gen versions - albeit for very different reasons. We've delivered our verdict on Gotham Knights, which looks and feels like a cross-gen title even if the Xbox One and PS4 versions were canned. We've also now had the chance to play Gotham Knights on PC, where we find a game with profound CPU and GPU utilisation issues to the point where even a Core i9 12900K paired with an RTX 4090 cannot deliver a sustained 60fps experience and where the mainstream CPU favourite - the Ryzen 5 3600 - struggles to even hit 30fps on default settings with ray tracing enabled.

Gotham Knights doesn't just struggle on consoles - it's profoundly CPU-limited for some reason on PC too, as shown running on a mainstream rig. Not even a Core i9 12900K paired with an RTX 4090 can fully overcome the issues.

To put it brutally, Gotham Knights' 30fps nature on consoles appears to be down to the authorship of the game as opposed to the raw capabilities of the hardware. It's only speculation of course, but based on what we've seen, the brute force power of the new machines is used to make a game that likely couldn't run well on PS4 and Xbox One work even at a basic level on PS5 and Xbox Series hardware. By extension, it's not the best example of why a transition to 30fps console gaming may be coming.

A Plague Tale: Requiem is a lot more interesting, simply because the reputation and accomplishments of Asobo Studio are exceptionally impressive. Here, we find a game that is pushing phenomenal levels of detail, beautiful materials and characters and a remarkable lighting solution. On PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, the native resolution is 2560x1440, using temporal accumulation to upscale to a convincing-looking 4K, while Series S runs at 900p with a 1080p output target. 30 frames per second is the target, but the fidelity Asobo aims for can see PlayStation 5 in particular drop beneath the performance target.

Would, say, a 1080p performance mode be possible for this title for the premium consoles? After all, if Series S delivers 900p30, the notion that Series X - with a notional 3x improvement to GPU power - could deliver 1080p60 doesn't sound outrageous. At this point, we need to consider that developers that aren't targeting last-gen console CPUs may already be challenging the Zen 2 cores with their latest wares. Our friend at the brilliantly-named Analog Foundry presented their take on A Plague Tale optimised settings for use on an RTX 3070 paired with a Ryzen 7 3700X CPU, based on the same Zen 2 architecture as the consoles. this clip suggests that performance can drop into the mid to high 30s, likely down to CPU limitations as the GPU is clearly under-utilised. Based on the footage, running those many thousands of rats comes at a cost.

The Digital Foundry verdict on A Plague Tale: Requiem, running on consoles.

The goalposts have shifted with Asobo Studio opting for fidelity and visual accomplishment over performance - but there is a twist via support for 40fps on 120Hz displays. Sony's first-party studios have championed the use of 40fps fidelity modes for much of its recent output, including Uncharted: The Legacy Collection, Horizon Forbidden West and The Last of Us Part 1. The trend was kickstarted by Insomniac Games where its Spider-Man titles and Ratchet and Clank: Rift in Time showcased the feature. The reason 30fps exists in the first place is that it cleanly divides into the 60Hz refresh rate of most displays - the same frame persists for two screen refreshes and looks consistent. 40fps is the logical progression for the new wave of 120Hz screens: the screen refreshes three times per game frame and it offers a much smoother look than 30fps.

This may sound weird when you're 'only' getting an extra 10 frames per second but Frame-rate isn't linear, frame-time is. A 30fps game updates every 33.3ms, a 60fps game updates every 16.7ms. Targeting 40fps puts you bang in the middle with a 25ms per-frame persistence. It may well be 'only' an extra 10fps, but it looks so much smoother because it is at the exact mid-point between a 30fps and 60fps presentation.

To illustrate why frame-time is a more useful performance metric than frame-rate, consider this: the difference between 30fps and 60fps is 30fps but so is the difference between 90fps and 120fps. However, the improvement in frame-time - which is essentially how you perceive the flow of the game - drops by 16.7ms in the leap from 30fps to 60fps. However, boosting frame-rate from 90fps to 120fps only reduces frame-time by 2.8ms. Faster is better, but as frame-rate scales, actual perceivable improvements to performance swiftly enter the realm of diminishing returns. By the same token, cutting frame-time from 33.3ms (30fps) down to 25ms (40fps) is far more of a win perceptually than the frame-rate figure suggests.

Shifting to 40 frames per second on a 120Hz display may well become the standard for higher performance going forward. In this video, we explain why developers choose to support it - and why it works well.

The Plague Tale: Requiem doesn't support 60fps but if you play the game on a 120Hz display, the frame-rate target does shift to 40fps instead. In short, you might well describe it as the 'performance mode' of the future - opening the door to smoother, more responsive gaming even if it's not quite 'full fat' 60fps. It's difficult to describe how effective it is unless you see it in action but unfortunately, I don't feel A Plague Tale: Requiem is the best showcase for the technique as frame-rate is still noticeably variable, even with VRR. It targets 40fps/25ms but it's not locked.

However, the Insomniac titles are well worth a look to see how well it works when performance is consistent. I'd also recommend Horizon Forbidden West, where you see a straight trade between visual clarity (40fps fidelity mode) and smoother gameplay (60fps performance mode). The '40 vs 60' numbers look stark but the truth is, I'd happily play the game on either setting - and so by extension, if 40fps was the only 'higher performance' option available, I'd be satisfied with the presentation and would hardly feel shortchanged.

So, as the cross-gen malaise gives way to titles only addressing the current consoles, we should expect to see fewer titles running at 60 frames per second - it is inevitable. 60fps is no longer an automatic given, it becomes a design element developers need to work around and plan for more diligently. Based on what we've seen so far, I think the biggest surprise is that we are already seeing titles facing CPU challenges. In the case of Gotham Knights, it's difficult to understand why a relatively basic open world is causing these problems but looking at A Plague Tale: Requiem's multitude of rats, or examining how CPU intensive Unreal Engine 5 is right now (even on high-end PCs!) there are valid reasons why 60fps may not be attainable - and ultimately we need to trust the developers to deliver what's best for the game. And if performance really is a top priority, the PC platform will always be there for you.

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About the Author

Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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