It’s pivotal moment for video games, a moment when we have two platform holders out of three pushing for 4K adoption and conveying the same message in (only) slightly different ways. Sony is providing gamers with the message of the PS4 Pro as “most powerful console now”, capable of running 4K gameplay experiences, having it shipped on the market already for almost a year today; Microsoft is telling everyone they’re going to be the ones and only to deliver “True 4K“, making an even more precise statement that will require to have the hardware and first-party assistance to have all the developers from the different software houses and development philosophy come together to respect this vision.
It’s going to be tough and, even though it can be disappointing at times for the most hardcore supporters out there, sure enough the looser approach of PlayStation in regards of the 4K matter is now the most honest possible. They’re just talking about the power of the console, saying that, yes, it’s more powerful in comparison with all the platforms that have been released until now in the console space; it’s not an absolute, and it isn’t even when they make it clear PS4 Pro can approach the 4K thing – it can, with couple caveats and tricks to maintain the gameplay at decent frame rates and all that kind of stuff.
Xbox One X – The Misunderstanding Behind True 4K Claim
What about Microsoft, instead? Since the first reveal of Project Scorpio, they’re stating Xbox One X is going to offer an uncompromised, native 4K experience. Which is something they can’t really confirm it’s going to happen, simply because they can’t really force developers into making native 4K games run on the platform – for two reasons: 1. Developers need standards when they build engines and games, it’s simply nonsense to think they can work on different technologies when the only purpose and need is to have a game shipped per year or in couple/three years. It would require a huge amount of work, which is really nonsense if you think of things like budgets and expected earnings from a game’s sales; 2. The box (Xbox One X) is powerful, it’s really powerful. But you can’t think to have all the games running at native 4K, especially those coming from the third parties, mainly because some of them are more complex and are based on less optimized engines – or at least engines that are not built specifically for the latest Xbox.
So, this entire thing of promising native 4K experience is both not powerful enough in terms of marketing to convince people to completely forget about PlayStation and go straight into the arms of Xbox, and also a huge risk when it comes to the facts – it’s something which is clearly hard to maintain, when it’s instead clear that many developers are going to still go for checkerboard rendering (like Assassin’s Creed Origins is already set to do when it launches in late October).
When I read of things like this, I get to remember the words Shigeru Miyamoto spoke only few days ago during a Q&A with investors and analysts. Nintendo is the example of how unpredictable the video games industry can be at times: the company was in a pretty bad position because of the Wii U debacle, then turned things back into its favor with the amazing launch of Nintendo Switch and a very solid mobile lineup of titles. So, the Japanese platform holder is surprisingly back among the big players in the business and can return to make its vision predominant, or at least respected one more time like it was in the Wii days (when Sony and Microsoft both followed the casual audience with failed experiments such as PlayStation Move and Kinect – twice).
A lot of people say that what they want out of a new video game system is high performance, but when we look at the sales of Nintendo Switch, it is clear that a large number of consumers worldwide are really looking for more variety in the ways they can play. Of course, the capabilities of Nintendo Switch are considerable in their own right, so I feel like it has been surprisingly well-received among people who seek high performance as well. I myself really enjoy creating titles like Wii Fit or nintendogs that are different than our existing franchises, and that’s the sort of culture that permeates our entire development staff.
It’s a clear message, one that wouldn’t even require further explanation. Nintendo sees the whole 4K thing as an assist coming from Sony and Microsoft, because it will further differentiate the marketing messages of the three companies involved in a moment when only few people in the world are equipped with 4K monitors. They’re saying: we give you a console that allows to play video games wherever you are, both in motion and on your home TV, with high quality graphics, great brands you recognize and empathize with, new ideas and experiences both from the hardware and software sides; all this while the “others” want you to buy an expensive 4K television that won’t even allow you to have a much different experience from the ones you can currently have with 1080p monitors.
It’s obvious all this will allow Nintendo to have a huge spot and a great position when it’ll be a matter of selling consoles and most of all talk to the gamers that simply want to play without thinking too much to “side things” like resolution & co. The fact Sony and Microsoft already know the majority of consumers will still be getting the base models of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is a huge hint about what is happening here.
Xbox One X Benchmark Report – The Hidden Truth
Talking specifically about Xbox One X, recent official benchmark Digital Foundry shared provides us with more intel about all the things this new console will be able to do once it ships on November 7 worldwide. Basically, we’re confirmed that native 4K will be granted on only a handful of games – at least during the first wave of titles coming perhaps in one year or one and a half since launch -, until now very few like the upcoming from first party and Monolith’s Shadow of War. All the rest is going to be checkerboard rendering or other sorts of upscaling, just like it happens on PS4 Pro, mainly because Xbox as a platform is coming from a situation where many games where running 720p or 900p, so it’d be a very consistent jump that not all the engines and developers are going to be capable of.
For example, a title like Star Wars Battlefront – which is pretty indicative of how games running on Frostbite, so all the entries from Electronic Arts (Anthem included), will work on Xbox One X – is 720p60 on Xbox One and will still prioritize frame rate instead of resolution. This means checkerboard rendering will be the only way through the 4K matter. Going from 720p to 2160p would be handling 9 times the pixels in comparison with the original version of the game, something that at least for now is too tough for DICE to come with. 900p is a similar beast but, at least, it comes in a better position when it comes to resolution/frame rate ratio; and could lead to a more enhanced and brilliant presentation when considering visual effects.
1080p won’t be any problem (think of Gears of War and Forza Motorsport 7), even though we’re still talking about not very open gameplay experiences, linear in the case of a racing game, and most of all 30 frames per second. Summing it up, Microsoft is offering developers a hardware thought to give a 4x resolution improvement upon the regular Xbox One, so it’s clear we won’t be having native 4K from third party developers very often, while more experienced teams, more familiar with Xbox, aka the first party won’t have any particular issues especially when they’ll be required to go 30 frames per second.
So, does it still make all of that sense to keep promoting the console as the only box going “true 4K”, when on the shelves people have already had PS4 Pro for almost twelve months by the time you launch your hardware?