The Story Behind Steam’s ‘Framerate Police’

The Story Behind Steam’s ‘Framerate Police’

Not all PC games run at 60 frames per second, and for some people, that’s a big problem.

The Framerate Police group is, with nearly 100,000 followers, the tenth most popular curator on all of Steam. Their aim? To list the top possible framerate of any game that’s locked at 30 FPS or less. As they put it:

“We catalogue games that are locked at 30fps so you can see them at a glance and mention if it is possible to unlock the framerate by other means.”

A game’s framerate is the frequency at which consecutive frames are displayed, typically measured in per-second intervals (60 FPS, 30 FPS, etc). In short, the higher the framerate, the smoother the game tends to look in motion. By and large, 60 is considered to be the gold standard — the point at which a video game becomes, as the cliche goes, as smooth as butter. 30 FPS is plenty functional, but, in many cases, not nearly as nice-looking nor responsive. That responsiveness is a big deal for many hardcore gamers, especially on the PC, where games can ship with a variety of technical settings that users can minimise or maximise based on their own system specs. (On the PS4 and Xbox One, which cannot be customised by users, 60 FPS is rarer but still appreciated.) For some gamers, anything less 60 FPS can feel clunky or even uncomfortable.

Comparison video courtesy of ScatterVolt.

Because The Framerate Police group is such a big curator, their listing often appears on Steam games’ store pages, like so:

The Story Behind Steam’s ‘Framerate Police’

Simple enough, right? However, since the group’s establishment in July of this year, it’s been a source of a surprising amount of controversy. Critics say that evaluating a game based solely on its framerate doesn’t paint a complete picture or, worse, offers an inaccurate reflection — it presents framerate as a binary arbiter of games’ quality. Moreover, some developers of smaller games contend that their genres and designs never needed to run at 60 FPS, or that they simply couldn’t get there with limited resources. They fear that the Framerate Police are taking them downtown for a crime they didn’t commit.

A history of disappointment

Sometimes, a lower framerate is just that: a little lower. A first-person shooter doesn’t feel quite as deliciously smooth; an action game doesn’t feel quite as intoxicatingly tactile. It’s less comfortable — or, to some, more comfortable — but not game-breaking. On some occasions, however, things get ugly.

PC versions of big-budget games — especially those developed primarily with consoles in mind — have something of a checkered past. While plenty have turned out perfectly functional, there has been a distinct trend of half-assed PC ports over the past few years. One telltale sign of a bad PC port is a locked framerate — one that cannot exceed 30 FPS (or an even lower number) despite the fact that top-tier PCs run circles around consoles with their muscular calves/hardware. PC gamers love getting the best possible performance out of their machines, but locked framerates can rain all over their parades.

Arkham Knight performance video courtesy of RPS.

One particularly infamous recent example is the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight, which — in addition to a litany of bugs and glitches — came with a framerate arbitrarily locked at 30 FPS. When Arkham Knight first launched, its PC version was hardly even functional, let alone serviceable. It was clear that Warner didn’t give it the time or resources it needed, nor did they focus on making it the best game it could be on PC. PC gamers took it pretty personally, as they often do with this sort of thing. They have been getting the second fiddle treatment from bigger game-makers for years, after all.

Arkham Knight was a worst case scenario, but it demonstrates why framerate issues strike such a resonant chord with PC gamers and — in turn — why a locked framerate might cause some to see red. Locked framerates have been associated with many sore points in PC gaming history, and people are fed up. PC gamers care about these issues. They care a lot, which is part of why The Framerate Police Steam curator has so many followers.

Cracking down

The Framerate Police Steam curator group was originally established by popular YouTuber John “Totalbiscuit” Bain. His goal was one of simple practicality: he wanted to objectively inform prospective buyers of games’ framerates and, in turn, give them an indication of how they’d play.

“Over the past few years I feel many PC gamers have become very aware of how powerful the PC can be in comparison to the current generation of consoles and their expectations have risen in accordance with that,” Bain told me via email. “PC gamers are perhaps more educated in matters of performance than they used to be, and with that comes a desire for games that run better and can take full advantage of the hardware they own. One of the biggest frustrations for people like that is when a game prevents them from getting the performance their hardware is capable of due to arbitrary limitations within the software itself and one of the most obvious and jarring that has such a big impact on how a game plays, is a 30 frames per second (or lower) lock.”

The Story Behind Steam’s ‘Framerate Police’

The group got off to something of an inauspicious start when, shortly after launching in July, some of its members flooded one game, Guild of Dungeoneering, after its developer hid a Framerate Police curator listing from the game’s Steam store page. Furious, they went after the developer on forums and via email, complaining of censorship.

“The issue to me is that when a curator with a large following ‘recommends’ your game, that text is what comes up on your store page,” Guild of Dungeoneering lead developer Colm Larkin explained to me in an email. “It’s meant to be an excerpt of a review.”

“So we removed the 30 FPS lock one from our store page,” he said. “What happened next was suddenly we were getting a whole load of emails, tweets, posts on Reddit, threads on our Steam forums, etc, asking us to stop ‘censoring’ the Framerate Police curator. They ranged from polite to threatening in tone but it was their sheer amount that broke us. It was like a DDOS attack. This was at a time when we were overwhelmed with just trying to keep up with our launch. This was I think two days after launch and we were super busy trying to respond to legitimate requests and patch in mac support and achievements and other fixes. I soon found out what had happened: there was a discussion about us not showing the group on our store page, which led to the ‘witch hunt’ as TotalBiscuit labelled it later.”

