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Resolution or frame rate? Consoles need to join PCs and give players a choice

This generation's version of the console war may come down to resolution and frame rate, at least if you listen to the endless bickering of fans on either side of the aisle.

If a game running in 1080p at 60 fps is the ideal for gaming, the console that can get each game the closest to that ideal on a consistent basis is clearly the winner, right?

The PlayStation 4 seems to have a clear advantage in this regard, with ports being displayed at 1080p more often than we see on the Xbox One. Even Sony's hardware has to juggle a number of variables before a game can be displayed at that mighty resolution, and most games aren't running close to 60 fps once they get there.

Even Infamous: Second Son, one of the showcases of the PlayStation 4, runs at 30 fps. There is some question about the final resolution of Titanfall, but you can be sure it won't be running at 1080p. Here's an idea that could help with the arguing, or at least put more power in the hands of gamers: Give us a choice between performance and visuals.

A sliding scale

Games on the PC have always allowed us to find the sweet spot on our system. You can adjust the resolution; turn certain graphical options up, down or remove them entirely; and figure out what kind of special effects you want running in the game and to what degree.

This may make initial setup way more fidgety than what console gamers are used to, but the argument of graphics versus frame rate is removed. You get to choose for yourself or, if you don't mind pouring money into your system, you can have both.

It's unlikely that consoles will ever let you upgrade the hardware, but taking a few options from the PC versions of the game and presenting them to the player isn't a terrible idea. Some developers have already started down this path: The latest patch for Killzone: Shadow Fall allows players to lock the game at 30 fps if they want a consistent experience.

I had this discussion with a number of people on Twitter last night, and everyone had a different idea of what they wanted out of their games. "I prefer good [anti-aliasing] and consistent frame rate over jaggy high resolution and high but inconsistent frame rates," one player told me.

"High fps, I like resolution, I don't care at all about AA," Antichamber developer Alexander Bruce told me. "I always turn AA off and res up so I get higher fps."

"[I] strongly prefer good AA over resolution, would gladly step down to 480p with 32x MSAA. Leaves more to the imagination," QWOP developer Bennett Foddy said. I was surprised at the number of people who claimed they saw little difference between 30 and 60 fps. If they could lock games that struggle to hit 60 fps at a lower resolution, it would give the title a little more headroom to layer on the graphical effects.

The size and technology of your display can also impact what looks the best for you, and how far you sit from the screen plays into it, too. There are graphical flaws that may disappear in my home theater that become painfully obvious in yours.

We're used to developers and publishers making the decision for us; they create what they feel is the "ideal" way to play their games on the consoles, and we have no choice but to obey — no matter how much we would rather turn down a special effect to achieve a higher frame rate, or lock the game at a lower frame rate for consistency, or even max out every graphical option we're given just to marvel at what the system can do ... when it's running at 15 fps.

While I don't see any mainstream game giving you the option of running at 480p with 32x MSAA (sorry, Foddy!), the idea that different players want different things out of the visuals of their games, or place value on different aspects of the experience, is still new to the world of consoles. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are both more or less gaming PCs with a locked hardware configuration. It would be a fascinating experiment if a developer were to give a little more control over the experience to the player.

How hard is this?

"Players are smart — they love to tweak with that stuff"

I spoke with Ichiro Lambe, the founder and president of Dejobaan Games, to make sure I wasn't asking for something that would be more complicated than I assume. "Systems differ, but there's certain low-hanging fruit: For instance, with Drunken Robot Pornography, we have five levels of graphical options, some of which just turn down [or] off anti-aliasing," he explained. "Or, you could adjust the distances at which big, really complex 3D meshes are swapped out for simpler ones.

"There are slightly tougher things, like, do we want several sets of textures, some of which are smaller than ideal, but potentially display faster? But what you're talking about should absolutely be possible," he said. "In fact, I wonder why it isn't? Players are smart — they love to tweak with that stuff."

Consoles offer value due to their closed nature and curated experience. There is an argument that players aren't interested in being given these options, and that in doing so developers and publishers would almost be removing value from their games and the hardware we buy in order to not think about these things, but that's specious.

You can still make the preset the ideal configuration as the developer or publisher sees it, and then offer graphical options to the player. These don't have to be extensive — there's no reason that developers need to educate players on the different kinds or levels of anti-aliasing, for instance — but why not offer at least a toggle between performance or visuals?

Would it be so hard to allow us to lock the frame rate at 30 fps if the game can't hit 60 fps consistently? These options can be easily ignored if players don't want to mess with them, but I'm tired of playing games and wishing I could slide down an effect or two in order to increase the frame rate.

When no one tries something of this nature, it's possible to speculate that it's not up to them. Maybe Sony and Microsoft dislike the ideas of graphical options that make a game feel like a PC title. Maybe publishers think it will lead to confusion or hurt the conversation about graphics if a reviewer doesn't understand how things work. Whatever the reason, it's time to move past it.

These are solved problems on the PC, and gamers are only becoming more discerning when it comes to what they want out of the performance of their games. Developers don't need to offer the pages and pages of options often found in PC games, but a few presets that give us control over performance versus graphical fidelity would be welcome. It's time we invited them into the driver's seat, even on consoles.

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