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You may or may not have heard the nerdy outcry of FOUL over the recent discovery (translated) that two new Activision games for the Xbox 360 (Tony Hawk’s Project 8 by Neversoft and Call of Duty 3 by Treyarch) don’t actually run at high-definition resolutions, but instead some seemingly arbitrary lower resolution, presumably this is done to help improve their frame rates. Regardless of the reason and regardless of the fact that both of those games still look great it brings up some interesting political issues in addition to the technical ones.
Apparently COD3 is running at a resolution of 1040×624 and THP8 is running at 1040×584, The bare minimum resolution to be considered “HD” is 720p which is 1280×720. This means that they fall short of about 1/3rd of the typical amount of picture data required for an image to be considered HD. This isn’t the first time this has happened either Project Gotham Racing 3 by Bizzare Creations was found to be running at 1024×600 during gameplay. Most consumers would never realize this because the image that is actually output from the Xbox 360 is 720p or in some cases higher depending on how the console has been configured. You might be asking how they even know that the games aren’t actually the resolutions they say that they are.
Most professional gaming news sites (meaning not thoughthead.com) will grab gaming screen-shots directly from the “frame buffer” in the Graphics Processor. The frame buffer is essentially where the image you see on the screen is created before any post processing and conversion for output to your TV occurs. They do this because the Xbox 360 has a built in scaler chip that will stretch of squish the game’s image depending on how the user has configured their console, the image gets further compressed and changed before it will fit into the appropriate format that your TV or Monitor accepts. By grabbing the image directly from the frame buffer they get a clean unadulterated image from the game; as it was intended to be displayed. Being that all Xbox 360 games are required to support at least 720p, the image from the frame buffer is almost always 1280×720. But in the three aforementioned occasions it has been something a bit less, meaning that scaler chip is stretching the image out before it appears on your HDTV screen.
If the games still look great and play great what does it matter? It matters because Microsoft made a commitment early on before the Xbox 360 was even released:
All games optimized for 16:9 aspect ratio, HD output (720p and 1080i), multichannel surround sound output, and full-screen anti-aliasing
They still express this commitment today as well:
Potential is great, but a guarantee is worlds better. In an unprecedented move, all Xbox 360 games have been given the following edict: Support widescreen formatting and 720 progressive scan. These aren’t suggestions, they’re requirements, and the benefit to HDTV owners is significant.
It’s obvious that Microsoft intends to get across to consumers that developers have to follow these standards if they wish to make games for their console. Without a doubt “optimized for 720p” means the game is built to run at that resolution, not something lower and then stretched to fit. I can render a game a 2×1 and stretch it to fit a 1280×720 frame… it doesn’t mean my game was optimized for 720p. There has been plenty of reports in the past surrounding Microsoft’s “rigorous” certification and quality assurance process that games for the console must pass before they grow up to be real games. The fact that Microsoft has allowed these games to cheat on their final exams brings a lot of questions to mind. How rigorous is their certification process really? What kinds of other things has Microsoft let slide that we don’t know about? How many other “guarantees” has Microsoft not made good on; how much is just cheap talk? Certainly if we’re going to hang Sony out to dry over their broken promises then we should hold Microsoft to the same standards.
You could argue that the reason for letting PGR3 slide was because of the launch crunch. It was a launch title for the 360 and being that it was a cornerstone to the launch lineup I might not have liked the fact that they broke their own promise right out of the gate it was as forgivable. After all they were young and needed the money, but they’re past that now and wont ever fall into sin again…. apparently old habits die hard.
The only reason I can think that they’d let these two new illegitimate children survive was because they’re cross platform games, annually updated franchises at that. If Microsoft failed them on certification what would happen? Would the 360 loose out and allow the other consoles a brief exclusivity period while the game is reworked to passing specs? How long would it be delayed; would it be out in time for the holiday shopping season? Would it mess up the schedule for the next iteration of these games? Certainly delaying two such high profile games would be damaging to Xbox 360 sales, particularly in the face of the impending doom that is the PS3 and Wii. How would consumers react if the PS3 and Wii received their releases on time but the 360′s was late?
The fact is only a small percentage of hardcore gaming nerds will ever even know about this, a smaller percentage will think about the implications enough to care. Certainly these broken promises will garner less attention then the negative image associated with a delayed game, which would be very publicly visible seeing as games would be absent from stores if that were to happen. Certainly in doing so you loose a bit of credibility and make yourself a hypocrite when you call out your competitors for double-backing on their word.
In the end you have to ask yourself who is to blame here: Activision, for putting Microsoft in such an ethical dilemma, or Microsoft for breaking their commitment in order to make deadlines and keep their competitors from gaining an advantage. Obviously Microsoft has shown us that deadlines and profits take precedence over their commitment to consumers and at the same time, so has Activision. Would we expect corporations of this magnitude to make the right ethical choice over market position and profits? I don’t believe gamers are that naive, but why make commitments that you can’t guarantee you’ll keep?
I’m not disputing that these games look great, they do look great. In-fact out of the factors most professionals agree make for a “beautiful” picture resolution ranks 4th, behind contrast ratio, color saturation, and color accuracy. Putting this in Video game graphics terms it meas that things like shadows and lighting effects are more important to the picture then resolution is. The problem is that both Sony and Microsoft decided to play the numbers game, placing resolution on a pedestal and throwing around terms like 1080p when these machines can actually nail the first three ranks much better then the fourth. The problem is when you shoot for those higher resolutions other things begin to suffer, and more often then not those other things are more important to the quality of the picture then resolution is. High Definition isn’t needed for things to look realistic, it simply allows you to see more of the details, but if you short change the details for the sake of the resolution then you get a close up look at the LACK of details and the resulting picture looks even worse then if you left it at a lower resolution. This is the reason PGR3, COD3, and THP8 still look amazing even though they’re not in HD. Also this is the reason that I really hope companies like Sony don’t force developers to use 1080p for the sake of using 1080p… because the picture will actually suffer.
For the best game graphics they should be placing resolution where it belongs in the list, cover the important things first or find a happy medium between resolution and the rest. Unfortunately though, the priorities for MS and Sony are skewed, they played the numbers game and made their beds and now they must sleep in them. Make the picture look good and have the resolution suffer, making you out to be a liar, or place resolution first, have the picture suffer and keep your word. I’m really not sure which is better.