After years of speculation, Starfield director Todd Howard recently confirmed that the open-world RPG will only run at 30fps on Xbox Series X/S, where it’s a console exclusive. While some fans were immediately dismayed, others have pointed out that there’s likely a good reason for capping the game’s framerate lower than other “next-gen” games like Forza Motorsport and Spider-Man 2, and it probably has to do with sandwiches.
When Howard confirmed the lower framerate in an interview with IGN, he said the goal was to keep performance consistent and prioritize visuals. “I think it’ll come as no surprise, given our previous games, what we go for: always these huge, open worlds, fully dynamic, hyper detail where anything can happen,” he said. “We do lock it at 30, because we want that fidelity, we want all that stuff.”
But it did come as a surprise to at least some fans who believed part of the promise of “next-gen” consoles like the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 was enjoying higher framerates like those players with more expensive gaming PCs are normally accustomed to. And with Redfall’s poor launch and a promised 60fps performance mode not arriving until sometime later on, some players started speculating that the framerate restriction meant Bethesda’s spacefaring RPG was unfinished in some way.
So what does food have to do with all of this? Well, Starfield’s first big teaser trailer back at E3 2021 prominently featured a half-eaten sandwich sitting on a table next to a sci-fi gun and a thermos aboard the player’s spaceship. Fans fell in love with it—one even made-up a real-life recipe for it—and it’s become an iconic part of the game’s pre-release marketing ever since, including during the most recent Xbox Showcase.
Footage during the Starfield Direct displayed an entire table full of sandwiches, with producer Jamie Mallory telling viewers that one of her favorite things to do in the game is go around stealing everyone’s sandwiches and hoarding them in her ship’s cargo hold. In keeping with past Bethesda RPGs like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, the implication was that players would be able to pick up tons of random objects in the world, add them to their inventory, and later deposit them in other places. But unlike Skyrim or Fallout, Starfield features thousands of planets you can visit rather than just one single map.
“While it’s used as a gag in the video, this sandwich pirate concept highlights one reason why 60 fps would be tough to achieve,” Digital Foundry analyst, John Linneman, wrote on Twitter. “Like prior BGS titles, it seems that Starfield tracks the location and position of arbitrary items in the world. Given the scope this stuff begins to add up. The player has so much freedom in this regard that it becomes, presumably, impossible to keep the frame budget below 16ms. Lowering the resolution would not make this possible.”
Dannie Carlone, an artist on God of War Ragnarök at Sony Santa Monica, also weighed in. “60fps on this scale would be a large hit to the visual fidelity,” he wrote on Twitter, pushing back against criticisms that 30fps signaled the game was “unfinished” in some way. “My guess is they want to go for a seamless look and less ‘pop in.’” In a follow-up tweet he speculated that the framerate and resolution on Xbox Series X/S was an intentional trade-off to improve image quality. “They want to keep it locked at 30 4k and push the visuals to a high level on this scale.”
Linneman echoed this in the latest “tech breakdown” episode of Digital Foundry looking at Starfield’s newest footage. “It all comes down to what the developer’s trying to do, basically the maximum framerate they can achieve their vision with,” he said. Speculating that the performance bottleneck with the game is likely on the CPU end because of all the complex interlocking systems and persistent objects in the world, Linneman argued it’s likely a testament to what the rest of the game is attempting to do rather than a shortcoming of the tech behind it.
Xbox Game Studios head Matt Booty has already promised Starfield will be Bethesda’s least buggy game launch ever, and if it can look anywhere near as good as some of the 4K gameplay shown in the recent trailer, it’ll be an impressive achievement.