Anti-Aliasing In FPS Games — Good Or Bad?

When it comes to FPS games, every split second counts.

An infinitesimal lag can be the difference between a soaring victory and a devastating loss, meaning you have to be pretty particular with your setup, especially where anti-aliasing is concerned.

This graphical feature has been a hotly debated topic amongst FPS communities for nigh on two decades now, which can make deciding whether to turn it on or leave it off quite tricky.

Not to worry, though, friend. I’m going to be giving you all the definitive answers you need right here, right now.

Is Anti-Aliasing Helpful In FPS Games?

The reason anti-aliasing is such a divisive topic is that the answer to whether it should be turned on or off for FPS gaming differs depending on your situation, but before I elaborate, let’s take a moment to define what aliasing and anti-aliasing actually are.

What Is Aliasing?

In computer graphics, aliasing refers to the distortion of a curved or diagonal line during gameplay, giving what should appear smooth a fluffy, blurry, saw-toothed look.

Where does this distortion come from? It’s just a form of pixelation.

You see, pixels are small squares, meaning you can make pristine straight lines by fitting them together side-by-side, but when you want to form a diagonal or curved line, the squares meet up corner to corner, thus giving you a serious case of “the jaggies”.

Aliasing is most apparent in older games and on low-resolution displays, yet it’s still present in modern games and high-resolution displays.

What Is Anti-Aliasing?

Anti-aliasing does exactly what you’d assume. It smooths out these distortions, facilitating a more realistic and immersive gaming experience. Songs pretty good, right?

We perpetually crave a more visually impactful experience when gaming, and anti-aliasing helps us scratch that itch, but is this just a matter of aesthetics, or does it actually help in any practical way?

Should I Turn Anti-Aliasing On For FPS Games?

The general rule of thumb is that you should turn anti-aliasing on if you’re a casual gamer looking for a good time shooting your friends and strangers online, as it refines graphics, helping you to get lost in the game and really enjoy yourself.

However, if you’re a pro or highly skilled gamer, you should almost certainly keep anti-aliasing disabled.

Professional gamers don’t need the slightly smoother lines to succeed in their titles of choice, so it’s considered redundant, but it’s not just redundancy that keeps pros from ironing out the kinks in computer graphics.

Does Anti-Aliasing Inhibit Frame Rate?

Much like when you increase the graphics settings for a game on your computer, when you turn anti-aliasing on, you sacrifice a certain amount of frames per second, and in the professional gaming world, frames per second are far more important than refined visuals.

This means that casual gamers with low power systems that struggle to keep up with games as is should also make peace with aliasing, as the extra stress anti-aliasing would place on your GPU is going to dramatically reduce the playability of your game.

How Many Frames Do You Lose With Anti-Aliasing Turned On?

It’s impossible to say what percentage frames you’ll sacrifice when using anti-aliasing, as it depends on the specs of your system.

Powerful GPUs will be able to shoulder the load without dropping too many frames, while weaker units will practically hemorrhage frames when trying to keep up with the anti-aliasing workload.

It also depends on the type of anti-aliasing in action. FXAA for instance, is relatively easy on graphics cards, dropping roughly 5–10% of frames, while more intensive protocols, such as SSAA and MSAA can straight up bisect your frame rate.

How Will Lost Frames Affect My FPS Performance?

To understand how a reduced framerate will impact your performance on an FPS game, we first need to establish what dropped frames actually look like in a real-life gaming scenario.

Framerate refers to the number of times the image on screen is refreshed a second. Each individual frame is a still image, and the faster the image is replenished, the smoother the transition between the frames.

You know how antiquated video footage has that kind of jittery look, sort of like the motion simulated in a flip book? Well, that’s due to a low frame rate, but a constant one.

In gaming, frame rates are variable. You’ll get sudden drops out of nowhere, causing the image on screen to lag.

This can happen so quickly that you might not perceive the split-second freeze as a lag, but your hand-eye coordination automatically accounts for it, adjusting your aim to a target that is technically not in the same position.

The outcome? You miss your shot and your opponent punishes you for it.

