Dark Souls PC Port controversy

Dark Souls PC Port Controversy Analysis

Dark Souls PC Port controversy

Dark Souls has been the centre of alot of controversy as of late due to the title’s upcoming release on PC. We take a look and discuss the various issues players have with this videogame port. 

Okay, so right now there is a huge controversy surrounding the PC port for Namco Bandai’s Dark Souls, mainly being the technical limitations and such as the locked framerate and resolution. In this article I will talk about what these limitations are, exactly, and try to explain how these will affect your gaming experience and what this means for PC users. I will list the list of changes the PC port will have and inject my theories in to them. Hopefully, you will read this with an open-mind and not jump to the conclusion of being a self-entitled spoilt brat who will resort to pirating a game From Software have worked hard to achieve, and not threaten to not buy the game solely because it may, or may not, be made available on DRM services such as Steam Powered.

1. User-interface (menus).

This mainly being the positioning of the UI and Heads Up Display (HUD); From Software could easily, but lazily, gather together some textures and slap them on-screen simultaneously; and that would be your menu/pause screen. If this is the case, then at least it would be a perfect fit for the fixed resolution scale and there wouldn’t be any problems with a changing resolution; however, if they decided to increase the framebuffering of the game then it will leave huge chunks in the UI and it would become a jigsaw with missing pieces. If this is the case, then they will have had to change the hardcoded UI so that it’s flexible with custom resolution settings, despite it natively being fixed (as just mentioned) and have artists re-draw the UI so that the increase of resolution will make it look hi-res and crisp.

Final word: In its current build, it’s been confirmed that the resolution will be fixed, so it is more likely that the UI will remain the same as it is on the consoles.

2. Fill-rate (resolution).

Perhaps one of the most upsetting pieces of information, the resolution will be fixed at 1024×720. No higher, no lower. This isn’t even 720p HD, as that’s 1280 by 720 (16:9). This fixed resolution is technically even lower than the console versions’ allowed resolution. Speaking of the graphics though, a lot of effects From Software have for a lot of the enemies, the bosses especially, use a ton of fill rate by massively layering transparent polygons/ particles on to them. This adds the illusion of extra detail at a free cost. Adding hi-res textures and more polygons would require remodelling, retexturing, and most likely redesigning the problem-models so they don’t look terrible and don’t drop the framerate below unplayable when they suddenly take up the entire screen.

Now as an example, some math, for the boss Sif (assuming it has about eight layers of fur):

> Frame buffer at 1024×720 .. the wolf fills the screen:
This means it has to draw 1024x720x8 pixels in worst case scenario (5.9m pixels per frame). At 30 FPS .. it’s trying to use about 177 megapixels of fill rate.
> Frame buffer at 1920×1080 .. 1920x1080x8 pixels in worst case scenario (16.6m pixels per frame). That’s 498 megapixels of fill rate.
= That is 84.4 megapixels of fill rate higher with the resolution increasing from 1024×720 to 1920×1080. Continued below.

Videocards (GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)) don’t measure pixel fill rate, they measure texture fill rate, and when 3D rendering; almost everything counts as a texture. That also includes lighting, shadows, normalmaps, spec maps, alpha maps… etc. That 500 megapixels very quickly becomes 3-4 gigatexels for one single model. You also may be thinking that modern videocards can run much faster than console units, and they can, but the chips from the consoles are specifically optimised dependant on how efficiently developers use them – what good is the best videocard in the world if its features are not being put to use with the code? It’s sometimes unecessarry to have the resolution increase for such low-res models, textures and with these mapping effects because ultimately they will look worse. Dark Souls being a very beautifully visual game, will take away the experience with the poor implementation of all this.

Additionally, anti-aliasing can double or even quadrouple your framebuffer, so you’re now looking at 10 and 20 gigatexals of fill rate. (And for those who do not know: the ‘framebuffer’ is a part of the RAM in a computer allocated to hold the graphics information for one frame or picture, giving it the response time to appear as pixels on the screen.)

Final word: It can be easier for the developer to optimise the framebuffer and code optimisations, including the UI, to just one resolution. So that can, in fact, improve your framerate because of how well optimised the game is. Only downside is that you may experience blurry textures and meshes, especially on them LCD monitors, which actually is quite a major problem…

3. Texture mapping (surface detail).

Given that the internal resolution is so low (by today’s standards), the artists could go in with the mindset to design around one single resolution. Given how many models appear on-screen at once and the artistic direction for Dark Souls, one can assume that they made good use of low-res normal maps to give the look and feel they wanted. Simple upscaling this would stretch the models so that they’d been wearing multi-coloured checker suits, as one single pixel of a normal map would map to a larger screen space than one square pixel. This also means that the resolution of the textures are roughly based around the same size of the mapping, because an exact fit is better than too big or too small; thus making it look wonky and weird.

Final word: As stated, simply upscaling textures won’t make them look any more detailed and “next-gen”, it would bring out the colour in-between the pixels to a higher rate, and actually making them looks worse. Artists will need to re-draw these textures again for higher resolutions, but since it is locked, the game will look equally as good on the PC as it does on the console, only would injections such as Anti-Aliasing (AA), Anistropic Filtering (AF) or even Fast Approimate Anti-Aliasing (FXAA) increase the quality of the graphics, rather than the actual detail themself.

