This generation of consoles has been filled with endless whinging about frame rates and resolution. Many thought the debates over performance vs. visual fidelity would end with the power of next-gen consoles enabling wider adoption of 4K/60 fps as a base, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. However, Richard Leadbetter, one of the most knowledgeable tech reporters over at Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry—famed for deep dives into games’ visuals an performance—is making a case for why we’ll still be playing PS5 games at 30 frames per second, even with the immense power and speed of next-gen consoles. In a word? That’s computing power devs can use elsewhere.
Leadbetter notes that many of Sony’s own first-party PS5 games are targeting 30 fps, including Horizon Forbidden West, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. This, of course, is very different from the Xbox Series X, which has Microsoft talking about a 60 fps standard. With roughly double the compute power of the Xbox One X, Microsoft can certainly deliver on that target, but Leadbetter calls out the obvious here, “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.”
What does this mean? Basically, if developers start pushing the performance of games for next-gen, it’s going to come at the expense of doing other things with that same compute power. Sure, it will be a smoother experience than the current 30 fps console standard, but doubling up on the frames rendered means the actual visual fidelity can’t improve. It’s one or the other (which is why we see performance vs. resolution modes for the PS4 Pro).
PSVR is another great example. Rendering at a high frame rate to reach the performance required for immersion (and prevent VR sickness) means the images presented in the headset are at a much lower visual fidelity than what you’d get at a lower frame rate on your TV. It’s why most PSVR games look decidedly “last-gen,” as that compute power is being poured into rendering the frames and outputting a high performance.
Spider-Man at 60 FPS, But at What Cost?
Leadbetter’s central example is Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which looks to continue the first game’s 30 fps baseline at 4K resolution. He used pixel-motion analysis and 48 hours of rendering time to take two hours of raw Marvel’s Spider-Man PS4 Pro 4K/30 fps footage and upscale it to 60 fps. He makes it clear that this is in no way playable, but is simply an extensive render to provide an idea of what it might look like. The resulting video is below, and it’s well worth watching the whole thing to get his take on everything from the hyper-technical side:
His conclusion from this little experiment? “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.” He says that judging by the small bit of footage we’ve seen of the PS5 title, Insomniac is amping up the tech behind visual effects, weather, and 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.”
Leadbetter notes that Miles Morales’ New York City looks to be a denser environment, with more vehicles and NPCs filling the streets, as well as an increased draw distance to see objects and details a lot farther out than the PS4 game. He also calls attention to the “transformative” nature of the snow, as opposed to the more “basic” rain effects from the first game. In a hilarious callback to the ridiculous puddle conspiracy of the first game, Community Director James Stevenson has also confirmed that Miles Morales will support ray tracing, including ray traced reflections in the game’s puddles.
All of that is to say that Insomniac is clearly harnessing the extra power elsewhere, rather than taking up the immense computing power required to render and output at 60 fps. “Deploying [ray tracing] 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,” Leadbetter says.
Performance Mode vs. Visual Fidelity Mode
Next-gen will still, however, offer some player choice between the two. Leadbetter, once again a noted technical analyst who likely dreams about this kind of stuff, says Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls remake is going to have two different modes; one for visuals and one for resolution/fidelity. “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.” Offering the choice allows the studio to deliver overall improved and impressive visuals and effects in-game while not having to sacrifice computing power strictly to the 4K/60fps baseline. And that’s the catch with next-gen; it’s power may be improving greatly, but it’s still not unlimited.
One of the major showcases will be the cross-gen period as games get upgraded to next-gen versions using simple resolution and frame rate bumps as the improvement. Games like Destiny 2 will finally be available on consoles at 4K/60 fps, but given it’s a current-gen game inherently designed on current-gen architecture, it can freely use that extra compute power for the performance and fidelity bump because it isn’t harnessing next-gen capabilities for anything else. It’s effectively an “easy button,” not to say that optimizing a game for better performance is “easy,” per se.
It’s also why Microsoft can tout a 60fps baseline for most of its Series X games. As Microsoft’s titles will largely be cross-gen and playable on the whole Xbox family of systems, including the current-gen Xbox One, and various spec PCs, the baseline it is developing for is lower, meaning it can use its next-gen power almost exclusively to improve on the performance. It highlights a key difference in the strategies for both Sony and Microsoft. Sony wants to use that computational power directly in the games to make something that can’t even run on current-gen systems, but it’s sacrificing performance to do so.
Leadbetter reiterates that it’s best to leave things in the hands of the developers. “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,” he says, referring to the ways that both performance and visuals improved in the current-gen over the PS3/Xbox 360 era. He notes that games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Halo jumped to 60 fps, and multiple engines, including Capcom’s RE Engine, were built specifically with a 60 fps target in mind. But he also says Sony’s 30 fps baseline will enable “tremendous visual experiences.”
“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,” He said. “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.”
Looking back at that Marvel’s Spider-Man 60fps video, I have to concur that while it looks great, that the 30fps experience was perfectly fine. If the choice for Spider-Man: Miles Morales comes down to essentially rehashing the first game at a higher frame rate or pushing the boundaries of effects, draw distances, and other in-game features that take computing power, I’ll happily continue to stick with 30 fps gaming for the time being. As Leadbetter notes, just give it time. Developers and engines will adapt and grow, and we’re sure to see games harness the power of next-gen in incredible and as-yet-unexpected ways.