In particularly lossy scenarios, you may not even see your opponents. One moment you’re alive and alone, the next you’re dead, yet seemingly before any enemies materialized.

How Does Anti-Aliasing Actually Work?

To turn on anti-aliasing, you need only activate it in the settings menu of an FPS game — Most will have such a facility.

Simple, right? But what actually happens when we flick the switch and let anti-aliasing work its magic?

Well, one way to think of the anti-aliasing process is to imagine this setting as a filter through which every single frame must pass.

It’s a post-processing revision of each image before your graphics card displays them on screen, a middleman, if you will, which is why it has the potential to slow operations down significantly.

Do bear in mind, though, that this is a very basic answer, and the scientific processes at play during anti-aliasing are far more complex.

It involves the use of algorithms capable of introducing additional pixels to heavily aliased zones of a frame.

Does That Mean Anti-Aliasing Improves Resolution?

Anti-aliasing may clean up the staircase effect to a certain degree, providing the appearance of a higher resolution, but there’s a difference between how anti-aliasing works and how resolutions are improved year after year.

During the anti-aliasing process, the algorithm seeks out the jagged lines made off square pixels then overlays additional pixels of the same size in order to fill in as many of the gaps as possible.

Resolution enhancements, on the other hand, are all about fitting more pixels into a display by making each one much smaller.

This is what Apple’s Retina Display tech is all about. It shrinks the pixels down so the effects of aliasing are far less prominent to the human eye.

Comparing Aliased And Anti-Aliased Images

You can probably imagine the difference between an aliased and non-aliased image, but if you want an actual example, check out this side-by-side comparison provided by the folks over at Nvidia

What Do The Pros Think About Anti-Aliasing — Do They Turn It On Or Off?

As established earlier, typically, professional gamers will keep anti-aliasing turned off as the cost is simply too dear.

As a graphical effect, anti-aliasing places unnecessary stress on graphics units, and the lost frames per second limit a pro player’s performance, especially as they’re competing against the best of the best.

Conversely, removing stressful operations from the equation eases the pressure on a GPU, resulting in more frames per second, a more accurate aim, and a greater chance of winning.

FPS games are all about knee-jerk reactions.

The sooner you spot your opponent, the more chance you have of winning a showdown, but in certain scenarios, there’s another reason why the pros turn their noses up at anti-aliasing.

In some games, the outlines of character models are emphasized by a subtle corona.

This helps them to stand out against backgrounds, making them more visible to players, but anti-aliasing will often soften this outline out until it’s hard to see characters against certain backgrounds unless they move, which is obviously a problem in FPS gaming.

To remedy this, anti-aliasing functions add another layer of editing that ensures characters continue to stand out, but this adds yet another middleman to the anti-aliasing process, which puts even more stress on your GPU.

The result? More severe frame drops, laggy images, poor aim, and, inevitably, defeat.

Now, defeat for us casual gamers may lead to the odd rage-quit followed by a snack, but defeat for pros is a big deal, as it affects their career, so to lose due to a technical issue such as a lossy graphics process would be particularly hard to swallow.

Don’t Famous Streamers Use Anti-Aliasing?

Unlike professional competitive gamers, streamers often do utilize anti-aliasing, as streaming is less about performance and more about entertainment.

These players want to provide their viewers with super high quality visuals, which is exactly what anti-aliasing can help with.

Some of the big names in streaming get away with anti-aliasing without losing too many frames, as they have incredibly high powered systems capable of pushing out so many frames per second, that a slight increase or decrease wouldn’t be perceptible to the human eye.

Final Thoughts

For the pros, there’s only one answer to the question posed here today: Anti-aliasing should not be turned on during FPS gameplay, as it reduces frames per second, which will impede performance.

For streamers, anti-aliasing is a different kettle of fish, as their ultimate goal is to entertain rather than win, and for anybody outside these two groups, whether you smooth out your graphics is a matter of preference.

Unless you’re up against world-class players, it’s worth turning it on, as the visuals will be much crisper and way more enjoyable, but if you’d rather boost your framerate, then keep it turned off.

Either way, you’re going to have a good time!

Ashley Newby