[Soapbox] 30 FPS

June 21, 2023

Framerate has been a subject of ongoing debate among gamers pretty much since the dawn of video gaming, but it’s been a hot topic as of late. Developers of last year’s Gotham Knights, WB Games Montréal, famously kicked off the current wave of discussion by announcing a week before its October 2022 release that it would run at just 30 frames per second on every supported console, including Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X. Arkane Studios would do the same with their Xbox exclusive, co-op focused looter-shooter Redfall, and now Bethesda is under fire for it with Starfield.

All of this came during a console generation with an unprecedented streak of games running at 60 frames per second – some run as high as 120. The early years of the PS5 and Series X life cycles were characterized by strong performance, in no small part due to games still being developed for the previous generation and being ported to the next in line, making it easy for developers to target framerates historically only enjoyed by PC gamers.

Developers are under more and more scrutiny for not at the very least having an option for 60 FPS, or not having it at launch (Arkane has claimed they’ll have one eventually), and with head of Xbox Game Studios Matt Booty saying recently that no first party studio will be releasing new games on last-gen Xbox One consoles from now on, it seems the door has opened for more and more developers to target 30 FPS.

My take on all of this leans toward the 60 camp, but I'm still fine sometimes with 30. Of course 30 is undesirable – being a PC gamer for around two decades makes it particularly challenging to go back to that level of peasantry. However, I thought I would find Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s 30 FPS hard to stomach, but I had finished up Pokémon Violet just beforehand, a game famous for having the stability of a house of cards, and that ended up enhancing my experience with Tears. Basically Pokémon made Zelda's framerate look like butter in comparison.

It goes to show how important stability is – referring back to Zelda, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, the two Nintendo 64 entries, ran at a pretty solid (though not always perfect) 20 frames per second. The same goes for Wave Race 64, in a genre I’m fickle about being at least 60 frames per second. Unless you’re a hardcore framerate snob, none of those games feel all that bad to play despite having 5-millisecond frametimes, whereas other games on the platform, like most of Rare’s games (Perfect Dark and Banjo-Tooie especially) feel like wading through wet concrete as they dip into single-digit framerates.

I’d also like to point out that the games on a console that run at 30 and the ones that run at 60, in terms of fidelity, rarely ever look all that different. On the original Xbox, Ninja Gaiden Black runs at 60, but it doesn’t look worse than Halo running at 30. Crash Team Racing on Switch at 30 doesn’t look better than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe running at 60. The jumps in performance from generational hardware improvements alone have a bigger impact on a game’s overall visuals than what you would get from dropping the framerate down to 30.

The reason WB Games Montréal gave for Gotham Knights not running at 60 was so they could “provide a fully untethered co-op experience in our highly detailed open-world,” but Anthem, as divisive as that game was, runs at 60 with FPS Boost on Series X and still looks pretty damn good. I find it hard to believe they couldn’t make a game like Gotham Knights run at 60. If you want to make a higher-res 30 FPS mode, that’s fine too, I just think there should be an option, and to make that option, developers need to focus on making their games run at 60 FPS at some resolution.

Obviously the point of hardware being a factor needs to be made as well. Anthem didn’t run at 60 on Xbox One hardware thanks to the weak CPU performance on those consoles. There’s a reason the Switch has a reputation for poor performance in third-party games. And yet, Tears of the Kingdom is far more innovative than Gotham Knights and it’s running on a fucking potato. There’s no way Nintendo couldn’t get it running at 60 FPS on an Xbox.

That said, Starfield is an interesting case. Todd Howard claims the game runs at 30 FPS at 2160p (4K), but Digital Foundry reasons that it runs internally at resolutions as low as 1296p and upscaled with AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution. Starfield is doing a lot of things at once, but then again so is No Man’s Sky, and that runs at 60. We’ll just have to wait and see how things go when it launches in a few months – it’ll be on PC too so we’ll be able to see how it runs on comparable hardware.

Bottom line, I really don’t think 30 FPS is all that bad as long as it’s with a controller (30 is dreadful with a keyboard and mouse), but I do think it’s time, in 2023, for a push towards games running primarily running at 60 with an option to run at a higher-res 30. I am looking forward to Starfield, but if Gotham Knights and Redfall are anything to go by, and with Bethesda’s reputation for not always living up to expectations, my optimism is cautious.