The Story Behind Steam’s ‘Framerate Police’

Bain told me that this kind of qualitative judgement (coupled with the ensuing mob of irate Steam users) was never his intention. He’s since tried to make that clearer to followers of the Framerate Police curator. “After an incident in which a vocal minority of the group posted angry messages on the forum of a developer who had chosen to block the curator from their store page (they later reversed this decision), we made a group-wide announcement that we would not tolerate members of the group engaging in aggressive behaviour and harassment. We have actively banned those we have seen engaging in this behaviour,” said Bain.

Still, the mere existence of a big, authoritative group like the Framerate Police serves, for some, as a rallying cry, proof that they should take some form of action. For his part, Bain worries that the group’s name might encourage a certain aggressive streak. “I guess if I could change one thing in hindsight it would have been the name,” he said. “It was intended as a light-hearted joke, along the lines of the grammar police, however some people interpreted it differently. Unfortunately it’s not possible to change Steam group names after their creation, so we’re stuck with it now.”

Time and place

Guild of Dungeoneering is not a PC port of a console game. It’s been on PC since day one. A handful of other PC indie games dot the Framerate Police’s ever-expanding curator page because, like Guild of Dungeoneering, they also run at 30 FPS. Most of them do not, however, run poorly and, for some of them, 60 FPS would be a negligible change. Problem is, if a game’s been dinged by a curator called The Framerate Police, it’s easy to interpret that as a knock against its overall quality.

“60 FPS for Guild of Dungeoneering isn’t necessary,” explained Colm. “The game runs super smoothly, and it’s a 2D turn-based game. Remember, particularly for us small indies, anything we want to include in the game takes time, everything is a trade-off. We picked 30 FPS to keep things simple with our engine and then focused on more important things like finishing the game itself, or making it work on Macs.”

However, some still see 30 FPS as a badge worn by negligent developers, people who don’t care about PC gamers. Others view it as inherently worse than a higher framerate alternative, even in games where a framerate above functional levels isn’t a huge factor.

In striving for total objectivity — a complete list of games with framerates locked at 30 FPS or below, regardless of context — The Framerate Police allows people to make up their own minds about what any of it means, for better or worse. Bain pointed out that in recent times The Framerate Police added a genre listing to each curation, in hopes that people wouldn’t make knee-jerk judgement calls over a number. However, given that genres can be interpreted in all sorts of different ways, there’s still a grey area.

Rami Ismail of Vlambeer, the studio behind games like Super Crate Box, Luftrausers, and currently, Nuclear Throne, recently tweeted that he’s received refund requests as a result of his game’s 30 FPS lock (albeit only 53 out of 1500 total returns). He told me that he understands where all the hubbub about framerate is coming from, but he doesn’t think The Framerate Police’s Steam curation is an ideal way to handle it.

The Story Behind Steam’s ‘Framerate Police’

“I think it’s a way more nuanced issue than a lot of people make it seem,” said Ismail. “Shoddy ports are always indefensible, and should be called out. But that seems separate to the issue at hand. For some people, games being less than 60 FPS is uncomfortable, and that’s also a serious issue that should be considered. That being said, I think the curation group is not the right way of dealing with it. On Nuclear Throne, we have the curator group blocked, and added the framerate to our technical specs. We feel that the curator spot is meant for curator recommendation, and our game being 30 FPS is a technical specification. We made sure the store page for the game reflects that.”

For his part, Bain agrees with the last part of Ismail’s sentiment. He’d prefer for framerate locks to be listed as part of all games’ technical specifications. “Personally I think something like 30 FPS lock should be required information in the Steam store description, alongside system requirements, DRM information, etc,” he said. “If developers simply revealed this information to begin with or if Steam hadn’t banned the 30 FPS tag, there would be no need for this curator to exist.”

Framerate absolutely can affect the way a game plays — sometimes to the point of making it unplayable, other times just leading to a sub-optimal or slightly uncomfortable experience. It’s definitely not bad information to have. But it’s also not everything. It’s only part of the murky moat of data surrounding any given game, one made both simpler and more complex by the existence of an authority like The Framerate Police.

Still, Bain thinks The Framerate Police Steam curation is solving more problems than it’s causing.

“People did not suddenly decide to dislike 30 FPS locks just because we started a curator on the subject,” he said, “and the kind of people that would follow our curator are those who, logically, do find the issue of framerate important. If we didn’t exist they’d still think that way and may have purchased games that weren’t to their needs, resulting in negative reviews of the product on Steam or angry messages on the forums. By helping users avoid these titles in the first place we can also avoid much of this conflict.”

Here’s hoping. However, it’s also worth noting that the Framerate Police is an instance in which a flawed approach (the name, putting a single tech spec in an otherwise holistic evaluative space) emerged from a flawed system: Steam. What all this seems to say is that Steam needs to include framerate in games’ store page system requirements/tech specs. That would be a much better fit for all involved. Valve did not respond to my request for comment, but we all know how they work at this point: they’re not talking, but that doesn’t (necessarily) mean they’re turning a blind eye. I hope they’re paying extra close attention right now.

Top illustration by Sam Woolley.

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