Every time I've been to a preview event over the past year, had an interview with a developer, or reviewed a game, there's been an elephant in the room. But it's not the question of if releases should always run at 60 frames per second, as is increasingly the demand of the vocal minority of gamers who seem to think anything less is a slight against their loyalty to a particular system or studio. It's more that I don't really give a shit about what the frame rate is, at all, unless it adversely effects the experience. I am the elephant, and I'm not alone. Very few who really love the gaming medium care a toss about which new title is locked at 60fps and which isn't, like that's the factor in telling right from wrong—all that matters is, is it any good?
It took me the best part of half a day to complete the final level of BioShock Infinite on its hard difficulty because the amount of entities and effects going on was too much for my poor old Xbox 360 to handle, and so the frame rate suffered. But did I lose my shit? No. Back in the mid-1990s, one of my favorite games was Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix II, a Formula One racing sim highly regarded as one of the best ever in its genre. Its exceptional array of cars, setups, and graphics were astounding for the time, but everything was running at a phenomenal 10fps, a fact I've never even thought to check until writing this. Did it make the game unplayable? Did it hell.
PC games, when appropriately optimized, have been able to nail a consistent 60 frames per second for years now, and the general thinking when it comes to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is that these new consoles should be able to match that performance. And yet, taking this perspective leaves one blinkered to the realities of the not-yet-behind-us previous console generation, and how hard it was to get some games running at 30fps, let alone anything more. The Last of Us, for example, pushed the processing power of the PS3 to its absolute limit, and was locked at 30fps. Fans of eSports-friendly titles, and first-person shooters, need their games running as responsively as possible, and demand that developers meet their frame rate predictions, even when the end results are far from promised. But the reality is that a lot of today's console games simply cannot run that fast, which has led to an abundance of post-release patches and fixes.
Playing The Evil Within straight out of the box was atrocious, but its day one patch sorted it out, although problems persisted on the Xbox One version. The perk of console development is that everyone who owns a PS4 has the same fixed-spec machine beneath their TV—which puts PC gamers at a slight loss when it comes to studios "guaranteeing" performance quality, as set-ups are subject to personal tastes (and budgets). A $3,100 gaming PC is sure to exert more grunt than a laptop costing a fraction of that sum. What this means is that big, cross-platform games are often made with a focus on the lucrative console market—we saw it with Grand Theft Auto V, where the PC release trailed long behind versions for current- and past-gen consoles, and just recently with Batman: Arkham Knight, which was so bad on PC that publisher Warner Bros. took it off the market.
When a game works at 60fps it is pretty special, and such smoothness definitely has its place in the competitive multiplayer space, in racing games, space simulators or any kind of artistic concept game (think Journey or Flower) so long as it's fixed and constant. But, and here's a shock, not all games need or even require that frame rate. And even those that might stutter a little because the ambition is too great for the architecture, it's not like I get pissed when I'm playing them. If I like the game, I like the game, and whatever its frame rate might be becomes a tertiary concern at best.
Gamers demanding that 60fps should be "industry standard" don't see that the chase for such a uniform achievement is damaging to the entire gaming experience. Look at the coverage Eurogamer's Digital Foundry provides, and you'll soon enough see that it's not the number of frames per second that matters, but how fixed the frame rate actually is. Take the forthcoming Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, due out on PS4 in March 2016 and shown off at this summer's E3 conference. That gameplay footage was running at 30fps, leading Eurogamer's writer to note: "By conceding to a 30fps lock, the team is at least able to go all out with this set-piece; a preference compared to a theoretical 60fps that just can't be sustained."
I don't know about you, but I translate that as Uncharted series developers Naughty Dog caring more about their game being a quality, reliable, smooth, and consistent experience over one that runs at a frame rate that might be achievable, but at the risk of compromising the player's enjoyment. A fluctuating frame rate can be a right ball ache. I don't suppose Star Trek quotes make regular appearances on VICE, but this one feels appropriate, from 1991's sixth motion picture: "Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily mean that we should do that thing."
