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Insomniac: 60FPS no more

Is frame-rate really that important?

Insomniac Games is "probably" going to turn its back on its long-standing commitment to 60FPS gameplay for its Ratchet & Clank franchise. According to the developer, there is no marketing premium, or review score value, in supporting the highest-possible refresh rate common to all HDTVs. "We want to give you guys, our fans and players, the best looking games you can buy on a console," says engine director Mike Acton, and 60FPS actually gets in the way of that.

To back up his arguments, Acton has produced interesting data based on a large number of game reviews, which indicates that while there is a clear link between graphics and final score, there is little to no evidence that frame-rate has as much influence. He also polled readers of the Insomniac website, and found that while 16 per cent of respondents were firmly in favour of 60FPS, most are not, with the majority favouring a solid frame-rate that doesn't interfere with the gameplay.

Curiously, Acton seeks to play down the already small minority who don't agree with his overall findings by pointing towards general sales figures, saying that the 16 per cent figure can't possibly be true. Also interesting, especially in an argument couched in terms of sell-through figures, is the lack of focus on the mega-selling franchises that target 60FPS gameplay: the Gran Turismos, the Forzas, the FIFAs and, of course, the Call of Duties. Combined sales of all those probably account for a pretty significant chunk of the marketplace, and in the case of FIFA and Modern Warfare 2, a big slice of this year's Christmas sales.

In terms of Insomniac's decision to back away from 60FPS gameplay, it is perhaps not surprising when you consider overall trends. Back in the era where arcade gameplay and 2D sprite-based action was the norm, 60FPS was a given whether you were playing the latest coin-ops or powering up your latest (NTSC) SNES or Mega Drive game; it was the accepted standard. But in the tumultuous move to 3D gaming during the mid-nineties PlayStation era, things changed irrevocably. The enormous leaps in processing power required to create 3D imagery meant that 60FPS throughput from the console was only possible in the minority of cases: undemanding sports titles, the occasional shooter, and fighting games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter.

Two console generations later and 30 frames per second is the norm. Games are more slowly paced and definitely laggier than the 2D generation, but the majority of the audience has become conditioned to them, and, crucially, gameplay styles have shifted to sit more in sync with the lower frame-rates.

While Acton describes Insomniac's latest Ratchet episode, Crack in Time, as a 60FPS title, this is a somewhat best-case description of the overall flow of the game. Looking at the raw stats after Digital Foundry analysis, the performance doesn't quite reach the levels Insomniac aspired to, and - amazingly, bearing in mind the wonderful quality of the graphics - the game is actually sub-HD, albeit with the highest-possible image quality we've seen using its chosen upscaling technique.

Let's have a quick peek at some pixel analysis first, to confirm the findings. Edge analysis can sometimes seem inconclusive when looking at this game, but Ratchet & Clank seemingly works by merging the two buffers generated in the process of creating anti-aliasing. While most of the edge-smoothing effect is lost, Insomniac can get away with the generation of significantly lower framebuffer while making it look pretty damn close to native 720p. Lower resolution means that more frames can be rendered per second and this is undoubtedly a key aspect in A Crack in Time running as smoothly as it does.

It should not be understated how much of a technical achievement this AA buffer merge technique actually is in terms of Ratchet & Clank's implementation. Many games have attempted this technique (the PS3 versions of the WWE games, for example), but none has been convincing enough to fool the human eye into thinking that the game is anything other than sub-HD. To its immense credit, Insomniac appears to have made an impressive breakthrough here.

Similar to the last Ratchet game, we peg A Crack in Time at 960x704 in the final analysis, but the proprietary AA buffer merging technique does an astonishingly good job of creating the effect of native 720p, albeit with a slight blur. Moving down to a solid 30FPS would effectively double the amount of time Insomniac has with which to render a frame - more detail, more objects, more overdraw (it's this latter element that seems to cause the most frame-rate issues in this game). Although there are few complaints about the image quality, the developer could also shift to the native 720p resolution with 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing - the standard set by many other first-party exclusives in the Sony stable (Uncharted 2, God of War III and MAG, just for starters).

Playing the latest Ratchet & Clank, it's clear that while Uncharted developer Naughty Dog has scooped plenty of plaudits for its tech, Insomniac perhaps isn't getting the credit it deserves. The game is immensely detailed, throws about tons of those difficult alpha transparencies with abandon, renders absurd amounts of objects at almost any given point and works tirelessly in attempting to sustain 60FPS. The only problem is that the developer is so ambitious that it's just too much for the engine to cope with. To its credit though, Insomniac keeps the v-sync fully engaged at all time.

The first level - with Clank centre-stage - does a decent job of maintaining 60FPS with just a few exceptions. However, a couple of minutes into the video, the Ratchet stages show a much lower average frame-rate.

In Insomniac's own research, one of the conclusions reached was that a solid, sustained frame-rate was important: more important than 60FPS. "Frame-rate should be as consistent as possible and should never interfere with the game," Mike Acton says. "A solid frame-rate is still a sign of professional, well-made product. When there is a trade-off for frame-rate, it needs to be clearly worth it... it must introduce clear improvements on what the player sees, and never used as an excuse to not optimise the game or art."