Shank’s Spiel: Resolutionary War

Ah, resolution. How quickly this word has jumped from an accustomed and seemingly blasé PC audience into the world of consoles. The effect of this word – rather, the subconscious emotions it illicits, has proliferated the modern console gaming space in a very tangible way. Where did this obsession and in most cases, defense of lower resolutions, even come from?

I chalk it up to the mental stigma that PCs have been attached to for so long, compounded by the damaging effect due to the aging of last generation consoles. As the last gen consoles got older and older, many frustrated gamers made the jump from consoles to PC, myself included. I honestly believe that upon seeing what massive improvements even a modestly equipped PC brings over those consoles, those PC converts began to spread the word to their console brethren. I know I did.

I believe those stories of benefits of improved resolution and framerate took hold with console gamers and quickly became an expectation for the new generation of consoles. It is important to note that this expectation is not where the fault lies. 1080p resolution should be an expectation in 2013, the year the new consoles launched.

The real fault is two-fold. First and foremost, the fault partially lies with Sony and Microsoft who were too timid to create truly powerful next generation machines. This, I have already covered in Episode 6. The remainder of the fault lies with those consumers too ignorant to recognize the truth, some even going so far as to deny it. That is, expecting 1080p and 60 frames per second for cross platform triple-A titles on the hardware provided by Sony and Microsoft is foolish and is becoming an unfortunate reality.

The most recent cross platform triple-A title failing to hit the expected 1080p resolution is Watch Dogs. It was confirmed on May 13 that Watch Dogs will run at 900p on the PS4 and at 792p on the Xbox One. Both versions will run at 30 frames per second. As soon as I heard this news, I was sadly unsurprised. I dryly laughed quietly to myself having known that ever since the PS Blog post confirming 1080p60 on the PS4 was taken down, that the real resolution of this game on the new consoles would be highly unacceptable.

Here is where I take issue. Watch Dogs was shown to the world at E3 2012. Since then, it has become the poster child for next gen. Even though that demo was running on the PC, as was confirmed multiple times by Ubisoft, it still gave the world a glimpse of what to expect on the next generation of consoles.

The fact that this game, the poster child for next gen, doesn’t run at 1080p natively on either console only serves to demonstrate the complete failure of the promise of next generation and is the mark of things to come. In short, cross platform triple-A 1080p gaming on consoles is done.

Watch Dogs is not the first triple-A cross platform title failing to hit 1080p. One need only look back over the last six months. Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4, and Titanfall all fail to hit 1080p on at least one of the new consoles. The counterargument to this is to point out that these are still the early days of the consoles’ lifecycle, and that as developers become more intimate with the hardware, resolution can surely improve.

However, there is a catastrophic oversight to that counterargument. Graphics techniques are only going to get more complicated simply due to the PC’s relentless march for technological progress. Future titles like The Witcher 3, The Division, and Project CARS are perfect examples of this. They’re all developed for PCs first and then ported down to the consoles, something that is increasingly becoming the norm. These three games are already pushing the limits of technology on the PC, a platform that can scale far beyond what these new consoles can provide.

In addition, these consoles are both x86. Meaning, developers don’t have to spend years and years trying to learn some exotic architecture like they did last generation. They’re already familiar with x86 and now only need to learn subtle differences to the API of both new systems. This means that developers will reach the potential of these new machines far sooner than they did with their predecessors.

These two major factors combine to paint a truly grim picture for the potential of future 1080p triple-A console titles. It’s not good.

Some may say upscaling can fix the issue. However, upscaling does not alleviate the problem at all as it only serves to create some very distracting artefacts and loss of detail, regardless of how good the upscaler is. Despite what some ignorant industry outlets may have you believe, the difference between 900p and 1080p isn’t “just 100 pixels”. This claim can’t be more seeped in ignorance and idiocy than it already is. Allow me to explain the real difference.

When a game is displayed at 900p, the real resolution is usually 1600×900, that is, a total pixel count of 1,440,000 (1600 vertical rows multiplied by 900 horizontal rows). When a game is displayed at 1080p, the real resolution is 1920×1080, resulting in a total pixel count of 2,073,600. Performing some simple subtraction yields the real difference between a game running at 900p and 1080p.

As a result, a game running at 900p has 633,600 fewer pixels than the same game running at 1080p. Clearly, the difference is not “just 100 pixels”. This is 633,600 pixels that are no longer available to render detail on your screen. It is a staggeringly noticeable loss, an importance which simply cannot be overstated. So yes, IGN, it is a big deal.

What does this mean for PC versions of future titles? Remember that cross platform games are now first developed for the PC, then ported over to consoles. Meaning, any optimization done for the console versions will only benefit the PC. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as optimizations across any platform is a good thing. This frees up resources for perhaps even more graphics techniques.

On top of that, the upcoming DirectX 12 will allow developers to more easily implement more demanding graphics techniques in 18 months’ time, compounding the PC’s relentless march towards increased complexity and photorealism. This is something that the consoles, which are static by definition, will not be able to cope with.

So what can possibly be done to achieve 1080p for cross platform triple-A titles on consoles? In my honest opinion, I would much rather have the developers scale back the complexity of such graphics techniques on the consoles in order to achieve full 1080p resolution. If this means that the console version of a title must make use of pre-computed ambient occlusion in lieu of a real-time implementation, then so be it. Most people will not notice the difference between pre-computed and real-time ambient occlusion, but they are much more likely to notice a decrease in resolution.

It is simply unrealistic for those few gamers to expect the console version of a triple-A title to be on visual parity with its PC counterpart. A static piece of hardware simply cannot compete in processing power to a constantly evolving platform. As such, I really do think that cross platform triple-A 1080p console gaming may soon become a pipe dream, instead relegated as a PC luxury alongside a 60 frames per second framerate.

This is a very serious concern, with implications compounded due to some very real facts, as was explored throughout this piece. It’s 2014. The fact that 1080p console gaming is not an expectation, but rather a constant worry attached to the release of every triple-A title is just pathetic. Regardless of their platform of choice, gamers should not have to question something that should be so standard as resolution.

If you are one of those console gamers frustrated by the very real resolution debate, come join us on PC. You don’t need to spend nearly as much money as cynics claim in order to get a markedly better experience than the new consoles. We think you’ll like what you see. Best of all, you’ll never have to worry about 1080p ever again.

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