Progress in the gaming industry has happened fast. It doesn't feel like all that long ago that I was playing games in BASIC, or updating the drivers on my Intel 200MMX Packard Bell. Computer-generated imaging and processing has come so far, in such a short space of time. But just because technology tells us that our televisions are 1080p with a 60fps frame rate, games shouldn't feel bound to those standards. Just as in film production, the aesthetics of any game should be an artistic choice. Twenty-four frames per second is the cinematic norm, while television broadcasts in the UK are displayed at 30fps. Peter Jackson experimented with 48fps for The Hobbit, which didn't go down particularly well but nevertheless shows that it's up to the man, not the machine, to decide how any piece of media, of art, should appear. Think, too, of the movies that are 3D just for the sake of being 3D, without that feature being of paramount experience importance: it feels tacked on, needless, distracting, and usually shit.
I don't think the vast majority of gamers care that a developer's hope for a pure 60fps end product falls a little short of reality, or that a new release is purposefully locked at a lower rate to ensure a richer, more rewarding experience. Unfortunately though, when such "broken promises" or deliberate caps become public, they comprise astounding effective troll bait. "Popular YouTuber" Totalbiscuit has taken it upon himself to tag all PC games on Steam that play at 30fps with a little curator logo stating as much. Because when your very existence is reliant on remaining active on the internet, the real world, full of common sense and bigger picture perspectives, becomes a strange and faraway place.
Totalbiscuit's "policing" of 30fps games might be a mostly humorous exercise for him and his fans, but inevitably there are idiots of the internet who have failed to see the funny side and have taken things too far. The maker of card-based game Guild of Dungeoneering, Colm Larkin, received actual threats from people because his title was not instantly listed as a 30fps affair. Totalbiscuit, for the record, did denounce the behavior.
Have the trolls trolling for trolling's sake actually played the games they're trolling their makers about? It's unlikely. But that's not the point. The 60fps-or-bust campaign, such as it is, has become just another battleground for idiots to rally against... Oh, it's hard to keep up. Female characters. Product placement. Anything that isn't all bullets and blood, bombast and bikini armor; or every now and again the dropping of a single frame per second in a dramatic, level-ending explosion.
Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post saying, basically, "the trolls are winning." Reading her comments, it's hard to disagree that the rise of abuse from online trolls is actually a side effect of our own naivety when given an open platform of free expression. This duplicity of the power of the internet as a tool for good and evil has seen everything from victimization, harassment, sexism, invasions of privacy, bullying, a deconstruction of civility, threats of harm, and even death and suicide. It's safe to say that on the scale of issues, a game that isn't hitting or hasn't bothered with attempting 60fps isn't exactly right up there.
On Motherboard: Ellen Pao Quits, and Reddit Stays the Course
Video games are a medium that has rarely explicitly cared what color, race, age or gender you are—and when it has, those games are best forgotten. It's an interactive and inclusive way to share stories and enjoy puzzles, to captivate and educate, and in recent times to get the best out of the internet's connecting of likeminded people, sharing common interests, based around the world. It has created great communities for people to share their loves and their lives in a constructive and positive way. Arguing about frame rates? Threatening people because of anything to do with it? What is that non-issue achieving, really, other than becoming just one more foundation for online harassment? Most of the time, video games are made to make their player feel good, for them to be fun. It's amazing how easy it is for the faceless, nameless, loudest users of the internet to forget that.
If you're young, the media will tell you that you're impressionable. But don't be persuaded by people on the internet, people who you don't know, telling you that video games that don't perform to their own often impossible standards are in any way inferior to those that are locked at a very particular set of specifications. That kind of chatter does not matter—unless it does, and it breaks the game, but nine times out of ten that is not the case at all. Take a step back from the screen, and think about your own greatest gaming experiences—how many of those memories are running at a frame rate you can remember? There you go.
Follow Sean Cleaver on Twitter.