4. Polygon models (3D models).

The advantage with Dark Souls is that since it is open-world, fast-paced, and uses motion blur it is difficult to make out the low-res textures over the mesh filtering (like fog), which effectively disguises them. Increasing the resolution of your monitor will make these mappings and filters smaller and the low-polygon models will look even blockier than before. Do you want that?

Final word: Even if Dark Souls supported up to 1920x1080p, the models will look worse. One can say that playing on a lower-scale resolution than the native default is actually better if you prefer quality to asthetics.

5. Animation.

Animations take up a lot of space, more than you’d think, especially when NPCs have unique skeletons that can uphold their own special animations (and judging by the amount of unique enemies and bosses, a lot). One workaround for this is to use high compression rates for animations, which is a technique people use when there is more than one type of skeleton. What this means is that it reduces memory useage for animations but you may notice jerky movements, especially at lower-frame rates.

Final word: Lowering the framebuffer can hide some of the jerky moving, which otherwise, would look horrible.

6. Shaders (visual effects).

Probably From Software’s biggest issue when it comes to porting a console game to PC, especially with absolutely no experience with doing this, because making a game for the PC is entirely different than optmising your game for two pieces of very hold hardware. Some of these shaders can include imagespace modifiers, fog templates, weather types, effect shaders.. and so forth, which Dark Souls undoubtedly took advantage of. Now, since everybody’s PC is different to one another’s (especially those custom-built computers), you can see where the challenge From Software is having. Adapting all these shaders to work with millions of computers around the world, since each GPU and CPU  work at different speeds, support different features, there will be no perfect machine to run this game on, unfortunately. With a console, however, the game is well-optimised for them since the hardware is universally true for every console; they all use the same units.

Final word: Locking the framebuffer and resolution was most likely a purposeful decision to take shortcuts with any problems with graphic chips. This process could also involve changing the hardcode of the game and inviting artists back in to re-design these shaders, and then have some programmers optimising it for your machine.

6. Threading (processing power priority).

Since Dark Souls is currently a console exclusive game and works with hardware that doesn’t use multithreading, and has one general multi-purpose CPU, it’s very unlikely that we’ll be seeing a 64-bit execution and quad core support. Shame. Having said this, From Software have continously updated their game to work as best as it can on the consoles. One theory I have is that the frame rendering probably updates with the framerate, meaning the rendering of the world, models, etc will be after the framerate has caught up to it. If this is the case… and knowing that the AI takes up alot of the CPU power.. they probably will need to keep the frame rendering at a low cost for it to have a playable framerate. Japanese and Western developers code their games differently to the CPU, Japanese developers tend to build games with little update logic (like the AI) because, let’s face it, Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) are very popular. What do JPRGs have to do with this might you ask? Because JRPGs tend to use less CPU power than full open world, real-time RPGs like Dark Souls is, that’s how it is easy for these JRPGs to achieve 60 FPS because there’s less to render so the framerate won’t be too slow for the frame render to do its job.

Final word: It’s the case of biting off more than you can chew, people asked for a PC port for Dark Souls, but little did we know of the consequences that this would bring, because we lack knowledge when it comes to code, optimisation and general programming. From Software are giving us a port that we asked for, no more, no less, and there’s very little that can be done about it.

7. Online service.

Another massive complaint amongst the PC crowd: how online will be implemented and the DRM (if at all) that will be used. It’s a long-known fact that Dark Souls will be using GFWL (Games For Windows Live) as its DRM service. Now, immediately upon seeing GFWL, the baboons will jump forward and ferociously start complaining, threatening how they will pirate the game or this is somehow a “deal breaker”. Let’s look past this childish attitude and actually examine what the good side to using GFWL does for From Software and its customers. Probably the most important advantage is that they can reuse their servers and assets, that they already have in place, which will give them time to focus on other things, like trying to make a good PC port for the first time. Now, as opposed to putting this game exclusively on other popular DRM services, the money that you should hopefully be buying Dark Souls with will go straight to the publisher and developer; the people who actually deserve the money they need to get paid for their work for their own product. Not only this, but using GFWL allows expansion of sales in to retail, where those with poor internet bandwidth can buy the disc with all the content stored on it, simple as that.

Now, I hear the complaint, alot, that GFWL corrupts save games somehow, but I’ve yet to see a single shred of evidence of GFWL being the sole reason for this. Not to mention, PC gamers should be well aware that they need to be backing-up their save games into a safe folder, such as in (My) Documents at the end of every game session, and even disabling Cloud save storage to prevent further problems with save game conflicts. Your protected save games can’t be corrupted where GFWL, apparently, corrupts them. Simply allow ‘hidden files/folders’ be to shown via the Control Panel to see the hidden folder in which GFWL stores your save games, then copy and paste them out.

End word.

It boils down to how far your limits are as a person. If you’re going to demonise From Software, threaten them, break the law and complain like a three-year old then you do not deserve to play this game, and call yourself ashamed. If you’re willing to play 90’s old school shooters, retro games and previous-gen games then there is no problem for you with this port. Take into circumstance the situation From Software are in, and what you petitioned for. We asked for a PC port, and we’re getting one, be damned greatful for it or we’ll never get a chance like this ever again. Thanks to From Software for, for free, including all of the console dlc.

Credit to “Charles Randall” over at bluh.org for writing the Dark Souls article in which this is based upon.

Marco Prinzi