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There comes a point in the gamer life when you start listening to a lot of jargon. Story, character design, music and game play aside, one aspect that captures our attention in a specific title are the visuals. Games are interactive entertainment, so how mesmerizing or naturally do those visuals appear? Have you heard of the term “FPS”? Do you know what does it mean?
“FPS” stands for frames per second. If you are old enough (or have been curious around the internet), you might remember some old toys made of drawings or photographs with small variations in each one. All together, they form a book that, ran with the help of a finger, create the illusion of movement. That is the basic principle of cinema and television, which uses special cameras to capture lots of pictures that later are shown fast. Each picture is called a frame, so frames per second is a measure of how many pictures are shown every second. Of course that this measure is applied to any media with movement. That includes video games, where frame rate is considered as the frequency at which an image is redrawn (slightly different to create the illusion of movement) on the screen.
So, is frame rate the same as resolution?
Glad you ask. Nope, the resolution is basically the size of an image. If you get too close to your TV or computer of choice, you will see lots of tiny squares of light. These squares are called pixels, and resolution is measured based on them. So, for example, if we have a digital image in 72 DPIS (dots per inch), this means that we get 72 pixels in every inch of that image. Of course, the higher the DPIS, the more pixels per inch we will have in the image, so the better quality we will get. However, it is more demanding for your console to render images in, say, 300 DPIS than in 72 DPIS.
Another important thing here is that the game’s frame rate is independent from the screen’s frame rate we use to display a game. This frame rate is defined as how frequently the device refreshes the screen. The unit is also different, as it is measured in hertz (Hz). The common frame rate for devices is 60 Hz. We will get back to this information later, because we first want to talk a little about the evolution of frame rate in videogames.
How has frame rate got better and why?
We understand we are using too much jargon. Why do we even want to know what is FPS and Hz? Who cares anyway? Well… for starters, all the game producers care.
Frame Rate has evolved thanks to technology. We are far away from the days when games were made with just text. Yes, text! With increasing capacity of CPUs, color arrived to the consoles. There are several ways for TV screens to render color. The most pervasive were PAL and NTSC. In the case of PAL, the color encoding system for the TV screen was divided into 625 (576 visible) lines of pixels, while the frame rate was 25 FPS. In contrast, NTSC system divided the TV screen in 262.5 lines with a framerate of 29.97 FPS. This means your Atari had to render line per line until the image was complete, and although PAL was better at resolution and worse at frame rate, there was not much difference in the quality of the gaming experience. Going a little further, the famous Apple computer Amiga was one of the firsts to run at 60 Hz, with a collection of nostalgic games in 50FPS and 60FPS (Alien Breed, Bio Challenge or Fantastic Voyage for example). Some of the first games at 60 FPS for other systems were Fox and Bear and Games SDK for Windows 95, and Battle Arena Toshinden for PlayStation…
And that is where we get one of our reasons for the need to improve frame rate: console wars! Apparently, the better a game looks, the more players will be attracted to it. Besides that, if a game does not run at least at 30 FPS, it will cause that parts of several frames are displayed at once, a state known as v-sync off. Nobody likes frozen images while gaming, right? But what is better, 30 FPS or 60 FPS? And why are these rates so commonly mentioned? Keep reading!
30 or 60 FPS?
Television today is usually broadcast at 30 or 60 FPS, so video game developers try to avoid the lack of synchronization between consoles and displays by not falling down those 30 FPS. However, there is more than fluidity or beautiful visuals when you are playing. Here, we have to take into account the type of game. Do you like fighting games? Shooting games? Survival games? All of these require a speed of response, so 30 FPS will sometimes be a bit slow. Although we do not always consciously notice the lag, it can seriously damage the fluidity of a game that requires action. In other words, you will feel like your controls are not very responsive, or that you do not have a good control in your surroundings. Also, if you are into a game that invites you to a calm or aesthetic experience (like Never Alone, Ni no Kuni or Ori and The Blind Forest), a faster frame rate will let you see the image details better… although some claim that it is hard to notice the difference between 30 and 60 dps. Again, this will depend on the type of game.
We also have the problem of what happens when the game has action plus beautiful scenes (like Final Fantasy X or BioShock 3). Sometimes, developers try to modify a 30 FPS game to run into 60 FPS. What can happen is that the game gets faster, which will not give you much control in a racing game. Thus, developers have to take decisions about how to avoid a bad experience for the gamer. For example, nowadays, 3D games are asynchronous. Thus, gameplay speed is not tied to frame rate. Developers also tend to lock games that can run in 60 FPS into 30 FPS to avoid it getting slow in some parts.
- Developer: Bungie
- Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
- Platform: Xbox
- Release: September 25, 2007
If you love cyberspace and first-person shooter games, you have to try Halo. The story of how some powerful giant rings menace life in the universe and the story of several races fighting to use them or deactivate them is depicted here. Of course, the fight includes humans, who are game to risk anything to save Earth from these dangerous rings. And well, the fun goes on, as Halo is a franchise!
The reason why we are mentioning Halo 3 here is because the game was locked to run at 30 FPS. The action and gaming control, plus the wonderful space scenes full of complexity, could be too risky for 60 FPS. Actually, some people believe the game runs at 60 FPS. That is how good the producers were with dealing with constraints. How did they do it?
How to get the best of frame rate?
Both producers and consumers of video games have to take into account several factors besides the type of game we are going to create/play. In the first place, which hardware do you count with? This means to check the CPU, graphics card, motherboard and RAM memory. If you are a hard core gamer or a professional gamer, you will want something solid. Which are the default settings of the game? And finally, how well done is the graphics optimization? That last part corresponds to the developers.
There are as many tricks to get better graphic performance as game developers in the world, but we can mention making batches of colors, textures, graphical elements that are repeated constantly in the game, and call them through code in neat and ordered ways. They also avoid drawing complete things if they are not going to be seen in a given scene (including shadows). Rendering the most distant background at last saves memory. Also, assigning different levels of detail to the objects according to their proximity helps.
Now let’s go to what you can do to optimize frame rates! You have to pay careful attention to your graphics card and CPU, which should be upgraded if you are very serious into gaming. If it is not easy for you to detect the FPS of your game, there are several free applications available (like Fraps). Also, many games today come with graphic optimization options like anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering, draw distance, lighting and shadows, resolution, and texture detail. Playing with these settings will lead you to a happy medium between graphics quality and action flood.
Some details of the gaming world can be challenging, but at the same time, it is interesting to see how much developers have to work for our favorite titles to hit the market. As you can see, the visuals are much more than beautiful colors or just a background for our gaming adventures. Tell us, which is the frame rate you prefer for gaming and why? Which games are the best in your opinion that win at graphics and gaming experience? Do not forget that we are open to all your comments and suggestions. See you soon!