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Battlefield vs. Modern Warfare: Does 60FPS Really Matter?

How frame-rate defines the gameplay experience

This year's video games battle royale - Battlefield 3 vs. Modern Warfare 3 - is underpinned by an age-old technological conflict: 30FPS vs. 60FPS. The question is, how important is the higher frame-rate and to what degree do gamers really care?

On the one side we have the Call of Duty game, co-developed by series founder Infinity Ward and newcomer Sledgehammer Games, utilising what looks to be an enhanced version of the existing, established and hugely successful COD engine, running at 60 frames per second. On the other we have a brand new Battlefield title developed on a fresh 2.0 version of DICE's state-of-the-art Frostbite technology. For the console versions of the game, DICE has targeted what has become the default refresh: 30FPS.

The basics are very straightforward: with Battlefield 3 running at half the frame-rate, DICE has twice the amount of processing time to run game logic and render the action on-screen: 33.33ms vs. the 16.67ms available to the Call of Duty developers, resulting in richer visuals and more complex, realistic physics amongst a whole range of other benefits.

The issue of which frame-rate to target has long been debated and despite the dominance of games like Call of Duty, Gran Turismo and FIFA - all 60FPS titles - the general trend is to support 30FPS instead.

For its part, Modern Warfare 3 will run much smoother and controller latency will be that significantly lower, giving the sensation of precision response from the pad. Some superb art direction and technological tweaks by the developers keeps the game looking competitive, even if the core rendering tech and physics are necessarily not as sophisticated.

Good game design plays its part too, of course. Call of Duty games are typically fairly linear, a rollercoaster ride of sorts, and by guiding the player through a set-route of set-pieces and tightly defined gameplay scenarios, the developers can keep to their target frame-rate and still produce a very good-looking game.

Certainly, the developers believe that 60FPS is a core element of what makes COD the most popular franchise of this generation, with Sledgehammer's Glen Schofield saying that it gives the game its competitive edge over the Frostbite 2.0-powered BF3.

"You can go out and name your engine and call it whatever you want, right. You know, I've done that before; I've seen that trick and the bottom line is, this game will run at 60 frames a second. Not sure any of our competitors will," Schofield told Ausgamers during E3.

"Not sure I've seen any of our competitors on the console especially running at 60 frames a second and I'd be a little scared at this point - in June - if I was looking forward to a particular game that wasn't on the console and running at 60. And I think 60 is our competitive edge and you just don't throw that away."

Thanks to an HD off-air transmission, we were able to re-constitute the 60Hz output of the Xbox 360 in Microsoft's E3 conference. Our performance analysis shows that Modern Warfare 3 maintains its 60FPS output admirably. Indeed, this snippet suggests extensive optimisation to the tech since we last saw it in Black Ops...

Call of Duty: Black Ops developer Treyarch goes into a little more depth on why frame-rate defines the gameplay experience.

"The reason why Call of Duty in my opinion feels so good in your hand, and why it is one of the best expressions of 'that is me on the screen' is because we do let it run at 60 frames per second. That's why it's so fluid," studio boss Mark Lamia told Videogames Daily.

"It's a critical component. Are there parts where it will dip? If there are, only barely for a second if you're lucky. Almost always you're seeing that constant 60 frames a second you've seen in all the Call of Duties. And I think also visually, there's a difference. I think that's why the engine looks a bit different from other engines, because we're running at 60 not 30. That would be a compromise that some people are willing to make - we're not. It’s all about the gameplay, and it's a lot of work to keep it that way."

While we have to take issue with Lamia's claims on performance, the general sentiment is shared by John Carmack of id software, who equates 60FPS with a "quality feel" and fought hard to get that target frame-rate adopted for his team's latest blockbuster, Rage.

"My biggest pride and joy about Rage is that I won the fight for 60 frames per second on there, but it involves significant trade-offs. You can't have 30 guys crawling all over you at 60 frames per second at this graphics technology level because it's painful. It's a lot of effort to do that," Carmack says in a GameSpot interview.

"But, we did make the call that for Doom 4, the single-player is going to go 30 frames per second on the consoles. So we can have 30 demons crawling all over you on there. But the multiplayer is still going to be 60 frames per second, so it has the quality feel that Rage has."

The issue of which frame-rate to target has long been debated and despite the dominance of games like Call of Duty, Gran Turismo and FIFA - all 60FPS titles - the general trend is to support 30FPS instead.

In the case of Battlefield 3, DICE presumably accepts that controller response will suffer but points to advanced visual effects, larger maps, the unparalleled destruction model, and the implementation of vehicles as just a few of the advantages its game has over its major rivals, not to mention a phenomenal deferred shading set-up that produces some sublime lighting. DICE rendering architect Johan Andersson has also pointed out via his Twitter account that Call of Duty games run at sub-HD resolutions - 1024x600 to be precise (Black Ops was actually 960x540 on PS3) - a significant deficit in comparison with Modern Warfare 3's planned native 720p image.

John Carmack has also confirmed that Rage employs a dynamic resolution system on console - when the game drops down from 60FPS, resolution is lowered until the engine recovers performance. It's an intriguing solution similar to work done by Sony's Studio Liverpool. In its WipEout HD, the 1080p60 mode adjusts resolution according to load in a similar manner in order to maintain as high a frame-rate as possible. Evolution Studios uses similar techniques to get MotorStorm Apocalypse running smoothly in 3D.

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Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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