Posts from June 2023

First-Person Scrollers

Published 11 months, 4 weeks past

I’ve played a lot of video games over the years, and the thing that just utterly blows my mind about them is how every frame is painted from scratch.  So in a game running at 30 frames per second, everything in the scene has to be calculated and drawn every 33 milliseconds, no matter how little or much has changed from one frame to the next.  In modern games, users generally demand 60 frames per second.  So everything you see on-screen gets calculated, placed, colored, textured, shaded, and what-have-you in 16 milliseconds (or less).  And then, in the next 16 milliseconds (or less), it has to be done all over again.  And there are games that render the entire scene in single-digits numbers of milliseconds!

I mean, I’ve done some simple 3D render coding in my day.  I’ve done hobbyist video game development; see Gravity Wars, for example (which I really do need to get back to and make less user-hostile).  So you’d think I’d be used to this concept, but somehow, I just never get there.  My pre-DOS-era brain rebels at the idea that everything has to be recalculated from scratch every frame, and doubly so that such a thing can be done in such infinitesimal slivers of time.

So you can imagine how I feel about the fact that web browsers operate in exactly the same way, and with the same performance requirements.

Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  After all, we have user interactions and embedded videos and resizable windows and page scrolling and stuff like that, never mind CSS animations and DOM manipulation, so the viewport often needs to be re-rendered to reflect the current state of things.  And to make all that feel smooth like butter, browser engines have to be able to display web pages at a minimum of 60 frames per second.

Admittedly, this would be a popular UI for browsing social media.

This demand touches absolutely everything, and shapes the evolution of web technologies in ways I don’t think we fully appreciate.  You want to add a new selector type?  It has to be performant.  This is what blocked :has() (and similar proposals) for such a long time.  It wasn’t difficult to figure out how to select ancestor elements — it was very difficult to figure out how to do it really, really fast, so as not to lower typical rendering speed below that magic 60fps.  The same logic applies to new features like view transitions, or new filter functions, or element exclusions, or whatever you might dream up.  No matter how cool the idea, if it bogs rendering down too much, it’s a non-starter.

I should note that none of this is to say it’s impossible to get a browser below 60fps: pile on enough computationally expensive operations and you’ll still jank like crazy.  It’s more that the goal is to keep any new feature from dragging rendering performance down too far in reasonable situations, both alone and in combination with already-existing features.  What constitutes “down too far” and “reasonable situations” is honestly a little opaque, but that’s a conversation slash vigorous debate for another time.

I’m sure the people who’ve worked on browser engines have fascinating stories about what they do internally to safeguard rendering speed, and ideas they’ve had to spike because they were performance killers.  I would love to hear those stories, if any BigCo devrel teams are looking for podcast ideas, or would like to guest on Igalia Chats. (We’d love to have you on!)

Anyway, the point I’m making is that performance isn’t just a matter of low asset sizes and script tuning and server efficiency.  It’s also a question of the engine’s ability to redraw the contents of the viewport, no matter what changes for whatever reason, with reasonable anticipation of things that might affect the rendering, every 15 milliseconds, over and over and over and over and over again, just so we can scroll our web pages smoothly.  It’s kind of bananas, and yet, it also makes sense.  Welcome to the web.


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