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The “30 Frames per Second Games Are History” Myth
No matter what the gaming system, it’s not all about the FPS and it shouldn’t be — here’s why
People who have followed Sony’s and Microsoft’s journey towards releasing the PlayStation5 and the Xbox Series S|X respectively may recall something odd about one of the claims the Americans did that the Japanese didn’t: the, now famous as well as disproven, “performance target” of 60 frames per second for “a new generation of Xbox games”. The point Microsoft was, supposedly, trying to make was that after years of Xbox One X and PS4 Pro “targeting” 4K with many games but only offering that upscaled and at erratic framerates, the company would now offer true 4K resolution with the Xbox Series S|X at the “holy grail” of console gaming frame rates: 60 FPS.
We now know that this “promise” can only ever be held by the Xbox Series X and not the Xbox Series S (the latter often has to resort to sub-1080p resolutions in order to offer 60 FPS in demanding games) and that, as was always the case, a “performance target” does not mean anything specific in practice. Is it “a minimum of 60 FPS”? Is it “around 60 FPS, give or take”? Is it “60 FPS most of the time, unless an X number of enemies shows up on-screen”? It’s a conveniently hazy term and, therefore, rather pointless.
More to the point, though, why is it that we have to “target” 60 FPS in modern games to begin with?
The myth of “30 FPS is bad, 60 FPS is godly” is an old one, almost two decades old, originating with the PC crowd (because it was with computers that games started becoming “scalable” in performance depending on hardware configurations). It’s also a myth that was created based on a misconception: that the closer a game’s frame rate gets to 24 FPS (the “cinematic” frame rate) or lower, the worse it gets in terms of smooth motion and accurate control. Many PC gamers playing on the usual 60 Hz monitors thought that 30 FPS were not “enough” to guarantee smooth gameplay and that if only they upgraded their computers to render their favorite titles at 60 FPS, they would achieve gaming nirvana.
The truth, of course, is quite different — but it took a very long time to be understood and accepted by millions of gamers. What is jarring and unpleasant about those low frame rates is actually the way those frames are usually displayed. Not the number of frames (“targetted” or otherwise) per se. Many gaming systems, for the longest of time, could not “lock” to 30 FPS — e.g. display game graphics without often dipping to a much lower number of frames — so those unstable frame rates did, and do, affect motion smoothness and control accuracy. It was much later than other factors, like input lag, came into play. Up until 2005 or thereabouts, when a game felt “choppy” in motion and/or made precise aiming difficult, it was down to its frame rate not being consistent enough.
So, yes, 60 frames per second are obviously preferable to 30 fps, but we now know that what actually bothers games is those frames per second going up and down in an unpredictable, erratic manner during gameplay. It’s preferable to play a game that successfully “locks” to 30 FPS than one that can reach 60 FPS in one moment, drop to 35 the next, go up to 50 for a few seconds only to hit 29 when a lot starts happening on screen. This is true for 60 FPS, too: although the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X can hit 120 FPS in certain titles — and gamers can actually enjoy that many frames on TVs capable of displaying them — for most games a frame rate of 60 FPS is not only sufficient, it’s usually better to be “locked” at that than to constantly be moving up and down between 60 and 120 FPS.
Developers have always known this, so during the days of PS3/Xbox 360 they started making adjustments and “targeting” specific framerates to lock on to, instead of just letting their games run at whatever frame rate was achievable at any given point and hope for the best (PCs continued to offer unlocked framerates because of all the different hardware configurations available). In the meantime manufacturers of computer monitors, graphics cards and TVs came up with technologies such as G-Sync, FreeSync and VRR in order to “sync” the frames displayed on-screen with the frames a game produces, so motion and control feel smoother even when framerates drop below 60.
The truth of the matter, though, is that extremely few games can make use of the crazy 144 or 360 FPS some titles go for nowadays — and the advanced computer monitors working at those refresh rates — in order to “feel right” while playing. Those games are the dozen or so competitive titles that multi-million global tournaments are built around. A wide range of titles — from sports games to racing games to fighting games to story-driven shoot’ em ups to rhythm games to strategy games — do not actually have to go beyond 60 FPS if those 60 frames are truly “locked”. And, yes, a number of popular game genres do not need to go even beyond 30 FPS: adventures, action adventures, RPGs, action RPGs, puzzle games and more can perfectly work at 30 FPS, provided — again — that it is an absolutely “locked” frame rate.
Ultimately the “30 frames per second games are history” myth is just that, a myth, for a reason: since many games work just fine at 30 FPS, developers will rightly prefer to offer specific titles at that frame rate but with richer, more detailed graphics, than at 60 FPS with less impressive graphics. We’d all like to play all games at 60 FPS, sure, but even modern gaming systems — no matter how powerful — can only go so far in building these virtual worlds we have fun in. Game creators will always try to get as close as possible to their original vision for their titles by making as few compromises as possible — and lowering the frame rate of their games to 30 in order to “save computer power” for other things is a proven way to achieve that.
True 4K games at 30 FPS can be stunning. True 8K games at 30 FPS will be even more so in a few years. So those misunderstood thirty frames are not going anywhere. As long as they’re “locked” — display consistency is key to all game experiences, after all — they are more than welcome to stay. The next Assassin’s Creed, the next Tomb Raider, the next Witcher will make sure of that, as will the next Spider-man, the next God of War, the next Horizon: Zero Dawn from Sony. It can’t be a coincidence that the PlayStation platform holder never mentioned anything about “60 FPS performance targets”, can it?