Sidenote, Sorta: The Technical Enhancements of Final Fantasy XIV Patch 5.5

Instead of a spoiler-laden post about the content of patch 5.5 (it’s pretty good!), I wanted to start with the nerdy stuff I was unironically more excited for. I’m labeling it a Sidenote because it’s mostly about the technology side of things…but it is also about FFXIV, so hey!

Square Enix being console-focused has good knock-on effects, sometimes.

With the current patch for FFXIV, 5.5, the game now supports the Playstation 5 console, although technically in an “open beta” state. Because Square Enix has a strong installed base of Playstation players for FFXIV, especially in their home country of Japan, the game needed to make the move eventually, and rather than waiting for Endwalker to release to put it out, the company wisely made the move now.

Because of this, all versions of the game got some upgrades. To recount these, let’s talk about them through the lens of the PS5 version and then discuss the impact on other platforms.

The Playstation 5, when compared to the PS4, offers:

True, Native 4k Game Rendering: Most 4k games on the PS4 Pro were run at 1440p and then “checkerboarded” up to fit a 4k output. This rendering mechanism means that even the PS4 Pro support FFXIV does have has never been true 4k – just a 1440p render target that gets scaled up. Under ideal circumstances, this doesn’t look too bad, but it can produce some artifacts that make clear the base image is not truly 4k resolution.

The PS5, though, can manage games at a native 4k. Many games are still running lower resolutions and scaling up to meet an output of 4k, but the PS5 can generally support it with a smidge of optimization.

Because of this support, the PS5 version of FFXIV needed native 4k rendering support, and Square Enix made some interesting changes to allow this mode to shine. The biggest one they hyped (besides native 4k itself) is that the game’s UI assets were going to be brought up to standard, mostly promoting this as high-detail icons. This is needed because the audience playing FFXIV on console are expected to be on TVs, at TV viewing distance, where a PC MMO interface would be too small and difficult. With the icon changes, however, came a set of other changes, with high-resolution world and minimaps, new text rendering for overhead text on players and NPCs in the world, and an overhaul of how things are presented on the world map to bring more fidelity and sharpness into the frame. It gives the game’s overall visual state a nice pin-sharpness, bringing the UI elements up to a surprisingly high standard that maintains all of the original flavor and makes some elements stand out better in a gameplay-assistive way.

While it’s labeled for 4K resolution usage, these assets can be used by anyone and scale just like the older icons and artwork. I’m using them at 1440p on PC and they look great – the world map changes in particular look amazing and bring some more immersion to the game.

Framerates Higher Than 60 FPS: The PS4 Pro didn’t support 120 Hz output, meaning that games remained locked to a maximum of 60 FPS on that platform, with most games targeting 4k checkerboarded with 30 FPS for a high-detail, “cinematic” experience. The PS5, while it’s refresh rate support is still bad (only 60 or 120 Hz, no variable refresh rate) can at least allow games to go to 120 FPS if the game’s rendering engine can get there, which a game like FFXIV can due to the massive increase in CPU horsepower in the PS5, alongside a faster GPU and more purpose-built hardware to keep storage requests away from the CPU’s workload. There was just one problem with this, however.

Because the PS4 in either version did not support 120 Hz modes, the game was built around a 60 FPS cap in a lot of ways. You might expect that would just mean capping the local framerate, but instead, it also was used as a limit for location updates server-side, which could in theory result in higher-performing PCs pushing server updates in a way that the game wouldn’t handle, causing clipping and bugs.

The game has a 1080p, 120 FPS mode on PS5, so that needed to change. The game went through a number of netcode updates with patch 5.5, which basically set collision detection to work more correctly at all framerates, keeping characters out of trouble with clipping. The netcode in general was made faster and more responsive, but we’ll talk about those other improvements later. This brings some much-needed smoothness to all platforms – the PS4 has always been fine with it, but the PS5 and higher-end PC players should both benefit from the better collision detection.

Fast NVME SSD Storage: FFXIV was built around the PS3 and PS4 limitations, with storage being key among them. Both systems featured low RPM, spinning hard drives, which capped out under extremely lucky circumstances around 100 MB/s of read speed. For FFXIV, the game dealt with this in two ways – it split every zone off into its own loading screen, and all main capitol cities prior to Stormblood (when PS3 support was dropped) were split into two zones, and the server likewise was given some room to make handoffs between the instances hosting each zone at a leisurely pace. On the PC, or a PS3/4 upgraded to an SSD, you could get much faster load times, but they were already pretty well optimized around the PS3 target and so storage speed could only get you so far. To that point, I’ve run FFXIV off of a SATA II SSD, a SATA III SSD, and both a PCIE Gen 3 and 4 NVME SSD, and they were all about the same.

With the PS5 having a beastly custom SSD, capable of incredibly fast reads of 5.5 GB/s of uncompressed data (its more well-touted peak speeds are down to compression aiding the quickness), FFXIV had to take some updates on all sides because of the speed of the PS5. If left alone, the PS5 would have likely loaded a zone in around 6-7 seconds – great speed, but not that amazing next-gen promise (a promise which many games won’t start to meet until cross-generation support is ended). So Square Enix made two changes here as well – updating the client code to support such fast data loading, but also making netcode updates to hand players off between instances faster to reduce waiting on the datacenter side. This means that a decent PC, the PS5, and even PS4 players see some improvements – my loading times off my PCIE Gen4x4 NVME drive (with a 7 GB/s read, faster than the PS5!) is down consistently after patch to under 4 seconds, with changes between capitol zones being less than 1 second. The PS5 version gets around 4-5 second load times, and I haven’t seen anyone timing a PS4 yet, although with a storage upgrade or luck in where the game is installed physically on a platter drive could theoretically mean faster PS4 loading times as well!

There are some PS5-specific tweaks made (support for the haptic triggers on the Dualsense controller, which only works on PS5 at present) but overall, all of these tweaks have improved the game for everyone – except the poor PS4 players, who still get a reasonably-decent version of the experience.

Why Update Now?

The thing I like about this change as a techie is that it gives a lot of life to the game for the future, and can be done without waiting for the PS5 to become mainstream while yielding improvements to the large PC playerbase and even some trickle-down improvements to the PS4 experience. It is a measure of good health for the game’s future that porting it to PS5 was a high priority and by doing it during a window without the peak player count insanity of an expansion launch, the team can properly test, troubleshoot any bugs that emerge, and then iterate on tweaks made for this open beta to offer more improvements.

As a nerd with too much money into his PC, but no PS5, I get to enjoy the practical benefits of all of the changes that count – a smoother experience with faster client-server interactions, a higher level of sharpness and detail to the game’s UI elements that makes it visually pleasing and somewhat easier to parse in real time, and a pretty big reduction to loading times (sure, I had around 6 second loading times before and 4 now, but that still represents a 33% reduction in time spent at loading screens in-game).

While ultimately, these are small tweaks that don’t represent massive shifts to the game (the actual 3D object fidelity is the same, as we’re unlikely to see drastic increases to actual rendering details until the game leaves PS4 support), they still represent a smoother, better experience, and one that is prepared to launch an expansion without making players wait for support on their shiny new consoles (which, hopefully, more people will have prior to Endwalker’s launch!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.